Is India about to become the most hated cricket team?
If India, under Virat Kohli, continue in their current aggressive trajectory, they will soon share the dubious honour of being the most disliked team in world cricket; captain clearly unloved in Oz
Will India soon become the new Australia? I refer to being the team that everybody else loves to hate. Australia are in no immediate danger of relinquishing that title but if India, under Virat Kohli, continue in their current trajectory, they will soon share the dubious honour of being the most disliked team in world cricket. The team that all the neutrals will death ride.
I have just returned from South Africa where despite their obvious distaste for Australia being all-too-predictable, it was the general antipathy towards India that surprised me. I watched the gripping end to the Adelaide Test in a room full of South Africans and I was astonished by the 50/50 split in loyalties. There was a general consensus of opinion that we were about to enter a period of Indian dominance that would be marked by the same graceless triumphalism that symbolised the Australian reign. The celebrations when Ashwin took that final wicket merely confirmed their suspicions that much like Zimbabwe, freed from the tyranny of the Mugabe regime, the cricket world was about to inherit a new ruler who might go on to be equally despised.
On landing in Perth at the start of the Second Test, my phone beeped with a dozen text messages from Australian friends who knew that I have a soft spot for Indians, an assumption made because I write for an Indian newspaper. The theme was predictable...huge respect for Kohli the Batsman and an equal disdain for the persona he brings to the battle. As the Perth Test progressed, the utter admiration for his batting prowess grew in inverse proportion to the negativity surrounding his personal brand. In the eyes of the average Australian fan, Kohli has now become the most despised international cricketer that I can ever recall.
Some of this needs to be viewed in context. It is a backhanded compliment. This sort of derision is usually reserved for a true great of the game, someone who represents a huge threat. Brian Lara, Kevin Pietersen, Muttiah Muralitharan, Jacques Kallis, Jimmy Anderson...they've all been targeted over the years because they were perceived as serious threats to Australian dominance. Strangely enough, Sachin Tendulkar never seemed to attract that same level of negative attention. It was almost as if he was exempt from the treatment of mere mortals. A bit like Rahul Dravid and AB De Villiers, some players seem to have an aura about them that makes it difficult for even the most parochial Australians to hate them in that visceral sense. It is almost as if their genius transcends patriotism.
That Kohli is a genius is not in doubt. The admiration for him is genuine, palpable and without any caveats around his ability to score runs on any pitch, against any bowlers in any format. That he is unloved is equally palpable. It has morphed from a subliminal thing to a genuine dislike that now borders on the pathological. It has crossed a line from which there is no coming back. Long after he has retired, Kohli's legacy will live on in Australia.
It took some soul-searching and deep questioning of the natives before I began to fully understand the reasons why. It is irony writ large. In Kohli, Australians recognise they are looking in the mirror, a dark mirror that reflects themselves. Hypocrisy too plays no small part in their logic but no one likes to own up to it. They prefer instead to focus on the very things that they eulogise about The Australian Way of playing cricket. But when it's Kohli and his team behaving in the ways that Australians have celebrated since time immemorial, that brand that they proudly owned as their very own, they fail to see their own reflection in the murky pond.
I find it immensely amusing to observe the outrage. Instead of viewing this Indian team's behaviour as the ultimate compliment, we find ourselves in a twilight zone that stretches back to Cape Town in March 2018. This was the watershed moment when a bunch of cheats got caught, tried denying it and then finally owned up to a culture that was so rotten it precipitated an Ethics Review that has already been shown up for the hypocrisy it tried to uncover. It took only a few defeats in all three formats of the game before Australia have started to walk that fine line again, toying with the margins of that invisible "line" that caused so much angst when they were caught cheating. So much for the Player Charter and the promise that Tim Paine wanted Australians to be proud of his team.
That was fairytale stuff. The reality is that Australians want their team to win, almost at any cost. What they don't want is to be caught red-handed. It is pragmatism married to idealism. The child born of this union is exactly what Team India looks like. It is a modern day Dorian Gray metaphor, Oscar Wilde's complex character who cannot shake his infatuation with his self-portrait of a man of beauty and dark sin.
The hypocrisy doesn't end there. Harbajhan Singh and Andrew Symonds, hardly the prototypes for angels, are now embroiled in another war of words that have echoes of breathtaking hypocrisy on both sides. That this stinking corpse has been exhumed again in the midst of another series that threatens to boil over is indicative of the mindset of both countries. The fall-out will be equally predictable. It will be the game of cricket that will be left battered and bruised at the end of this summer, replete with vendettas that will carry over into the next series and the one beyond...some insincere apologies may be offered, maybe even a few tearful press conferences. If they get caught!
As someone who loves the game but cares very little for the ugliness that masquerades as gamesmanship, it saddens me that India can't see that it is possible to win and lose with equal grace. For a man whose batting is so sublime it is a work of art, it will be an enduring regret if some Australians only remember him for being a mirror image of themselves, bristly, abrasive and charmless. For hypocrites, imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.
Michael Jeh is a Brisbane-based former first-class cricketer.
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