Is Virat Kohli eventually paying the price for supporting Mohammed Shami?

The unseemly fracas involving the Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli and the BCCI President Sourav Ganguly has divided the Indian cricket fraternity. While the BCCI officials and selectors have been in the middle of storms on many previous occasions, this time it involves two very high profile persons of Indian cricket. The fans are anguished and outraged that a player of the stature of Virat Kohli has been treated shabbily by the establishment.

Never before has an Indian captain exposed a blatant lie told by the President of the BCCI. Never has there been a public dispute between two such eminent persons of Indian cricket. This is the first time that such an incident has happened in the history of Indian cricket. Well known personalities of the cricket world are furious that matters have come down to this level.

There is now speculation in sections of the media that Virat fell out of favour with the bigwigs in BCCI because of his support to Mohammed Shami when some right wingers trolled Shami on social media after the bowler conceded runs against Pakistan. It may also be recalled that Virat had publicly shown his friendship with some Pakistani players. Did these factors play a role behind the scenes?

One cannot completely discount the fact that perhaps one of the reasons why Kohli ceased to be the blue eyed boy of Indian cricket is because of his stand on the Shami affair and also his public appreciation of arch rivals Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan.

When Mohammed Shami was trolled, captain Virat stood by his teammate. “To me, attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing that a human being can do. Everyone has the right to voice their opinion over what they feel about a certain situation, but I personally have never ever even thought of discriminating against anyone over their religion,” Virat had stated. These were strong words from a strong captain.

While his stand was widely appreciated by all peace loving citizens and sports fans, there were some right wing hate mongers who disagreed. One such person, namely Ramnagesh Akubathini, later issued a rape threat against Virat’s little daughter. The culprit was arrested after a few days but the incident highlighted the fact that there are many such low life hate mongers in Indian society. And all sports bodies including the BCCI are as much a part of Indian society as any other person or organisation. It cannot be expected that the sports bodies will remain totally free of people who harbour religious bigotry in their hearts. Sourav Ganguly himself may not have this mindset but he can be manipulated by other powerful persons.

Such is the vitiated atmosphere in the country now that a gesture of basic human decency and friendship cutting across religious divides is seen by right wing groups and individuals as something to be condemned and threatened. The moderates and secular minded people are bullied for their stance. Right wing tyrants are ever alert on social media and wait for a chance to react with abuse and hatred towards anyone who is different. The police forces, CBI, sections of the pro-government media and occasionally even the courts, have all lent a helping hand to these brazen and shameless bullies.

So was Virat’s outspoken stance the real cause for the action against him? This is what historian and writer Mukul Kesavan has written in an article published by NDTV: “To stand up to insinuation and bullying at a time when India’s institutions are opaquely controlled by political placemen like Jay Shah takes courage, even if you are as rich and famous as Kohli. To defend your personal honour by publicly setting the record straight is an act of ordinary decency in these debased times, not egotism. Kohli spoke up for Shami when the BCCI wouldn’t. Now he has spoken up for himself. We are in his debt.”

Maybe Virat’s strong words in support of Shami did not go down well with some powerful people in the BCCI. It could be a possibility since there has been an influx of right wing ideology into different sports bodies from the theater of politics. According to one veteran journalist, the BCCI has always been riddled with politics and groupism but nowadays the problem has increased manifold. As for Saurav Ganguly, he is being used like a pawn by bigger forces within the BCCI, this journalist says.

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But on the surface, BCCI tried to give it a logical angle. According to Ganguly, Virat had in effect sacked himself from the ODI captaincy. Ganguly said that he had personally asked Kohli not to step down from T20 captaincy because two white-ball format captains were redundant and the BCCI wanted one player to lead in both formats.

But then Virat decided to act and exposed all the lies that were being fed to the media. He said that he was informed that he would be removed from ODI captaincy barely 90 minutes before it was officially announced to all and sundry. He also clarified that Saurav had never asked him to remain in the role of the T20 leader. So it became a war of words between a present captain and a former captain who is now the President of the Board. They were contradicting each other in front of the media and washing dirty linen in public. Needless to say it brought about ridicule from the rest of the world.

Former Pakistan spinner Danish Kaneria opined on his YouTube channel that Kohli was treated disrespectfully. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were furious and both of them lashed out with strong statements in the media. Commentator Harsha Bhogle also expressed dismay.

Under pressure from all quarters, Saurav Ganguly decided that discretion was the need of the hour. When the media pressed him with questions on the incident, he refused to conduct a press conference or issue a statement. “Leave it to us. The BCCI will handle everything,” was the brief quip that he made to the media.

But finally, one thing is clear. We may not have seen the last of this controversy. The ramifications of this incident will be felt for a long time in the future and a few more heads may roll as a fall out of this discord. This massive convulsion is a wakeup call for Indian cricket and the BCCI should realise that it cannot and should not take its players for granted. They will no longer keep quiet and allow themselves to be trampled underfoot. Virat Kohli has shown everybody what player power can do. Hats off to his courage.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects