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cricket, India, News, sports, Stories

Aggression in the time of Virat Kohli: Justified or not?


Aggressive teams win, right?

That’s the conventional wisdom.

What if I told you it isn’t so?

It’s not aggressive teams that triumph but offensive ones i.e. teams that play offense as against defence.

Note the difference.

Why is this relevant?

It’s of significance because Team India—in cricket—have turned over a new leaf under Virat Kohli’s leadership and Ravi Shastri’s stewardship.

They are playing aggressive cricket—always looking to win and willing to give as good as they get on the field.

This is the New India—the India borne of the BCCI’s clout and Indian cricketer’s early exposure via the IPL to the rigors and pressures of international cricket.

They are fearless, they will not give a damn or that’s what they would have you and I believe.

They have something their predecessors lacked—attitude.

It’s not that Indian cricket hasn’t seen aggressive skippers before.

Sourav Ganguly was a brat as skipper—irrepressibly keeping Steve Waugh waiting for the toss and tearing off his shirt at Lord’s when they clinched the NatWest trophy.

He was also extremely successful—but his success came from his recognition that to win overseas, he had to build a conveyor belt of world-class pacers to be able to take on the English, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders at their own game in their favoured conditions.

Ganguly’s churlishness was reactive; he had a point to make. Indians did not like to play tough or rough but would do so when push came to shove. They were not to be cowed or rolled over that easily.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni for all his tactical acumen in ODI cricket wasn’t as successful as Ganguly when it came to playing abroad.

He was more a defensive skipper; he would rather ensure that the game was not lost before seeking the win.

Virat Kohli’s assertion that he would play five bowlers  and let the specialist batters do their job is a breath of fresh air.

If he can find the right personnel to do the job, it is a strategy that can pay huge dividends.

What would Kohli not give to to have had Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman and Tendulkar—in their prime—in this side? No disrespect to the current bunch of cricketers but they have miles to go before Indian fans sleep.

What is aggression?

An essay titled “Aggression in sport” on site believeperform.com defines it as “any form of behaviour directed toward the goal of harming of injuring another live being who is motivated to avoid such treatment”.

While viewed as a negative psychological characteristic, aggression can improve performance.

Assertive behaviour happens when a player will play within the rules of the game with high intensity but has no intention of harming his opponent(s).

The essay states:

“In sport, aggression has been defined into two categories: hostile aggression and instrumental aggression (Silva, 1983).  Hostile aggression is when the main aim is to cause harm or injury to your opponent. Instrumental aggression is when the main aim is achieve a goal by using aggression. For example a rugby player using aggression to tackle his opponent to win the ball. The player is not using his aggression to hurt the opponent but rather to win the ball back. Coulomb and Pfister (1998) conducted a study looking at aggression in high-level sport. They found that experienced athletes used more instrumental aggression in which they used to their advantage and that hostile aggression was less frequently used. Experienced athletes used self-control to help them with their aggression.”

What could be the source of this aggression?

Frustration due to goal blockage is considered one reason.

Situational and personal factors are other reasons i.e. a player’s personality and socially learnt cues that trigger an outburst of emotion are determining factors.

Stress can have a negative impact on performance and can even increase the possibility of injuring oneself.

The pressure to perform constantly, poor form and high expectations can all affect players adversely.

It is also not easy for focused athletes to balance their lives especially their non-sporting commitments.

Mitch Abrams, in his book “Anger Management in Sport”, writes:

Anger is a normal emotion. Anger is neither good nor bad, and no judgment need be attached to it. Some people believe that a problem arises if a person becomes angry. This idea is not true. To pass judgment on anger and condemn those who admit to becoming angry is the equivalent of robbing people of their humanness. Disallowing oneself from any part of the human experience weakens the experience in its totality. Sadness gives a reference point that makes happiness more appreciated. Tension can be better understood when compared with relaxation. It is about time we stopped making value judgments about anger. No one has ever gotten in trouble for becoming angry. You could be furious right now, but no one would know it unless you demonstrated some behaviour associated with the anger. The belief that anger is bad is so strongly engrained that people will sometimes deny its existence even when it is spilling out all over the place. We have all heard someone with a red face expel incendiary words accompanied by saliva and then follow up by saying, ‘I am not angry!’.The bad rap that anger has received has made it even more resistant to examination.

Truth be told, anger can be harnessed and used as fuel to assist in performance. Can it interfere with performance? You bet! Does it have to? Absolutely not. I have helped athletes compete harder with greater intensity for longer periods, motivated by their anger. The issue is not a matter of eliminating anger; it is a matter of keeping it at a level where it assists, not detracts from, performance.

Studies have shown that as anger increases, cognitive processing speed goes down, fine motor coordination and sensitivity to pain decrease, and muscle strength often increases. So for some athletes doing some tasks, anger can be helpful. For example, the defensive lineman who must make his way past a blocker to make a tackle might benefit from having some level of anger. For other tasks, anger would be a hindrance. The quarterback who needs to read the defense before deciding which receiver to throw to would likely perform better if he was not angry. In fact, some research supports this thesis. Players at football positions that require a lot of decision making tend to demonstrate lower levels of anger than players at positions that do not.

Therefore, when we talk about anger management for peak performance in sport, we are not always talking about making athletes polite and calm. Rather, we are referring to their ability to self-regulate their emotions to what their tasks require.”

Abrams has this to say about reactive aggression:

“Reactive aggression is behavior that has as its primary and sometimes solitary goal to do harm to someone. Usually, this action is in response to a perceived injustice, insult, or wrongdoing. This form of aggression is related to anger and is the behavior that gets athletes in trouble, both on and off the field. An example of reactive aggression may be the pitcher who is furious that the last time a certain batter came to the plate, he hit a 450-foot (140-meter) homer that cleared the bleachers. Still fuming, the pitcher aims his 95 mile-per-hour (150-kilometer-per-hour) fastball between the hitter’s shoulder blades.”

Abrams also elaborates on the difference between incidental and reactive or hostile violence in sport.

He says:

“Incidental violence is an extension of acceptable behavior. Checking in hockey provides a useful example. The line that differentiates checking from cross-checking or boarding, both of which are penalties, is often blurry. Overzealous players can certainly have their behavior spill over to being illegal. This behavior is different from reactive violence, in which the behavior is retaliatory. This kind of behavior can also be broken down into two categories. The first is the spontaneous response. There are some players who pride themselves on their ability to get inside their opponents’ heads and will deliberately provoke them to take them off their game. New York Rangers forward Sean Avery, often described as an agitator, is particularly proficient at this. So, the player provokes the other repeatedly, perhaps by checking them with their stick. Finally, the provoking player checks the first player one too many times, and the player turns and swings the stick at the opponent’s head. The response, although extreme, was not planned. This is spontaneous reactive aggression and is directly related to anger. Anger management programs specifically target reducing this type of behavior. More immediately though, the league or organization must penalize, fine, or suspend players engaging in such behavior as it can very easily cause serious injury.”

Ishant Sharma’s outbursts on the field in Sri Lanka that led to a one-match ban is an example of  reactive aggression. Sharma was reacting to what he believed was provocative behaviour on his opponent Dhammika Prasad’s part. He also appears to take his cue from his skipper’s aggressive nature on the field.

Virat Kohli was not seen to be rebuking his star ‘pupil’.

Instead the Delhi player glossed over his Ranji mate’s behaviour.

He said:

“I was very happy with the incident (argument with Prasad) when he was batting. It happened at the right time for us because we had to bowl yesterday and they made him angry It could not have happened at a better time for us. And the way he (Ishant) bowled in the second innings, he didn’t concede a boundary for 19 overs. That’s the kind of pressure he created on those batsmen because of one incident. He bowled his heart out like he has always done when the Indian team has needed to defend scores in Test matches. An angry fast bowler is a captain’s delight. I was really happy to see what happened yesterday and it switched some things on in the right ways. It had to be controlled but in the end it benefitted us.”

Kohli, too, doesn’t seem to believe that he has matured as a skipper despite the historic series win in Sri Lanka.

He added:

“I don’t want to say that I have grown as a captain as the moment I make a mistake, I will be treated as a child again.”

Former players are a divided camp when it comes to their reactions to Virat’s all-out-aggression.

Fast bowlers Sreesanth and Venkatesh Prasad were quite enthusiastic about Kohli’s handling of Ishant.

Sreesanth said:

“Look at any pacer playing any form of cricket and you will see that he wants to be aggressive. Being aggressive is in the DNA of a fast bowler. Without aggression, a pacer cannot be at his best. What is aggression? It’s a quality that brings the best out of a pacer. I must say I was delighted to see Virat Kohli support Ishant Sharma. Virat is naturally aggressive. I like his style. Indian cricket and world cricket need captains like him.”

Prasad said:

“It’s always nice to know that your captain backs you in all situations. A captain’s backing always builds confidence.”

Former cricketer Akash Chopra had other thoughts.

