x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Indian cricketer Virat Kohli is vilified in his own country

The historical disdain some cricket fans have shown at IPL and other matches in India goes too far, writes Dileep Premachandran.

Royal Challengers Bangalore batsman Virat Kohli is not very fond of the Mumbai cricket fans. Manjunath Kiran / AFP
Royal Challengers Bangalore batsman Virat Kohli is not very fond of the Mumbai cricket fans. Manjunath Kiran / AFP

There is often a perception in other parts of the world that an adoring public treats Indian cricket players like demigods. That can be the case, sometimes. Often, though, the gods anger their subjects, leading to situations that are awkward at best.

In the 1980s, Sunil Gavaskar skipped a Test at Eden Gardens after having been booed there. Ravi Shastri, despite being an integral part of Indian limited-overs success in those years, was a constant target for the disdain brigade.

In recent times, few cricketers have evoked more mixed reactions than Virat Kohli. Some see him as the confident and aggressive face of modern India. For others, he is a foul-mouthed, ill-mannered boor. There simply doesn't seem to be any middle ground as far as India's future captain is concerned.

In Mumbai on Saturday night, after his Royal Challengers Bangalore team were emphatically beaten by the home side, Kohli didn't hold back on what he thought of the crowd, which had heckled him constantly and called him a cheat after his part in the run-out of Ambati Rayudu.

"I don't know what is wrong with people in this venue," he said. "It feels a bit weird because at the end of the day you play for India and you don't come here to be hated. It has happened to a few players in the past as well. I don't know why they get so worked up during IPL.

"IPL is not the end of the world. And they forget that the players they are booing for also play for their country."

Kohli was in trouble a year ago, for making rude gestures to a crowd in Australia, but this is the first time there has been such a flashpoint on home soil. By being so openly critical of the crowd, he has also ensured that the issue will not go away anytime soon.

"It is only creating hatred among the players," he said. "When I come back and play for India, they are going to cheer for me. It doesn't work that way. You come to Bangalore and you see how Indian players are appreciated."

While Kohli's reaction suggests a spontaneous outburst, there is no denying that sections of the Mumbai crowd have been an embarrassment for years now. A decade ago, Mervyn Dillon, the West Indies fast bowler, told me that had never been subjected to such racial abuse anywhere else.

In 2006, when Shaun Udal helped bowl England to victory and a share of the series spoil, even Sachin Tendulkar was booed after being dismissed. A year later, you had racist clowns in the stands making monkey gestures and noises at Andrew Symonds.

Even during the World Cup final in 2011, some of the things shouted at the Sri Lanka players were beyond the pale. There are some who justify it as banter. But it is not. Banter is funny, sarcastic at best. Once you cross the line from sarcasm to abuse, humour leaves the room.

That said, other venues have not covered themselves in glory either. During the Greg Chappell-Sourav Ganguly stand-off in 2005, the majority of the crowd at Eden Gardens appeared to be supporting South Africa during a one-day international. One of the players was so disturbed by the time the team landed back in Mumbai that he actually said: "It's good to be back in India again."

Reams are written about the passion that the Indian fan has for the sport. That is not untrue. But there is a very ugly side to it as well. You can hardly blame an irate Kohli for pointing it out.


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