Cut to the IPL game at Wankhede where Mumbai Indians were playing Royal Challengers Bangalore. Ambati Rayudu is run-out from a direct-throw by Virat Kohli even as the bowler R Vinay Kumar unknowingly gets in the way of the batsman's attempt to make ground. Unknowingly is the principal word here, for Vinay Kumar was backing away from the stumps. So Rayudu is run-out and the crowd jeers Kohli, heckling him with 'cheater' calls.
The incident involving Sachin Tendulkar and Shoaib Akhtar in 1999 during the Asian Test championship match between India and Pakistan at Kolkata comes to mind. Tendulkar was run-out in a near similar manner, as Akhtar was obstructing his path. But he was adjudged run-out, and Pakistan captain Wasim Akram did not call him back. And the crowd at Eden Gardens went berserk, needing Tendulkar to pacify them.
Cheating in sport is a very fine definition. It amounts to wilful disobedience of the rules with malicious intent. What Wasim Akram and Virat Kohli did, doesn't amount to that. It comes under the prerogative of a captain and they can choose to exercise it as they see fit. And let it be said here, they have every right to do so.
When Ian Bell got out foolishly during India's tour of England in 2011, the umpires on the behest of England team management asked MS Dhoni to call him back. A similar incident happened during England's tour here last winter when Jonny Bairstow was given out after a controversial catch taken by Gautam Gambhir at Mumbai. Dhoni this time refused to call the batsman back, arguing that 'it was the umpires' job to give the right decision because they get paid well'.
This was a near-similar explanation to what Kohli talked about after the Mumbai incident, mentioning the word rules. He was right to not call Rayudu back, just as Dhoni was right not to call Bairstow back and would have been right not to call Bell back either. The intent in each of the case was not malicious and doesn't amount to cheating, plain and simple.
But does it amount to getting jeered by the crowd? Does it justify the fans booing the opposition players?
In a way it does, for that is the nature of sport. A football player can dive as much as he wants and win penalties, and he is doing a job for his team. It is the referee's call to give the right decision. Fans across the world of football have heckled players time and again, just because they sit on the opposite side of the fence. Another major example here is of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, wherein Lewis gets a pasting whenever he drives in Barcelona for the troubles he caused Alonso when they paired up at McLaren in 2007. It doesn't matter to Alonso's fans that the two have since moved on to different teams and are on quite friendly terms, sharing mutual respect for each other's abilities on track.
The underlying point herein, however, is the definition of crossing a line. It has become an IPL fad nowadays to just boo Kohli wherever he plays. This is the same batsman who endeared himself to the Indian masses with his supreme strokeplay and timing over the last couple of years. You witness a turn-around in his fandom on social media, where even the neutral (if there is such a term in Indian cricket fans' dictionary!) condemn his on-field behaviour.
There are a few questions to ask here. When channelling this aggressive attitude on field, does Kohli hurt the opposition's - or the fans' - sentiments? The answer is a resounding no. This trait of his has come to the fore only now, when he is the cynosure of all eyes. But this has been ever-present in him since he first picked up a bat. In a free-wheeling conversation, his coach Raj Kumar Sharma pointed out that this is 'a tactic Kohli uses to fire himself up, to psyche himself for challenges that lie ahead'. Given that the coach identified this in his ward and did not try to change him, it will only be ideal if the Indian crowds too can leave Kohli alone.
Question number two, then. Does he cross a line when he mouths off on-the-field? The answer is again no. Professional sport at an international level is not child's play. And we love it simply for the aggression, attitude and win-at-all-costs mentality that is put on display out there. It is only a given that in such pressure-cooker situations, someone will lose their cool. If your sensibilities get hurt, maybe you should watch soap operas on Hindi TV channels.
Final question and perhaps the most vital one - does this behaviour come in between Kohli leading India one day?
When BCCI contracts a player to represent the country, and thereafter lead the team, it doesn't outline that the player must also be aesthetically pleasing to the watching crowds. They are contracted to win games, period.
And therefore, what matters alone, now and forever, is how many games Virat Kohli wins as an Indian player today (and captain of team India in the future) and not how many cuss words he mouths off.