Virat Kohli is no sore loser, so it was ironic that the afterglow of his greatest series victory was tinged with bitterness. India got the better of Australia, 2-1, with an emphatic victory in Dharamsala but even as Kohli won hearts through a glorious home season that ended with India having beaten all opposition, he found that the people he once considered friends were anything but.
With India being the No. 1 Test team in the world, and having the rare honour of simultaneously holding victories against each of the other nine teams in the world, with the ICC’s US$ 1 million coming their way and the Indian board announcing generous bonuses, it should have been all smiles. But, the toxic undercurrent that has poisoned this series left Kohli with no option but to reassess his relationship with some members of the opposition.
In Pune, where the series began, there was an air of hope. “I’m really good friends with all these guys off the field,” Kohli said of the Australians ahead of the first Test. “I know them really well, but I know where to draw the line of friendship.When you step onto the field, I could be playing against my big brother it wouldn’t matter.”
By the end of the series in which unpleasant words, ones that fortunately did not make it to the broadcast too often, were said on the field, less than savoury accusations flung across camps and India’s captain being vilified not just by the opposition players and journalists but even Cricket Australia’s chief executive, Kohli looked at certain aspects of life differently. Asked if his relationship with the Australians had changed, if the silliness than ensued the heat of battle had been left behind, Kohli was forthright. “No, it has changed.I thought that was the case [being friends], but it has changed for sure. As I said, in the heat of the battle you want to be competitive but I’ve been proven wrong.The thing I said before the first Test, that has certainly changed and you won’t hear me say that ever again.”
Kohli may be belligerent and even abusive on the field, but he is no maverick when it comes to what he says in press conferences. Each utterance is well thought out and thus far he has found no reason to have to take back any of his words.
Steve Smith, the Australian captain, who lost his rag when M Vijay claimed a low catch that was disallowed, calling him a f***ing cheat, apologised, but coming as it did a full day after the damage was done, it seemed less like a sincere gesture and more like damage control. “I have sort of been very intense in my own little bubble and at times I have let my emotions and actions just falter a little bit throughout this series and I apologise for that.”
While this might seem like Smith extending an olive branch and Kohli swatting it away, the fact of the matter is that there are cultural differences at play here. It has long been the Australian way to pummel the opposition with the filthiest of abuse on the field, only to expect them to forget it all and join them for a beer in the dressing-room after. On the day, Smith invited Ajinkya Rahane across for a cold one, but you can be sure the Indians were in no mood to take up the offer.
It may seem churlish, but it’s not difficult to understand why someone would not want to spend time faking bonhomie and pretending camaraderie with a group of people who had spent the last few weeks questioning your ancestry, disrespecting you and doubting your integrity. What makes it all the more galling is that Australian cricketers tend to react quite differently when the boot is on the other foot and they are on the receiving end.
Kohli represents a new breed of Indian cricketer, the kind who does not take a backward step and will not turn the other cheek when slapped. These are proud young men who will not be bullied, who work as hard as anyone else around and do their utmost to earn the love of their fans and the respect of their peers. If Australia’s cricketers thought they could get away with anything because their counterparts are “friendly” they will not make that mistake again.
This wasn’t merely a cricket series that India won. It was the culmination of a home season like none another, and the foundation for overseas tests that follow. It was a reaffirmation of the faith and belief that a group of men have nurtured from the cradle and hope to take to the grave. It was, for want of a better phrase, an Indian epic, moulded by an ambitious and courageous captain.
(This article was first published in the Economic Times on March 29, 2017)