Defeat allows for necessary changes in India’s T20 culture

The World T20 has been as much about the cricket as about gestures made and not made.

Published - November 03, 2021 04:01 am IST

Rishabh Pant as T20 captain? Why not?

Rishabh Pant as T20 captain? Why not?

Sport cannot exist in a vacuum, divorced from what is happening in the world around. Gestures made on the field of play focus strongly on gestures not made. If the Indian cricket team took a knee in support of Black Lives Matter — a noble gesture — they were simultaneously telling us about the lives that don’t matter back home.

The World T20 has been as much about the cricket as about gestures made and not made. In India, we must remind ourselves of DLM (Dalit Lives Matter), and MLM (Muslim Lives Matter), but players hide behind the cliche: sport and politics ought not to mix. But they do, whether we like it or not. Decades ago George Orwell declared that all art is politics. Perhaps all sport is politics too. Cricket is often diplomacy (or war) by other means.

Black lives do matter in India where cricketers from the West Indies have often complained about racist abuse from both spectators and colleagues. Dalit lives, Muslim lives, women’s lives, tribal lives, farmers’ lives matter too.

Had our players taken a knee (or made some other gesture) in support of either DLM or MLM, they would have emerged bigger heroes than if they had won the tournament. Maybe I am being unfair here, falling into the trap of expecting a small group of sportsmen and Bollywood stars to draw attention to national issues when their primary focus is on their professions. And while those better placed to do so seldom do.

But then consider the impact of Virat Kohli’s statement in support of Mohammed Shami , a Muslim trolled shamelessly by those who feel more ‘Indian’ that way. Here’s a young man, a national icon calling out the act for what it is, and reminding the disaffected, the insecure, the Islamophobes (many of whom look up to him as a cricketer) that his team will not let such behaviour affect them.

“Our brotherhood, our friendship within the team, nothing can be shaken,” he said, a line that every Indian sick and tired of the sickening trolling of public figures, especially if they are Muslim, ought to take in the larger context of the nation itself. We stand by you is a powerful sentiment, and some consolation for those who whatever their religion, have been falsely accused, thrown into jails and treated inhumanely.

Kohli has plunged head first into a national conversation, and that is admirable. It doesn’t matter when he said it, but the message is clear. He wasn’t making excuses for the defeat, he was standing up for a teammate. That’s what captains do.

Predictably, Kohli himself has now attracted the trolls for taking such a stand. His wife hasn’t been spared either, the mixture of non sequiturs and irrelevancies barely disguising the nastiness of the attacks.

And he can expect worse from his fans-turned-trolls. The World T20 wasn’t his greatest tournament; it was a jaded, collapsing Indian team he was leading and not all the Dhonis nor all the Shastris could put it together again. Too much cricket, too many days spent in bubbles, poor strategy, bad planning all contributed to India’s poor showing. They managed to take only two wickets in the first two matches, and hit just six sixes.

“Sometimes bubble fatigue, mental fatigue creeps in when you’re doing the same thing again and again and again,” Jasprit Bumrah said after the New Zealand match, and one can sympathise.

But this defeat might be the best thing that could have happened to India in T20 cricket. It might lead to a change in culture. It means the new captain and the new coach will have a free hand to change the essentially conservative nature of India’s approach. T20 is a young man’s game, calling for a young captain who is not a safety-first, risk-averse leader but takes chances.

It would be a mistake to hand over the captaincy to Rohit Sharma who is older, and belongs to the Kohli school. K.L. Rahul is on the cusp of 30. In many ways, the ideal choice would be Rishabh Pant.

He is young (he just turned 24), evolved as a player when T20 was already a thriving sport and not something one had to adjust to, and is the side’s most dangerous batsman. Teams tend to build themselves around the captain’s image (as both player and person), and a Pant-like T20 team is what India needs.

This also means a change in personnel, with selectors shaking off conservatism and choosing players from T20 tournaments regardless of their performances either in first class or Test cricket. T20 calls for specialists and they need to recognise this.

Kohli is only 33 himself. He has built a tightly-knit side that any young captain will be happy to inherit.

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