He said:

“Aggression for me is not just verbal aggression. For me the kind of determination and grit shown by Cheteshwar Pujara during his unbeaten century in the third Test was also aggression. Virat might have backed Ishant in front of the media, but I am sure he will not be pleased to lose his premier bowler for the Mohali Test. The Mohali pitch has been known to assist pace bowlers in the past.

Ishant bowled superbly right from his very first ball of the first Test in Galle. There was no doubt that the defeat in the Galle Test was demoralizing for the team. We are not privy to conversations in the dressing room, but the entire team, and Ishant in particular, seemed pumped up for the challenge for the second Test at the P Sara Oval.

His behaviour against Dhammika Prasad, however, was pretty surprising to me. The Sri Lankan paceman might have been bowling deliberate no-balls and bouncers, but that’s nothing new in international cricket. The Ishant that I know doesn’t behave like that with anyone. I watched him bowl bouncers at Lord’s as well but at that time, he didn’t lose his.”

Ganguly is, however, quite pleased with Kohli.

He said:

“I am a big fan of Virat Kohli. He is a captain who always wants to win matches on the field and I love that passion in him. It is also a proud moment or all to see him lead a side with such passion. I want Kohli to do better than me as a skipper. But his main challenge will be when India tour abroad. Australia, England and South Africa will test his captaincy. All the best to him for the South Africa series.”

Steve Waugh believes that every cricketer should be passionate when he turns out in his country’s colours. He feels that Kohli is in the Ganguly ‘mould’.

He said:

“I don’t know what a gentleman’s game means. But as long as it is played in the right spirit. You’d be disappointed if the Indian side had no passion because they are representing 1.2 billion people. The Australian side represents 24 million people.

There is a lot at stake when you are playing for your country. You want passion. Sometimes that can bubble over but you want to see the emotion and see them really wanting to do well. You don’t want to cross the line where it becomes unsportsmanlike but that can happen occasionally in any sport. We want to see players with emotion and passion.

He (Kohli) plays aggressively and I guess his captaincy is a bit in the Sourav Ganguly mould, where he can be in your face and he can be a bit prickly at times. But I don’t mind that, I am happy to see that.

As a captain, he is never going to back down or be trampled upon by the opposition and that’s a good thing for India.

He will do well. He had a good win in Sri Lanka and few sides in the past decade have won away from home, so that’s a good feather in his cap. I haven’t seen him captain much but I assume by the way he plays the game that he is out there to win.”

Ishant Sharma’s childhood coach Shravan Kumar is displeased with his ward’s new-found aggro.

He said:

“He bowled very well but got too aggressive. That is something he could have avoided. Aggression is fine as long as you are not making a physical contact or abusing. There should not be any body contact. If you do that then you are penalised. That is what happened with Ishant.

It (Ishant becoming overtly aggressive) is because of Kohli’s aggressiveness. He believes in playing fearless cricket and doesn’t hold back. The atmosphere of the dressing room is to play fearless and that rubbed off on Ishant too. But fearless does not necessarily mean that you become ill-mannered. What happened was in bad taste.

Ishant is back home but I have not spoken to him yet. I will give him my piece of mind when I meet him. Aggression is acceptable if you are getting the batsman out, else there is no point of being belligerent.

Sledging is to distract the player but there should not be any physical contact. It (sledging) has been there for many years but there is a way to do it. Now that he has got a one match ban, it is not good for him as well as the team.”

Sanjay Manjrekar is another who has his doubts over Team India’s newly adopted philosophy.

In an article for Cricinfo entitled ‘”What’s eating Ishant Sharma?”, the former India player wrote:

“India may say, ‘We won the series, and this is what you need to be a winning team – a bit of aggression.’ A simple retort would be: ‘Why didn’t aggression win you games in Australia?’

What I can’t fathom about these send-offs is: when a wicket falls, it means the batsman has failed and the bowler has succeeded, but it’s the bowler who is angry for some reason. Why should anger follow success?

When the anger of the victor is aimed at the vanquished, it’s a brawl waiting to happen.”

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About LINUS FERNANDES

I have been an IT professional with over 12 years professional experience. I'm an B.Sc. in Statistics, M.Sc in Computer Science (University of Mumbai) and an MBA from the Cyprus International Institute of Management. I'm also a finance student and have completed levels I and II of the CFA course. Blogging is a part-time vocation until I land a full-time position. I am also the author of three books, Those Glory Days: Cricket World Cup 2011, Best of Googli Hoogli and Poems: An Anthology, all available on Amazon Worldwide.

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