Cricket controversies: When Virat Kohli took a stand against the South Africans

Vedam Jaishankar's book Courage, Conviction, Controversy and Cricket, published by Westland Sport, is about the decisions players took on the field that changed the complexion of the game

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The name of the book seems to have intrigued many. The question constantly asked these past few days is why Courage, Conviction, Controversy and Cricket?

True controversy as a topic sells, particularly in some circles. But the talking points of cricket do not end with that. The beauty and draw factors of the game go beyond controversy alone.

Courage is a very important facet of cricket as any layman-batsman who has had to play fast bowlers even in the 75 to 80-band pace range would appreciate. 

Indeed the history of the game is replete with many instances of courageous deeds. There was Brian Close taking on the best fast bowlers in the world without protective gear and not flinching; or Colin Cowdrey attempting to bat with a broken hand. These instances stirred up the imagination of cricketers, media, fans and even entire nations.

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But India’s top batsman Tiger Pataudi had to play his entire international career with just one eye after he lost the other in an accident while in Oxford. As Ian Chappell says in the book, ‘try catching with one eye closed. You would appreciate the challenge that confronted Tiger throughout his career.’India’s greatest match-winner, BS Chandrasekhar was another whose rise from gully cricket to Test cricket in a span of just 12 months was an incredible ‘fairy’ tale. And he did this with a polio-stricken bowling arm that had little or no strength in it.

"I could not raise a glass of beer to my mouth with my right arm. By the time I raised it to my chin level the arm would hurt and shake uncontrollably. Except bowling I had to learn to do everything with my other arm.

In fact I had tried bowling left arm. But my leading arm was very weak. I could not keep it up long enough to get the balance and steadiness required,” he had said. 

Yet, even with that polio-stricken arm, he was devastating. He was the first to bowl India to victories all over the world, particularly in Australia and England.

And what do you say of skipper Rahul Dravid’s courage of conviction when he declared the innings closed in Pakistan with the great Sachin Tendulkar batting on 194?

This was the sort of conviction that could have stirred up emotions and passions within the team and among fans and supporters. I guess it did. But it is a tribute to Dravid’s integrity that no one looked at it beyond what it was — a bugle call to victory.

Indeed that declaration and the steel that it marked led to India’s first-ever Test win against Pakistan in Pakistan and it had taken more than 50 years in coming. The win pushed to the background any thought of individual goals and brought to the forefront the team’s aspirations and values. It needed a leader of great personal integrity to drive home that point. But the decision and the debate about it went on for days and months even as the staunchest critic accepted that the means justified the end.

Indeed there are many instances of courage and conviction that embellish the game and I’ve highlighted some of the iconic ones in the book.

Of course I could have filled the book with controversies. But that would have made it a dark book, drawing attention to all that was reprehensible about the game. That simply was not my intention.

Many of the controversies I’ve chosen are iconic ones that gradually led to a change in the laws of the game or forced a change in protocols and conduct of the sport.

The Bodyline series for instance, led to the guardians of the game acknowledging that the game which banked so much on ‘gentlemanly conduct’ was being torn apart by single-minded bloodiness and an ugly urge to win. There is a huge chasm between the ‘will to win’ and ‘winning ugly’ each of which comes from different value systems but we won’t go there now.

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Suffice to say that after England’s horrendous tactics against batting legend Donald Bradman and other Aussie batsmen in that nightmarish series, the laws of the game had to incorporate stiff action against intimidatory bowling. It also led to placing severe restrictions on the number of fielders permitted behind the popping crease on the leg side. These have now become standard fare in cricket these days.

In the same manner, the Kerry Packer series which was extremely controversial at that time and divided players and nations ultimately led to some of the most telling changes in the game. Many of those we take for granted today, from day-night cricket to white balls (one from either end), fielding circle and restrictions outside it, wide balls, coloured clothing, protective gear for batsmen and close-in fielders, drop-in pitches, innovative television coverage of cricket and so many others were seeded and practised in the Packer era.

The book also calls to attention a peculiar incident during the toss that led to match referee and television cameras accompanying the captains for the toss, which signals the start of a match.

The convention those days was for only the two captains going out for the toss. The home team skipper would toss the coin, the visitor would call and whoever won the toss would pick up the coin and shake hands with the other skipper. That act of picking up the coin would signal the winner of the toss to rival dressing rooms and spectators. The toss thus would attract a lot of attention from cricket fans, and of course bookies and punters.

