Weekly Sports Newsletter: Social media makes Kohli India’s most powerful captain ever

What is the one thing that makes Virat Kohli the most powerful Indian captain ever? Social Media.

Kohli has a combined count of 267 millions followers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Just on Insta, he is on the feed of 173 million, a lot more than the population of Bangladesh. He has at his disposal an army of die-hards ever-eager to launch locust-like attacks that swarm timelines with their opinions.

Unlike his equally, if not more, popular predecessors, Kohli is aware of the power of his popularity. Sachin Tendulkar was once the human biorhythm of the nation. The runs he scored would decide the mood of the nation. Either he was too conservative to use his mass following to have his way with the BCCI or at his peak, in the 90s, he didn’t have the resources to quantify or weaponise his fame. Twice in a matter of months, Kohli, unlike anyone in Indian cricket, has spoken his mind. After slamming the bigotry of those questioning Mohammad Shami’s faith without hiding behind euphemisms, he has now openly contradicted the BCCI president Sourav Ganguly.

Empowered by the support he receives from the legions of fans, this millennium’s first sporting superstar is aware of his status as an influencer. The only time Tendulkar would get a vague idea about the scale of his adoration was when he walked in to bat at Eden Gardens. The frame of over a lakh plus fans roaring and waving when they spotted the Master was a colossal underestimation of the strength of his fanhood.

Even when he crossed a historic milestone, Tendulkar got to merely see just the tip of his fame. Kohli, on the other hand, gets the feel of the entire iceberg beyond the stadium by merely putting out a post. When he informed the world this September that he will be quitting the T20 captaincy but would like to be the leader in ODI and Tests, there were 3 million ‘likes’ to his Insta post. Kohli has the numbers to amplify his message and also shout down his critics.

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Getting abused by the extremely touchy Viratians, that’s what they like to call themselves, is a professional hazard that most cricket writers have learnt to take in their stride. This time around it was the Indian board that got a feel of it. Within minutes of his second bold press conference, the T20 World Cup outburst against those referring to Mohammad Shami’s fame still remains top, the online outrage volcano burst and the lava started to snake ahead with the speed of a stream running down a steep slope. #shameonbcci would start to trend as the world got to know about Kohli’s version of events that unfolded in the lead-up to his sacking as the ODI captain. Within seconds whatsapp forwards and the urge to click ‘likes’ would spread the word to countless mobile phones. Opinions would become consensus within hours. And like most institutions around the world, the BCCI would get worried by Kohli’s hold of the very popular medium. They wouldn’t react. The slanging match between two national icons would get avoided.

But the social media would keep the pot boiling. With extremist reactionary positions traveling fast and attracting more clicks on social media, nuance would be on the casualty list. In the world of memes, you became someone who could be mocked and ridiculed. In this case Ganguly, already embroiled in several conflicts of interest talks as president, would be the prefect target.

But in this present episode, his career’s nth controversy, was Ganguly to be blamed? Did he not stop Kohli from quitting as World T20 captain? Did he lie? Trolls couldn’t have known it but that didn’t matter to them. The influencer and his army were at work again.

The Indian board’s attempt to underplay the monumental change of guard – Kohli to Rohit in white ball cricket – too got online abuse. The one line at the bottom of the press release to announce the South Africa squad was seen as an insult to India’s long-time MVP. According to Kohli, he was informed of the decision by the chairman of the selectors at the end of the selection committee meeting. “Whatever was said about the communication that happened about the decision that was made was inaccurate. I was contacted one-and-a-half hour before selection for Tests. The chief selector discussed with me the Test squad. Before the call ended, I was told that the five selectors have decided that I won’t be ODI captain anymore. There was no prior communication about this,” Kohli told reporters before leaving for South Africa.

By their long-standing tradition, this was BCCI going by the book. Actually, they were being extra nice to Kohli. The Indian board is not known to book a hall, present a shawl and a plaque to captains on the way out. But going ahead, in their dealing with stars with strong social media presence, the BCCI might think of extending niceties, walk out with a hand across their shoulder. Considering their proactive online push, a soothing goodbye montage can accompany a brutal sacking on phone.

Back in the day, BCCI could get away with being insensitive. The players didn’t have forums to express their angst. An odd interview here and byte there was their only connect to the fans. Indian cricket history would have been different if social media was around when Sourav Ganguly or even Mohinder Amarnath played. Greg Chappell, Ganguly’s bête noire, would have faced the wrath of the Indian fans and, forced the BCCI to send him home earlier than they did. And imagine the effectiveness of Amarnath’s “pack of jokers” snub to selectors had it been amplified by a Joaquin Phoenix meme.

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Sandeep Dwivedi

National Sports Editor

The Indian Express

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