Captain Kohli is excellent at post-match presentations – gracious in victory and defeat – but gets riled if asked uncomfortable questions at a press conference. Even Dhoni was known to drop his guard and snap at journalists
The Indian team lives in a world of its own, shielded from outside influences by barriers erected to protect any intrusion. Access is controlled and team members have a us-versus-them mindset. Anyone not a friend is an enemy.
The rocky player-media relationship is one example. Captain Kohli is excellent at post-match presentations – gracious in victory and defeat – but gets riled if asked uncomfortable questions at a press conference. Even Dhoni was known to drop his guard and snap at journalists.
That players distrust the media is a long standing tradition and an open secret of Indian cricket. Players consider media unworthy of respect, convinced journalists are not qualified to judge them. Also there is a feeling that criticism is driven by personal agenda. Wherever the truth may sit, the end result is the team shuts out media ‘noise’ because it is an annoying distraction.
The us-versus-them game has lately acquired a new twist. With retired greats taking up media responsibilities, and switching ends to begin a new innings, the equation gets complicated. Past giants have a solid track record, they know what they are talking about and their voices are not easy to ignore.
When frank opinion is expressed by them, friction is guaranteed. Sanjay Manjrekar’s unflattering comments about Jadeja sparked an ugly exchange. Stung by being called a ‘bits and pieces player’ a furious Jadaja hit back with a brutal response that questioned Manjrekar’s credentials as a Test player.
There are other instances of friendly fire because legends have had a go. The comments of a journalist are easily dismissed, but similar points raised by a cricket heavyweight are difficult to brush aside. Of late, the legends have spoken freely, posing awkward questions.
Sunil Gavaskar has been on the front foot, commenting on issues left alone by others. When laudatory statements were made about Indian cricket’s recent overseas success, the Little Master set the record straight by saying this wasn’t the first time India won, and added that these statements were being made only to please Virat.
Gavaskar’s is an independent voice which will call a no ball every time the line is crossed. He demanded that domestic cricketers get a fair financial deal and Ranji be treated with respect. Gavaskar wasn’t convinced about the wisdom of scheduling India A tours during the first-class season and wondered why these are never organised when IPL is on. He was also unimpressed with Dhoni giving cricket a miss since the World Cup.
Kapil Dev is another who has discharged heavy gunfire targeting erratic team selection. He spoke tough words about India’s unsettled openers, repeated team changes and in-form KL Rahul’s absence from the playing eleven. Kapil did not spare Dhoni (‘he is on his last legs’) or those complaining of high workload and possible burnout. His terse advice, as someone who never asked for rest: If tired, skip IPL.
The team’s response to critical remarks is not easy to gauge but, most likely, it won’t be taken ‘in the right spirit’. Ravi Shastri has in the past reacted angrily to negative media reports and launched savagely bitter responses. One common thread in his defense of the team: People, regardless of who they are, are far removed from action. They should not be sitting in judgement.
But scrutiny and accountability, and judgement, is part of the game and par for the course. In the era of instant information/media/television/social media, nobody is out of bounds, nobody has diplomatic immunity. Certainly not the cricket team, surely not top stars for whom there is huge curiosity.
Criticism could be motivated, over the top, positive or of any other kind, but it is something top cricketers have to live with. To handle this stress, the choice before them is simple: As prisoners of us-versus-them construct, get offended and go into a massive sulk. Or, use the negativity to up the game and make a statement.