But here, at the Eden Gardens, as soon as India skipper G.R. Vishwanath, a gentleman to the core, tossed the coin, the tall, long limbed Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal chased it, picked it up before the Indian captain could see it and told him “congrats Vishy! You have won the toss.”

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“It was my first Test as India captain and I did not want it to start with a controversy. I was shocked by his actions. But when he said I had won the toss I did not want to object,” said the little master.

That incident was often touted as one of the first brazen incidents of spot-fixing in cricket and ultimately led to changes in toss protocol: The match referee would decide who had won the toss and the television cameraman would zoom in on the way the coin fell.

Likewise, there are instances of other dark episodes in the book: match-fixing, spot-fixing, ball tampering, kidnapping of umpire, sex and the single cricketer, contentious run outs, walk-outs, Greg Chappell- Sourav Ganguly fall out, Monkeygate, etc.

There were more than 250 incidents to choose from; right from the time of Bradman to the current era of Virat Kohli. These needed to be whittled down to a more manageable number. The filtering process itself was a task. The 250 was narrowed down to 100, then 80 and finally the 40 odd that are featured in the book.

One of the criteria was that the incident should have made an impact, irrespective of whether it was positive or negative; by and large it would be the first of its kind and wherever possible it would lead to changes in the format or rules of the game.

Of course we live in an era where information overload is humongous but this has led to diminished attention spans. This is seen in book reading habits and also viewing long movies. The 140-word tweet or 40 minute serials are a reflection of the short attention spans afflicting populations. 

Taking this into consideration, I planned the format of the book in such a way that the reader could start with any chapter — 1st or 18th or 34th — and end with any chapter. Each chapter is a standalone without a necessary thread to follow or stick to. Actually cricket is the only thread in the format. 

Finally I’ve chosen one of the chapters from the conviction section, King Kohli Makes a Stand to go with this article. 

It is a sterling example of the courage of conviction of a forceful leader and it led to the desired results. Check it out. Happy reading.

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Kagiso Rabada was one of the fastest bowlers in the world. If that was not enough of a challenge for India’s batsmen, there was the gigantic Morne Morkel who with pace and steep bounce from his great height could be a handful even on docile pitches.

But it was not a docile pitch that was dished out for the third Test of the 2018 India-South Africa series. This pitch was at the Wanderers, one of the finest stadia in the world, made more intimidating that January with a meticulously-designed green, uneven-bounce, pacy, seaming strip.

South Africa had not only these two bowlers of express pace to exploit the vagaries of the pitch but also the daunting seam and swing of Vernon Philander, the explosive pace of young, muscular newcomer Lungi Ngidi and the probing wares of paceman Andile Phehlukwayo to further harass the Indians.

But Virat Kohli’s Indians, who were down 0-2 in the three-Test series, firmly believed they should have won at least one of the first two Tests, if not both. They had had South Africa in deep trouble and on the run in both Tests but luck did not favour them at critical times. A.B. de Villiers too batted out of his skin to repeatedly pull the team out of fire. However, India had done enough with bat and ball in hostile conditions to indicate that they would not back down and that the home side would have to fight every inch of the way in game after game.

So they proved, yet again, when the series moved to the third Test at the Wanderers.

Kohli straight away caught the opposition off guard by choosing to bat first on the dicey pitch. He further surprised them by choosing a playing eleven that threatened to fight fire with fire. His chosen eleven did not feature a single spinner—which by itself was an extraordinary development in Indian cricket. His bowlers, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya, were all hand-picked pace bowlers.

Here, Kohli the skipper not only showed conviction but also intent. This was further emphasised when he opted to bat first under testing conditions.

Earlier, the South African team had insisted that their curators prepare pitches with plenty of pace and bounce for the series. They wanted revenge for losses suffered on India’s low-bounce turners and thought the best way to pay back was to put India’s batsmen on the spot.

The Indian team was well-aware of this and the belter of a Wanderers’ pitch was expected. Except that it also aided far too much seam movement for comfort.

M. Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and others took plenty of body blows, yet unflinchingly put their body on the line to thwart the Proteas. Finally the Indian innings folded at 187.

In their reply, the South Africans were not only bowled out for 194 despite Hashim Amla’s heroic knock of 61, they were also softened up aplenty by the Indian pacers. So much so that when India batted again, their opponents overdid the short-pitched ball in an effort to hit back. But by pitching short and wide they virtually allowed India to claw their way back into the Test.

