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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

India's Virat Kohli still has time to correct the course in the court of public opinion

There is no doubting his greatness as a batsman, but recent controversies have left him a divisive public figure. It is not too late for him to change tack – if he cares about leaving a positive legacy for himself

Indian captain Virat Kohli has been criticised for his recent comment about a cricket enthusiast. The question now is whether he wants to improve his image. AP Photo
Indian captain Virat Kohli has been criticised for his recent comment about a cricket enthusiast. The question now is whether he wants to improve his image. AP Photo

Nearly 12 months ago, this writer had lauded Virat Kohli for speaking his mind about issues ranging from cricket to pollution in his native Delhi.

The India captain had openly criticised the powerful BCCI – his employers – for poor scheduling of bilateral competitions, both at home and abroad. He had also been unafraid to talk directly to the capital's citizenry about the need for personal responsibility in order to keep the air they breathe clean.

It seemed, at least to this writer, that Kohli was leading a generation of Indians more confident, assertive and upfront about issues. It still seems that way.

But following a series of controversies over the past year, questions have been raised – and rightly so – about the maturity and temperament of a man who turned 30 just this month.

Take for instance the manner in which he has dealt with the media in recent times for doing their job, a significant part of which is to ask questions.

He got into an argument with a reporter in South Africa when he was asked why the team management made frequent changes to the playing XI. Then in England, he got annoyed with another journalist when he was asked to respond to coach Ravi Shastri’s comments that the current India squad was the best of the past 15 years.

Kohli also fiercely backed his wife, Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma, when she was criticised for berating a man caught throwing rubbish on a road in Mumbai. Anushka's choice of words, her tone, and the fact her confrontation had been filmed left many netizens unimpressed.

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But none of this compares to what Kohli did a few days ago.

In a video available on his mobile application, Kohli is seen reading Twitter and Instagram messages when he reacts badly to a comment made by an enthusiast labelling him "overrated" and expressing admiration for English and Australian batsmen.

“I don’t mind you not liking me, but I don’t think you should live in our country and like other things," he says. "Get your priorities right.”

Over the next few hours and days, the top-ranked batsman in the Test and one-day international formats was trolled on social media, and even criticised by former players and supporters. One tweet included an old video of Kohli the Under 19 cricketer declaring Herschelle Gibbs his favourite batsman. The tweet insinuated that by his own logic Kohli should be living in South Africa.

Clearly taken aback by the backlash, he backed down and made a sort of non-apology apology.

This needless controversy, entirely of Kohli's making, has apparently not gone down well with the BCCI either.

According to a report that appeared in the Mumbai Mirror newspaper on Saturday, the Committee of Administrators – appointed by the Supreme Court to run the board in the interim period – reached out to Kohli about his conduct as captain.

“He was told to be humble, in his interactions both with the press and the public,” a COA official was quoted as saying by Mirror.

The timing of the call, which was reportedly preceded by messages on WhatsApp, is important given that India have just embarked on a tour of Australia where Kohli has had a history of altercations with opposition players and supporters.

Maybe the call from the board, and perhaps his own self-reflection, has prompted Kohli to play nice on Twitter and with the media thereafter. For instance, he responded brilliantly to the potentially awkward question about whether coach Shastri was simply a 'yes man' to Kohli.

“That is the most bizarre thing I have heard," he said with a smile. "In Indian cricket, I don’t think there is anyone else who has said 'no' to me more than him, honestly. He is one guy I can speak to and can get an honest opinion.

"I have made more changes to my game listening to him than anyone else in the past."

Kohli said he intends to behave down under provided the Australians stay within their boundaries. This bodes well for India. The Australians are in disarray at the moment and the tourists can win a first Test series if they just focus on the game.

The bigger picture, of course, is what legacy Kohli chooses to leave behind when he eventually retires from cricket.

Does he wish to be remembered as a great player who polarised public opinion, like in the case of Australia's Michael Clarke. Or does he want to be recalled as a great player who is loved by enthusiasts across the world – irrespective of where they come from – such as his own heroes Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid?

Only time will tell.