Sport

Virat Kohli Skipping the Afghanistan Test Is in Bad Taste

The arrogance on display in this gesture highlights the kind of obedience the BCCI tacitly expects from the lesser powers in the game.

India men’s cricket captain Virat Kohli can hardly be more gratified with his life. At 29, he’s at the top of his game, conquering one milestone after another, and has already reserved a place for himself among the greats, irrespective of what remains of his career. He’s now one half of what is possibly India’s most charismatic celebrity couple. Few men could feel more blessed. And yet, there’s a thorn in the flesh he is desperate to get rid of; perhaps the only point remaining for him to prove – runs in England.

When India last played a Test series on the British Isles back in 2014, Kohli was relatively fresh in Test cricket and was on his first full-fledged tour of England. Nobody needs a reminder of the forgetful series he’d had with embarrassing returns of 13.4 runs per innings over the course of five Tests. England’s premier strike bowler James Anderson, in particular, consistently exploited Kohli’s weakness outside the off-stump and the then Indian vice-captain was left battered, bruised and red-faced.

In this context, therefore, it makes complete sense for Kohli to want to leave for England early this time and go the extra yard to give himself an opportunity to acclimatise to the conditions. England is not the easiest of places for a visiting batsman, particularly for someone hailing from the subcontinent. Technical adjustments one needs to make to face the consistently seaming ball are massive and no amount of preparation hurts. English domestic cricket has forever been home to some of the most illustrious names in the game and it won’t be unfair to say, stints in England have helped each one of them improve their game significantly.

Even before the current edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) began, there were rumours of Kohli actively looking for a brief stint at Surrey – a London based county team. Surrey has officially confirmed Kohli’s availability for the entire month of June and the fans are happy to see the skipper leaving no stone unturned in his effort to correct the appalling-looking numbers from the previous tour.

In his pursuit of conquering England, however, Kohli has made a decision that should have raised more eyebrows than it did. The Indian captain has declared himself unavailable for selection in the only Test next month where India is hosting Afghanistan – which also happens to be the maiden Test for the ICC’s latest full member. It is a momentous occasion for Afghanistan cricket and yet not important enough for the world’s most popular cricketer to prefer over playing a first-class game.

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For all its market-driven innovations since the turn of the millennium, cricket still remains deeply rooted in its traditions – some of which are often billed archaic. One such belief that continues to be held sacrosanct is that each Test cap is a matter of privilege and carries the same weight. Players take a considerable amount of pride in an extended streak of Tests without missing one. Former England captain Alastair Cook is currently holding on to an astonishing 152-Test streak and in all probability, should go past Allan Border (153) the coming summer. Players like Brendon McCullum (101), Adam Gilchrist (96) and Michael Hussey (79) have gone their entire careers without missing one. Of the more modern players, Steven Smith (59) and David Warner (55) were the ones leading the way but their journey has, of course, met the most unexpected of halts.

Kohli cemented his place in the Indian side on the 2011-12 tour to Australia and since the start of that series, went on to represent India for 54 Tests uninterrupted before a shoulder injury forced him out of the decider against Australia at Dharamshala in 2017. Back then, he had no choice but to opt out in the best interests of his team. But other than while nursing injuries, players rarely choose to miss out on a Test cap.

Bowlers do not always enjoy this luxury as they are more susceptible to fitness issues and are often at the receiving end of changes in team combinations to suit the respective conditions. But batsmen prefer not to sit out even of the dead rubbers. No one can endorse this more strongly than Kohli himself. Earlier this year, India beat South Africa in the third Test at Johannesburg after having already conceded the series. But the rhapsodic celebrations by the players after the win cared little about the context. An exhilarated Kohli went on to share his joy on social media asserting how “proud, prouder, proudest” he was of this team – concluding the tweet with a ‘Jai Hind’. All this after winning a dead rubber, which makes it abundantly clear how much he values every single Test.

It, therefore, beggars belief that Kohli has decided to end another steadily building streak of consecutive Tests by deciding to sit this one out for the sake of more ‘preparation’ for England. But his personal milestones are not important here; what is important is that this is a rather overt insinuation to Afghanistan that while it’s good to see them enter the big boys’ club, they do not quite matter yet. There is no way Kohli was going to give this one-off Test a miss if it were any other opposition like he never has in past.

