With the sports world in a complete lockdown, athletes and others in the sports ecosystem have been keeping themselves busy with sundry things like sharing pictures, anecdotes, fitness regimens, videoblogging, having conversations with others through webinars, Instagram, etc.
Technology has become the biggest ally for people in this lockdown, and not restricted to just the sports world. Most importantly, this has allowed visual communication between two or more people which was impossible even three decades back. While most of the activities of sportspersons have been banal, some interesting — even controversial — issues too have emerged.
Two that caught my attention in the past week or so originated Down Under, in interviews done with Nathan Lyon and Michael Clarke. Both tackle different issues in cricket but fascinatingly converge on the same personality: India’s captain Virat Kohli. Both Lyon and Clarke put him at the centre of things to validate their respective point of view, both relevant.
I’ll go with Lyon first. The Aussie off-spinner, considered the best in the game today and an all-time great, asked the question of how Kohli would fare in an environment where there are no spectators at the ground? It is a rhetorical question, but no less captivating for that since Kohli’s cricketing persona derives so much inspiration and succour from crowd support.
Would Kohli be the same player without spectators to give him the adrenaline rush that makes him the best batsman today? Lyon’s point is well taken, but I also believe that great players learn to adjust and adapt. Who’s to say Kohli won’t be a better player even when there are no fans, through sheer motivation and will-power?
But let’s move on to Clarke who set the cat among the pigeons by claiming in an interview on ‘Big Sports Breakfast’ show that Australia lost the Test series against India in the 2018-19 season because players were worried about their lucrative IPL contracts.
Clarke said Tim Paine and the other Aussie players were “too scared’’ to play their normal game as the IPL weighed heavily on their minds. He mentioned that Australia’s players showed too much deference to Kohli because he was such a powerful entity in the game.
“Everybody knows how powerful India are in regards to the financial part of the game, internationally or domestically with the IPL,” Clarke said, adding, “I feel that Australian cricket, and probably every other team over a little period, went the opposite and actually sucked up to India.’’
Clarke’s stinging comments has elicited no response (as yet) from anyone in India, but Paine, who captained Australia in that series in 2018, refuted allegations that his team was “too scared to sledge Kohli or other Indian players’’.
Speaking to cricket website ESPNcricinfo, Paine explained “I'm not sure who was going easy on him (Kohli); we certainly had a thing where we didn't want to provoke any fight with him because we think that’s when he plays at his best.’’ If Clarke had reason to believe that the Aussies were too benign in that series, and went soft on Kohli and Co, he hasn’t explained it adequately in my opinion. I would, in fact, tilt towards accepting Paine’s reasons why his team was less belligerent towards Kohli.
This comes through explicitly in the recent TV series ‘The Test’, which traces the progress of the Australian team after the ban on Steve Smith and David Warner for ball tampering, with Tim Paine now captain and Justin Langer having taken over as chief coach.
‘The Test’ is a riveting series, in which the TV director and crew have been provided hitherto unseen access (anywhere) to team meetings, discussions on strategies, process of choosing the playing XI, etc. Where the series against India is concerned, the key issue on hand is how to contain the rampaging Kohli.
The tactic decided upon is to deny the Indian captain attention and provocation which he thrives on. Everybody on the cricket circuit knows that Kohli not only loves a scrap but uses that to motivate himself to play better. To sledge him then would be playing to his strengths. This is not unheard of in sport. Great players are those who get better under pressure. They have the mental toughness to dig deep, come up with counters and turn the tables on the adversaries.
I can’t think of a single great cricketer who would buckle under pressure. Sobers, Richards, Gavaskar, Miandad, Chappell, Tendulkar, Dravid, Sangakkara, Kallis — indeed Clarke himself — to name a few batsmen played at their best in the direst situations. Sledges, taunts would only increase their resolve.
I can’t think of a single great player who readily crumbled under pressure. That would be an anachronism. In condemning the Australian team for the defeat in 2018-19, Clarke is not only being unfair to them but also denying due credit to the Indian team for creating history by winning a first-ever series in Australia.
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.