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Leadership and the gentleman's game

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Virat_Kohli_Steve_Smith_India_Australia_CricketCricket is a gentleman’s game, we are told. Sports are about camaraderie, at the end of everything. Even if, in the midst of grueling contests, cricketers nearly break one another. Or at least think about doing so from the slip cordon.

There’s no shortage of wisdom about every competitor being worthy of respect, whether in virtuous cricketing bible or from anecdotes heard from commentary boxes full of linguists who are masters at marketing nostalgia in addition to commentating on the match at hand.

 

You should bowl a bouncer to your enemy, make him fall, but at the end of the day, buy him a pint, cool off with a beer - this seems to be the evergreen mantra.

But the time has come to throw light on these evocative statements; to question whether such phenomena still persist. Or whether we are ingesting gibberish in the name of core values of a game that, today, is increasingly toeing all possible lines of “sportsmanship.”

Whether you are an Indian fan or an Australian supporter, it could be argued that the leadership styles of Kohli and Smith served as classic examples for ascertaining the above.

Here’s Steven Smith’s impact as a leader from the just concluded Border-Gavaskar series.

Implicit in the art of winning a cricketing contest, above the skills and talents of a playing eleven, is the role a captain plays. Smith, often criticized for being a ‘complete Aussie’ when talking about his sledging abilities, was at the forefront of a brain-freeze moment.

His approach, it was lamented, was unsportsmanlike in looking to the dressing room for help deciding whether to use DRS or not.

As a captain, the behavior brought bad light to leadership, a quality much more exuberant, powerful and important in deciding success and failure than what you’ll find in a Philip Kotler marketing textbook.

While the above highlighted worrying signs as suggested earlier - that Cricket may well be going against the principles of camaraderie and sportsmanship - Smith’s 3 epic centuries and captaincy, especially aftermath Bangalore’s shocking loss, showcased his leadership quality. Etched it in colors of gold.

A true leader allows his best bowler to settle in and go for the kill. While there was no Starc, and Hazlewood must’ve had tense nerves in his hunting partner’s absence, Smith rallied behind him. He lavished praise on comeback man Pat Cummins.

Smith’s leadership, despite the fact that his side lost the series, was exemplary in the sense that when it mattered - during Australia’s ship suffering in the stormy waters of Pujara and Jadeja - he stepped in and scored. There was aggression and there was leadership from the front.

 

That’s the key pointer that Australian camp unfurled. They’ll attack you, come hard at you, but back their verbal volleys with crucial game-changing actions. And their leader will play a pivotal role.

On the other hand, grace and humility, pillars on which cricket’s pedestal rests, were utterly absent in Virat Kohli’s leadership style. You might ask why that matters, if the statistics point to India’s might. And that’s a fair point. As a leader, you’d rather draw ire backing your ‘disgust’ (e.g. Kohli’s comments on Australia not being his friends) with that thing called performance.

In Kohli’s case there was no performance. Not even a score of 30 was collected. Smith, no Buddha on the pitch (not that his rapport with the Dalai Lama suggests he’s an expert mind calmer), struck 3 hundreds. So his point about complaining about India and Kohli’s aggro is bound to have more fiber than Kohli’s.

Except that in Kohli’s case, a strong statement, whether about Smith’s brain-freeze moment or his loss of friendship with Australians, found a greater audience since it was a series conducted on Indian soil.

Or so it seems.

While a leader can - and indeed must - be aggressive, they must also be mindful about not crossing the thin line between mocking (or mind-games) and insult. Let’s ask a few honest questions:

 

While Ishant Sharma’s facial expression of Smith found quite a fan-base over social media, did it help India in a productive manner? Did that incite such anger in Smith (practically, what one might consider a basis for such inexplicable action) that he could not score hundreds? Shouldn’t Kohli have told Ishant to calm down, instead of laughing in the process?

Remember Maxwell’s broken bat moment? Immediately after the timber of Maxwell’s willow flew off, Umesh Yadav jokingly pointed to his muscles. But instead of retorting, Maxwell merely smiled. Genuinely. There was no altercation. The game went on smoothly.

What was the need, later on, for someone as gifted as Ashwin to visibly push Matt Renshaw at the non-strikers’ end, in his attempt to prevent a single? With two intelligent leaders piloting dynamic sides, along with the umpiring presence, should that have been allowed?

At the same time, why didn’t Smith step in to defend Renshaw’s funny ‘nearly soiling in the pants’ controversy? Why was Border allowed to run down a cricketer who perhaps didn’t commit the goriest crime of 21st century game by answering nature’s most urgent call? Didn’t that represent dodgy leadership?

The point is that leadership- whether tolerant, supportive and demonstrative of change from the very front or insular, tawdry or flatly aggressive- goes a long way to influence those around you.

Let’s remember Michael Bevan, Adam Gilchrist, Mike Hussey from Australia and Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble from India. Had any episode of them visibly losing it on the 22 yards lasted more than 5 seconds, they would have been left bereft of the respect they earned and so thoroughly deserved. You don’t recognize them as aggressive, firebrand, outspoken cricketers. You hail them as gentle giants of the game.

But what should one make of Smith, Kohli, Ishant, Warner, Hazlewood and their ilk? In the context of this series, both the jubilant victor and the defeated have a little blood of poor sportsmanship on their hands. Smith, for his brain-fades and Kohli, for his absolute disregard for Australia and his “friendship lost” comment.

 

If Indians have had such problems with Australia’s sledging, then how would they justify their morality to be superior over Australia’s with them joining in chorus as well?

Leadership is often about keeping quiet and staying focused on the task at hand. Not about producing stretchable content that can be long discussed on social media, after a match is over. Smith, despite his failings, contributed with the bat. He showed his leadership might not be faultless but is one backed by performance. Kohli, though, for the lack of any contribution, sided with dramatics.

But the sad part is, in an age where strength is often depicted through ‘giving it back’ rather than ‘not stooping to their level,’ there are increasingly fewer takers for that thing called sportsmanship or camaraderie.

My mind, for this reason, keeps shuttling back to the image of Freddie Flintoff consoling a visibly distraught Brett Lee, upon one of Australia’s most closely contested Ashes losses. Let’s not forget, at their peak, these two were, mighty opponents. Quite like Smith and Kohli.

 

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