Cricket captains and the case of the missing funny bone

Thursday afternoon, I wound my way to the BCCI’s headquarters at Wankhede Stadium for the eve-of-departure press conference with coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli.

Given the frequency of cricket contests in the modern era, such conferences are usually seen as a mundane, mandatory chore by the cricket administration, scribes, and the captain/coach unless, of course, there is a controversial development that looms on the horizon.

However, these routine interactions can be illuminating as well. At this level, there is much to be read between the lines of even seemingly stock answers and even more when juxtaposed with the body language of the captain and/or coach.

This can be both fun and instructive. The tonal quality of responses, the choice of words, the gestures, are not just about what concept is being communicated, but also the state of mind, if not the personality of the subject.

I must confess here to having meagre knowledge of Kohli in such situations. In fact, the only other press conference of his I’ve attended in person is after India had won the second Test at Colombo in 2015 when he was unrestrainedly chirpy.

A little over three years later, Kohli is top of the pops where batting virtuosity and popularity is concerned. He is the game’s biggest drawcard and has the most important job (India captain) — and this does not come without huge and unenviable pressure.

The impending tour of Australia is a major assignment for him and Shastri in the context of how this year has panned out. Victory Down Under would redeem the situation. However, another Test series defeat, after the hype when the year began, would put them, and Indian cricket, in some turmoil.

At Thursday’s press conference I was looking for signs to see how much Kohli has changed since Colombo 2015. His demeanour and replies were immaculate.

In many ways, this has been a feature of Kohli’s off-the-field persona going by what we’ve seen on TV over the years. He can be prickly at times, but the ability to compartmentalise and articulate his thoughts is admirable.

In fact, Kohli’s at his best when he or his team hasn’t done well — candid, avoiding blame-games, gracious, and magnanimous in giving credit to the opposition. Which is why his recent outburst against a fan questioning the worthiness of Indian cricketers – something he was entitled to – came as a surprise. It was unwarranted and uncharacteristic. Hopefully, he is chastened.

But to come back to Thursday’s press conference, what I missed was some of the spontaneity of 2015, and even more perhaps, the capacity to carry off an assignment like this with a sense of humour, as he had fleetingly displayed then.

The responsibility of leading the Indian team is enormous, yet the absence of humour has been a shortcoming in Indian captains and cricket. Seeing the funny side of things doesn’t mitigate seriousness on the field of play, but carrying over the seriousness beyond a stage makes it mock.

Unfortunately, this has been pretty much the ethos of modern Indian cricket.

To make a brief and simplistic appraisal of captains I’ve interacted with, Kapil Dev would use his ‘rusticity’ disarmingly but not without barbs; Vengsarkar defiant, Azhar deeply defensive; Ganguly could get feisty without cause; Tendulkar was always strait-laced; Dravid thoroughly earnest even to innocuous queries; Kumble grim and Dhoni, for the most part, diffident. It’s the nature of the job, goes the counter-argument, but from old-timers, I understand that it wasn’t always like this.

Before my time as a journalist, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Bishen Bedi were renowned for their sense of fun even in the most trying situations.

When I started my career, the Indian captain was Sunil Gavaskar. He could be moody and mercurial, but also pungently funny as I discovered in 1982-83, my first international assignment.

India were getting destroyed by Imran Khan’s late in-dippers in that series and a journalist asked Gavaskar what the team could do to salvage the situation. “Put a sightscreen between him and us,” replied the captain.

Levity is not just cracking jokes but coming to terms with reality and life. Sport can be exhilarating, fulfilling, but also cruel. A sense of humour helps cope with the vicissitudes. There is a lot at stake Down Under, but I hope Kohli lightens up the tension for himself and his team. Who knows, the relief might even help him and India win.

First Published: Nov 16, 2018 01:12 IST

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