Only a few years ago, press conferences involving members of the Indian cricket team would often start with the media manager asking reporters to limit themselves to ‘match-related questions.’ The sky could have fallen in the world of cricket but you were to restrict your enquiries to the match scheduled the following day. A bit later, during the heady unchallenged days of his captaincy, Virat Kohli once even glowered at a media manager for letting a reporter ask a question that was seemingly out of syllabus for the day.
Time passes, equations change, and how! On Wednesday, as Kohli’s online press conference – the first he had addressed since losing the ODI captaincy – wound to a close, the India Test captain himself prevented the media manager from formally ending it. “I can see there are some more questions popping up on chat,” he said.
A couple of more questions were then taken at the captain’s behest. He was asked why he was removed as ODI skipper and about the long-rumoured rift between him and new white-ball captain Rohit Sharma. Kohli gave detailed answers to both.
Even as he gave up a third of his leadership territory earlier, and as another third was taken away from him this month, Kohli has seemed keener than ever to speak his mind. Even if it has meant breaking away from de facto protocol. He came out in strong defence of Mohammed Shami during the T20 World Cup, despite the media manager trying to shield him from the question about the trolling the fast bowler had faced after the loss against Pakistan. “No, I will answer this one,” Kohli had gone then.
The Wednesday press interaction, ahead of the team’s departure for the South Africa tour, was in such demand that the maximum limit of attendees was reached well before it started. In normal times, a big tour such as South Africa would have certainly prompted questions about how the team was preparing without any warm-up games. It has become a major issue ahead of, and during, big tours in the past, and will continue to be so in the future; there is almost no space in the schedule for warm-up games nowadays, and teams go straight into Test matches of away series, forced to make adjustments on the fly.
So, if it had been normal times, the first question asked in such a press conference being about warm-up games and preparations would have been entirely, well, normal. But here, one of India’s greatest players ever had been sacked from the ODI captaincy after declaring he was keen to lead at a home World Cup less than two years down the line. So, the question, when it came, felt more like a gentle loosener than something pertinent.
Kohli, bearing the look of a man who had had something to think about for days on end, steadied himself, ran his hands through his hair and proceeded to talk about centre-wicket practice and match simulation and bowlers trying to find their areas as if he was on autopilot.
Even he was probably waiting for the expected barrage to begin, and when it did, he displayed he had come prepared with more than enough ammunition of his own. An hour and a half – Kohli was this specific with the time – before the BCCI selection committee was to meet to pick the Test squad for South Africa was when he got to know he would no longer be ODI skipper. Yes, he had not won an ICC limited-overs trophy (in three attempts) and could understand where the board was coming from. No, he was not asked not to give up the T20I captaincy when he made the announcement, which was the exact opposite of what no less than the board president had claimed just days ago.
It turns out that Indian cricket had been lulled into a sense of normalcy in historically stormy captain-board relations, given the stability of the N Srinivasan-MS Dhoni era, where the board president had actually stepped in to spare the captain the sack after humiliating overseas whitewashes. Eventually, Dhoni would slip into the leadership sunset twice, in 2014 and 2017, without as much as a warning sign, forget any drama. Not so much his successor.
During the T20 World Cup, when asked whether Ishan Kishan could be played in place of Rohit Sharma, Kohli had laughed and told the concerned reporter that if he wanted controversy, he would come prepared to the press conference next time. On Wednesday, here was the man himself intent on providing one explosive quote after another to a media used to hearing about ‘sticking to the process’ and ‘playing one’s natural game’ and assorted banalities.
No pulling punches
The inherent combativeness is a big part of what has made Kohli what he is. It has been cheered when it has come against opponents on the field. The battlefield may have shifted momentarily, but the combativeness is well and truly intact.
“Nothing can derail me from being motivated to play for India,” Kohli declared. “Nothing has ever derailed and nothing can derail. Lot of things that happen on the outside are not ideal and not always how one expects them to be. But you have to understand there is only so much you can do as an individual and we have to keep things in the right perspective and do the things that can be done that are in my control. I am very focused, I am very mentally prepared and I am very excited to go to South Africa and do the best I can for the team and make the team win.”
Again, when asked if losing part of his captaincy could be a positive for his batting, Kohli’s reply indicated that his batting had been anything but negative while he was captain (as an ODI average of 72.65 shows). “I don’t think anyone can predict those things… I know that my motivation level to perform for the team will not dip at all… When you have been doing well for a long time at the international level, you know how to perform. Those things can never go away from you.” Almost as if to say, you can take the captaincy away, but you can’t stop Virat Kohli from being Virat Kohli.