The culture of not paying due respect to the so-called smaller teams is nothing new in the history of this sport. Incidentally, Kohli is only adding to a tradition set none other by the English. Back in the day, England’s biggest names would routinely skip playing in a series that was not the Ashes. In fact, this was quite common until the mid-1950s. The India tour of 1951-52 was given a snub by three English star players of the time – Alec Bedser, Denis Compton and Len Hutton. In 1929-30, England had sent two different touring parties to New Zealand and West Indies under the leadership of Harold Gillian and Freddie Calthorpe respectively. The practice was anything but uncommon until cricket started being played in a more professional environment from the 1960s. But rarely since has a player ever voluntarily opted out of a Test without any injury concern or a genuine need for a rest; never mind for wanting to play a first-class game in a different country. And that is precisely why Kohli’s decision merits greater scrutiny from the press than it has.

Curiously though, the coaching staff, the players and the entire ecosystem has been on-board with this but that’s not entirely unexpected. Ramachandra Guha, an eminent historian and a former member of the Committee of Administrators (CoA) that is in charge of the board, had very elaborately essayed on the team culture where questioning Kohli amounts to dissidence. But this isn’t only about Kohli. The arrogance on display in this gesture highlights the kind of obedience the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) tacitly expects from the lesser powers in the game.

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There is something remarkably unique about relationships that are founded on feudal ethos. They are forged over an illusionary consensus. The weaker party is aware of having to make a show of assent despite the knowledge of the space it is conceding to the powerful. Though the feudal structures of the yore have rightly been dumped into the junkyards of history, their remnants do remain. And they fail not to remind us of their presence; quite glaringly so. Nobody exemplifies this more than the BCCI does.

Despite the inherently exploitative and oppressive character of feudalism, the relationship between the liege lords and the peasants merits a more nuanced understanding. As emphasised by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince, it is in the ruler’s best interests to not let his people feel disenfranchised for that shall sow the seeds of revolt. The feudal lords have therefore chosen to provide the peasants a patronage that buys their unconditional loyalty in return.

This is exactly the kind of acquiescence the BCCI feels it is entitled to from the Afghanistan board after the ‘favours’ the latter have been afforded. The message is quite brazen – “We are making our stadiums available for you and offering best deals to your young prodigies in the IPL. Show gratitude, feel obligated and make peace with the fact that the greatest moment in your history so far is not important enough for us to spare our best player on.”

The BCCI has remained unapologetic in their neo-feudal ambitions in the world of cricket administration. They are unequivocally the single most powerful entity in the sport and rarely shy away from wielding power – often while holding the sport ransom. It’s only been a year since they threatened to pull out of the Champions Trophy since the rest of the world was not willing to collectively dance to their tunes over the proposed revenue sharing model. From the incessant opposition to the use of Decision Review System for the longest time to in latest, not agreeing to play a day-night Test in Adelaide without offering any comprehensive justification, the BCCI almost roisters in reminding everyone of its incontrovertible position in the sport.

It helps that they have found two influential allies in Cricket Australia and England & Wales Cricket Board who provide the right kind of apparatus to ensure the power is consolidated and remains in the hands of few. Such an arrangement also helps the Australians avoid any scrutiny when they walk back on the commitment to host Bangladesh for a series citing economic reasons. There is very little accountability and the international cricket community is too feeble to hold the powerful to an answer.

At the time of writing this, Ireland had caught Pakistan by the scruff of the neck on the opening day of their historic first Test. Weather permitting, this might end up in a riveting contest over the next couple of days. But sadly when Afghanistan mark their foray into Test cricket a little over a month from now, the occasion will inevitably be tapered down by the news of who chose not to show up for it. In the build-up to the Test, someone from the Afghanistan team’s ‘leadership group’ shall front the media and will certainly be asked to comment on Kohli’s absence. A firmly phrased message that just about indicates they aren’t pleased should go a long way in establishing they aren’t here to wilfully conform. But of course, that won’t happen.

With inputs from Arunabha Sengupta, cricket historian and chief cricket writer, and Abhishek Mukherjee, chief editor, both at cricketcountry.com.

Parth Pandya is an Ahmedabad-based freelance sports writer.

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