Virat Kohli must be one of the most influential cricketers to have played for India. ‘Influential’ is not a word used often in a sporting context. It has more than one aspect to it, though — influence within the team, and influence on the larger public outside it.
Many players have influenced one of the groups, but few both. If youngsters in the 1970s, for example, went around with thick sideburns and long hair, they were paying a tribute to the likes of Farokh Engineer, Tiger Pataudi, B.S. Chandrasekhar, S. Venkatraghavan and Salim Durrani. Bollywood stars and cricketers set the fashion then. When schoolboys walked around with their collars raised, they were hoping to attract some of M.L. Jaisimha’s wonderful gifts as a batsman, too.
Then came Sunil Gavaskar — his influence was deeper, longer-lasting and often coloured the thinking of a whole nation. But more of that later.
Respecter of the game
When Kohli was in contention for the leadership role, many assumed he would have a negative effect. It was easy to make this mistake. It failed to take into account two important elements in his evolution. One, that his occasional boorish behaviour on the field came in the days when he was too young to know better and two, he was always a respecter of the game and its traditions. Critics found it difficult to reconcile the two Kohlis — the aggressive player and the long-standing traditionalist. But the rough edges were easily smoothened out and India had a captain they could be proud of.
When the Kohli beard changed shape and size, so too did those of his teammates and a good chunk of the 20-to-32 demographic in the country. But it wasn’t just that, of course. Kohli’s fitness and his example brought about some of the fittest teams to have taken the field for the country. No longer were fielders escorting the ball to the boundary or sharp chances being allowed to die.
In the 1960s and 70s, perhaps even later, the cricket captain tended to reflect the Indian people. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
Tiger Pataudi, the Oxford-educated Nawab was an aspirational figure, seemingly a notch or two above the rest of his team or indeed the rest of the country. He made the former difference work for him (it was easier to command from a height) while the latter dissimilarity ensured that he twice lost the elections to the Lok Sabha.
Bishan Bedi whose influence on the field was considerable as bowler and later as captain, often reminded everybody, player and public, what ‘cricket’ stood for.
The Great Influencer
With Gavaskar came the middle-class, English-educated player with one quality the previous generation of similar players lacked — self-belief. Not for him the standard response to the question asked of touring cricketers in England, for example, which was usually answered thus: “We have come here to learn.” Gavaskar went to teach, even if he didn’t actually say that.
Two months after the One-Day International was born out of rain and boredom in Melbourne, Gavaskar made his Test debut and finished the series in the West Indies with 774 runs. Indians who laid great store by orthodoxy — and not just in cricket — welcomed him. They loved what he loved, and dismissed what he dismissed. Gavaskar set the agenda: Love the straight bat, love Test cricket, look down upon the cross bat, ignore limited-overs cricket. And India listened. One-day cricket was anathema to Gavaskar, and by extension, to the nation. The format might have disappeared had India not won the World Cup in 1983.
Gavaskar’s influence on the team, straight bat apart, was in instilling a sense of their commercial worth in the players.
He was — and continues to be — the Great Influencer in Indian cricket, with lessons absorbed by Kapil Dev and the Sachin Tendulkar generation.
Tendulkar could not be paid the tribute of imitation for he was inimitable. But he was the poster boy of the ‘New India’ with its greater disposable income.
His colleagues, Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were influencers who helped spread the game beyond the traditional centres in the big cities. One came from the lap of luxury, the other from the opposite end of the economic spectrum, yet both played key roles in demonstrating that ‘India’ included ‘Bharat’ too.
Kohli is focused on winning, on retaining India’s position at the top of the points table, and taking the team into the final of the World Test Championship next year. Like Gavaskar, he sees the five-day Test as the best the game has to offer, but is modern enough and gifted enough to make a mark in the shorter formats too.
Kohli might well be the most powerful man in the game today, influencing the Board of Control for Cricket in India which is chief influencer of the International Cricket Council. And he has 34 million followers on Twitter — a new element in the whole equation.