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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Virat Kohli's criticism of BCCI a triumph for individualism in India

Emboldened by his personal record as well as the team's success on the field, the cricket captain is unafraid to make his feelings known in public, showing the way for a more assertive Indian

Virat Kohli's freedom to express shows successful Indians are getting increasingly assertive. Paul Childs / Reuters
Virat Kohli's freedom to express shows successful Indians are getting increasingly assertive. Paul Childs / Reuters

When an incensed Sachin Tendulkar told the media he had been provided a "B grade" team to play in the 1997 Asia Cup, chief selector Ramakant Desai sent the Indian captain a reminder - also through the press.

Desai said: "Tendulkar has a wise head and knows the futility of crying over spilt milk in public."

Probably feeling embarrassed by the attention his remark garnered, and chided by Desai's response, Tendulkar worked hard to choose his words more carefully while speaking on the record. It is an example some of his successors followed, including the sometimes cocksure Sourav Ganguly.

Indeed Tendulkar's statement had surprised many - not necessarily for what he said but the fact he said it out loud in the first place. It was not like him, or most public figures of his calibre, to do so.

India has for the past 70 years been a thriving democracy where everyone is free to speak their mind, so long as it is not inflammatory. Yet there has always been a conservatism deeply ensconced in the people's psyche, which forbade one to speak out of turn.

Tendulkar espoused such "middle-class values" as dignity, sobriety and privacy. He carried these values with him to the field where his response to opposition banter was quietly going about accumulating runs.

Ganguly did push the boundaries a little by teaching his younger teammates the importance of gamesmanship, but his dealings with the media were by and large straightforward.

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India, however, has been changing rapidly since.

It is a country whose citizens are shedding their shyness - some might even suggest colonial mindset - while becoming more assertive. Individualism is increasingly being encouraged, too. And aside from the fact he is a typically confident Punjabi from Delhi, Virat Kohli is an embodiment of this shift in culture.

Take for instance the way he effectively moved coach Anil Kumble out the door this year. The fact he questioned, debated and disagreed with his one-time teammate and then mentor would ordinarily have earned him stern rebuke from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

In this case, however, Kumble had to resign after guiding the team through a successful period during which they won 12 of the 17 Test matches and lost just once.

But rather than hide behind the prudent "no comment" line, Kohli acknowledged there had been problems between the coach and players, without going into the details.

Who can forget his "Delhi, we need to talk" video posted on Twitter in which he attempted to rally people to do their bit in order to tackle the problem of pollution that has engulfed the capital.

More recently he spoke boldly about having to play more cricket than he would like. He said he needed rest and insisted - quite memorably - that he was no robot: "You can slice my skin and check, I bleed."

He then criticised the BCCI for its poor scheduling of overseas tours, which led to little preparation time and poor results.

"We want to embrace being in difficult conditions. But it should be fair game where we get to prepare the way we want to," he pointed out.

Kohli has also reportedly asked that players' salaries be doubled. While it looks unlikely this particular demand will be met, it is worth noting that at no time on any of these occasions has the 29-year-old captain received a reprimand.

He has been rested for the upcoming one-day international series against Sri Lanka, while the board has promised to look into the issues of excessive cricket and poor scheduling.

Kohli is a creature of his time and knows all too well that in the information age there is little the BCCI can do to control the message, especially as it goes through a difficult period of reform.

In a way, he has managed to keep the world's most powerful cricket board on its toes.

He is also canny enough to understand nothing shouts louder than success, and he can speak up so long as he and his teammates are winning. India's record in all formats this year, not to mention Kohli's own batting, has given him plenty of political capital to expend.

Like a BCCI official told the Times of India shortly after the Kumble episode, "now that he [Kohli] has his way, he has to deliver as captain".

The fact the quote was said off the record shows how times have changed.