The Indian captain had thrown down a challenge and his side responded to it splendidly. Ultimately, it was the home side that seemed to be back-pedalling.

India had the worst of the pitch right through the third day, but made 247. By setting a stiff target of 241, they had wrested the upper hand. The opponents now had to not only deal with the hostility of the pitch and bowlers, they were also under immense pressure owing to this huge target. Additionally, the South African players had seen India’s batsmen worked over by the seam movement, bounce and pace off the pitch and that too played on their mind.

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India’s batsmen had taken innumerable blows to fingers and body and it was now left to the Proteas to measure up to the challenge in front of their own spectators.

They had an awkward hour of play to see through before stumps and the Indian pacers going flat out were literally making the new ball ‘talk’. Presently, a Bumrah delivery, that replays showed had pitched slightly short of a length, hit opener Dean Elgar under the grille and prompted umpires Aleem Dar and Ian Gould to take the players off the field. Strangely they halted play for the day with a further 19 minutes of play still due. They, in consultation with match referee Andy Pycroft of Zimbabwe, said the match could continue the following day.

Pycroft also met the captains, with Kohli making it clear that India wanted to continue playing. The hosts said they would continue playing if the match referee deemed the pitch safe to play on. Pointedly, if the umpires thought the pitch was dangerous, they ought to have called off the Test. But obviously, they did not think the pitch was all that unplayable. So why exactly did they give the South African batsmen a breather at a particularly testing time? That question was never answered.

Elgar, though, was not complaining. He appeared dazed and underwent a concussion test that evening and again the following morning to determine whether he could bat on. He admitted he was happy to leave the field when he was hit.

"I had already been peppered three or four times before that. I know what was spoken throughout the day and I know they had a feeling of this wicket not being the greatest. It was an extremely freak pitch,’ Elgar told media that evening. "I’ve faced many fast bowlers before and I know the Wanderers wicket has that steep bounce, but I have never experienced it like that. This obviously put a bit of doubt in the umpires’ minds. I can’t think I would have played it any better because if it was that short-pitched on a wicket with bounce, it would have gone way over my head and at least given me some time to get out of the way. It was a freak moment and thankfully the umpires had sanity about the incident."

The home-side skipper, Faf du Plessis, pointed out at the media briefing that quite a few batsmen got hit even during the Indian innings. "I think if you count the number of times guys who got hit, it was much more than usual. Excessive sideways movement is tough but not dangerous. As soon as guys started getting hit from a length, that’s when we thought it might be dangerous."

However, surprisingly, the pitch played true on the fourth morning when 52 runs were added and not a single wicket was lost. None of the batsman got hit either.

Elgar, who was on 11 when he got hit on the third evening, carried his bat to remain unbeaten on 86 (356 minutes) even as his team was shot out for 177 to leave India winners by 63 runs.

It was a most memorable win made possible by Kohli’s extraordinary conviction that he could best the South Africans in their own game and in their den. From preparation of the team, to choice of players, to opting to bat first and finally to delivering, Kohli showed that his will to win and conviction was embraced by the rest of the squad.

Commenting on the Test in, Sidharth Monga who was at the stadium, wrote: "There are few batsmen captains, and not just Indian, who would have chosen to bowl here, let alone looking forward to batting. "The match was on the line in the third innings. M. Vijay was getting hit with balls rearing off a length and also chasing him with seam movement back in. In the first hour, South Africa presented just one ball that was full enough to drive. Somebody had to retrieve it from the cover boundary because Kohli had driven it there.

"Standing outside your crease and striding forward to bowlers such as Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel is not a good idea at the best of times. To do it here, on this mean track, can be suicidal. Kohli not just did that, he refused to go back in even when rapped on the gloves with a length ball. Courage is often a misplaced word in cricket, but not here. This was an innings played in the face of real danger."

Kohli’s extraordinary batting prowess and determination stood out in his invaluable scores of 54 and 41 in the two innings. But for his conviction that this was a pitch on which India’s batsmen could bat, and his own leading from the front, it is debatable if the others could have chipped in as they ultimately did.

Whether faith can move mountains is not certain; but Kohli’s faith in his team certainly did the trick on this occasion. They combined together, lifted the quality of their game substantially, stared down the South Africans and chiselled their way to one of India’s finest victories on foreign soil. 

(An experienced cricket journalist who has covered the game in all the continents, Vedam Jaishankar's latest book, Courage, Conviction, Controversy and Cricket (`699) has  just been published by Westland Sport, an Amazon company)


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