At its best sports is an intensely competitive spectacle, where the participants match their skills and wits against each other without holding anything back. It is also highly objective as the winner is decided by an easily identifiable set of parameters which even the most recently initiated can understand without any difficulty. These are the attributes that bring charm and excitement to the world of sports and make it a favourite with spectators the world over.However, there can also be occasions when the intense spirit of competition exceeds the established norms and barriers and becomes an embarrassment. Some players and sportspersons are notorious in possessing a bad fuse or a very low threshold for losing their temper. When the contests are between individuals with such fickle temperament, sparks are bound to fly and many a time they can result in unforeseen and even disreputable developments that may bring embarrassment to the entire sport.
One such incident that brought red faces all around took place during the Indian Premier League (IPL) match between Lucknow Super Giants (LSG) and Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) that took place in Lucknow during the week that went by. RCB won the low-scoring game by a narrow margin and thus avenged the last-ball defeat suffered by them when the two sides had met earlier in the championship. One would have expected that discussions at the close of the match would be focused on the quality of cricket on display or the skillsets of the key players. However, this was not the case as all attention was centered on the fracas that took place on the field, when the game was in progress, and off it, after the match concluded.
Virat Kohli, former national skipper and a key player for RCB, was in a state of heightened excitement when his side was on the field defending a modest total. He was constantly on the face of the opposing side and matters reached a head when Naveen Ul Haq, a medium-pacer and alower order batsman from Afghanistan, reached the crease. Mohammed Siraj bowled a bouncer at Naveen, which was called a no-ball. Naveen slashed at the free-hit delivery that followed but could not connect, at which point the bowler and batsman entered into a staring contest. At this juncture, Kohli, who was fielding at mid off entered the scene with some nasty remarks aimed at Naveen to which the latter retaliated in equal measure. This ended with an irate Kohli gesticulating wildly at Naveen pointing to the mud on the sole of his boots.
Words were again exchanged between Kohli and Naveen when the players shook hands at the end of the match. However, Glen Maxwell, who plays for RCB, intervened and ensured that things did not go out of hand. But matters did not end there as Gautam Gambhir, former India player who is presently the mentor of LSG besides being a Member of Parliament, went to Kohli and started a discussion, which soon turned animated and almost ugly. Again, other players had to intervene and separate the duo, after which K L Rahul, skipper of LSG, talked with Kohli. As this conversation was going on, Rahul signaled to Naveen to join them but the Afghan player refused to do so and walked away.
This incident attracted considerable criticism as all these events took place in front of television cameras and was watched by millions of viewers. The episode also brought back memories of the “slap gate” incident that took place in 2008, involving S Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh. Swift action followed with Kohli and Gambhir being fined 100 per cent of their match fee while Naveen was docked 50 per cent. However, there were demands from many observers, including former cricketers such as Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag, calling for more stringent punishment so that such events do not recur.
The interesting aspect here is that all the three individuals involved - Kohli, Gambhir and Naveen - have a reputation for losing their cool at the slightest of provocations. They are all extremely competitive, as players of their stature are expected to be, but they tend to blow their fuse and react angrily when they are mocked or challenged. This poses a problem as opponents are certain to latch on to such fault-lines in their temperament and use them to their advantage. It is to the credit of Kohli and Gambhir that they did not allow this aspect to affect their performances with the bat.
A look at the history of the game would show that cricketers who tend to indulge in acts of gamesmanship are the first to get provoked when the same is attempted on them. Javed Miandad of Pakistan was one of the most notorious “sledgers” that the game has seen. There would not have been any match where he had not attempted to ruffle his opponents by needling them with his words and actions. Dennis Lillee was an aggressive fast bowler who believed in using any trick in the book, and those outside it as well, to dismiss batsmen. Hence when the two clashed in a Test match in Australia in 1981, sparks really flew and the two very nearly came to blows. It was one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the game. The picture of Miandad aiming his bat at Lillee, who was being physically separated from hitting back by the hapless umpire, whose job it was to come in between the two, will never be forgotten by all who saw it.
Fortunately, cricket has come a long way since then. The setting up of the institution of match referees, who are vested with the powers to penalise players who bring the game to disrepute through their words and actions, has certainly helped to bring in some much needed decorum on the field. Players are also careful not to cross the rubicon as they know that in addition to the monetary penalty, they also may face suspension for more serious or repeat offenses. As no player wishes to miss a game they are invariably circumspect and hold themselves back from committing acts that will bring them under the radar.
Coming back to the episode under discussion, it goes without saying that it was extremely unbecoming of Gambhir and Kohli to behave in the manner they did. In the first place, Gambhir did not have any business to walk on to the field and take up cudgels with Kohli. He is presently donning the hat of a mentor and hence should stay away from the squabbles that take place between players on the field. Further, he is also an MP, a law maker who is expected to take part in discussions regarding framing of statutes that others are required to follow. His actions after the match left a very poor taste in the mouth and reflected badly on him.
Kohli is one of the most celebrated cricketers in the international circuit and an iconic figure who young players look up to. He should realise his pre-eminent status in the game and play the role of a senior player, without getting getting embroiled in altercations and sledging. He would have won the respect and love of Naveen, had he chosen to present a friendly face. Instead he brought out the competitor in the Afghan, who, it must be said, emerged with his pride and poise intact after the fracas.
One cannot but agree with the opinion of Gavaskar that penalising by forfeiting match fees is too small a penalty for Kohli and Gambhir. The two should realise that they brought the game, which have made them what they are today, to disrepute by their actions. The appropriate punishment was to make them sit out for the remaining length of the championship. This would have conveyed the message to players and public that no misbehaviour or misdemeanour of any sort would be tolerated from anyone, even the mightiest and the most popular. Unfortunately, this has not been done. Monetary penalties matter little to international cricketers, both present and past, who are rolling in money. They may even find some advantage in the additional publicity that they get, even if it is of a negative nature, and attempt to push the envelop a little further next time around.
It is high time authorities cracked the whip and came down heavily on cricketers who infringe the spirit of the game through their words and actions and bring it to disrepute. The instances of the type that took place at Lucknow are a blot on the game and bring considerable embarrassment. Only strong action by the Board of Control for Cricket in India would help to prevent recurrences of such episodes, both on and off the playing arena.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)