Note: This article was originally published during the World Cup. On January 15, 2020 Virat Kohli won the ICC’s Spirit of Cricket award for his gesture.
Even in isolation, Virat Kohli’s request to Indian fans at The Oval to refrain from booing Steve Smith and treat the former Australian captain with the respect he deserves was an extraordinary exhibition of grace and sportsman spirit. Against the backdrop of the bad blood that has dotted their relationship since the Smith ‘brain-fade’ in Bangalore in March 2017, the magnitude of the Kohli appeal assumes an even more significant hue suggestive of the esteem in which the Indian skipper holds one of the top batsmen in the world.
The ungainly war of words between Kohli and Smith in the immediacy of the latter looking towards the Australian dressing-room for guidance on being adjudged leg before in the second Test of the four-match series two and a quarter years back seemed to indicate that the pair had reached a point of no-return. In his post-match comments, Kohli had stopped short of calling his then opposite number a ‘cheat’, though the implication that Smith was cheating was clear to all and sundry. Predictably, Smith and his team-mates took great offence to Kohli’s remarks.
The soothing balm that is the Indian Premier League helped Kohli and several of the Australian players put the past behind and move on, but Kohli-Smith was a different cup of tea. Not any longer, it would appear.
The World Cup marks Smith’s return to international cricket after serving out a one-year ban imposed by Cricket Australia for his complicity in the use of sandpaper by Cameron Bancroft during the Cape Town Test against South Africa in March last year. Smith and his then deputy David Warner, who also served a similar ban for a like offence, have been subjected to a barrage of boos since their arrival in England, with the promise of more unpleasant crowd behaviour in store when the Ashes begin in August.
The tale of boos spilled over to The Oval on Sunday afternoon when India were taking Australia’s bowlers to the cleaners. As Smith trooped over to the third-man fence, just below and to the right of the press box, hordes of Indian supporters, most of them clad in blue, jeered him with taunts of ‘cheater, cheater’. Smith held his poise, even flashing a benign thumbs-up in their direction. All this happened directly in the line of sight of Kohli, stationed at the non-striker’s end and soaking in the Hardik Pandya-fuelled entertainment.
When Pandya was dismissed, Kohli took a few steps towards the fans in the offending stand, threw his hands out as if asking what was going on and, pointing towards Smith, urging the supporters to clap and applaud one of the finest batsmen of his generation instead. He also went up to Smith and apologized for the behaviour of the crowd – so he revealed later – in another unexpected twist that makes the multi-layered Kohli persona impossible to ignore. It was inevitable, once their hero urged them to mend their ways, that the spectators would not disregard his sentiments.
Had Kohli taken note of the goings-on and turned a blind eye, no one would have seen anything amiss in that because it is now somewhat of a given that wherever he will play in England for the foreseeable future, Smith will be the object of ill-merited ridicule and shaming. But by going out of his way to urge the backers of his team to stop their Smith-directed taunts, Kohli has gone up hugely in the estimation of even those who find his in-your-face brand of aggression and many of his other on-field antics unpalatable.
Kohli is no stranger to boos himself, having been at the receiving end more than once during India’s long tour of Australia between November last year and this January. If he was affected by that, he did a wonderful job of concealing his emotions. Perhaps his actions on Sunday stemmed from that experience, perhaps they did not. What is not debatable is that with this show of solidarity with a fellow cricketer with whom he has had many axes to grind, the Indian captain provided glimpses of a statesman-like trait that lurks deep within him.
It was obvious from Kohli’s press conference after Sunday’s 36-run conquest that he was driven by empathy, more than sympathy. Rationalising his reactions to the treatment being meted out to Smith, his closest competitor currently for the tag of the best all-format batsman, the Indian captain explained, “What’s happened has happened like long back; the guy is back, he’s trying to play well for his side. Even in the IPL I saw him, it’s not good to see someone down like that, to be honest. We’ve had issues in the past. We’ve had a few arguments on the field. But you don’t want to see a guy feeling that heat every time he goes out to play.
“Just because there’s so many Indian fans here, I didn’t want them to set a bad example, because he didn’t do anything to be booed, in my opinion,” Kohli added. “He’s just playing cricket. He was standing there, and I felt bad because if I was in a position where something had happened with me and I had apologised, I accepted it and I came back and still I would get booed, I wouldn’t like it either. So I just felt for him, and I told him I’m sorry on behalf of the crowd because I’ve seen that happen in a few earlier games as well, and in my opinion that’s not acceptable.”
If Kohli has indeed traversed the spectrum from stormy petrel to diplomacy and fire-fighting, more power to him. But don’t be surprised if, in the heat of battle, he snarls the next time he runs into Smith on the field. After all, that’s an entirely different dynamic now, isn’t it?