MONEY BALL: Brand Kohli - the good, bad, ugly

Virat Kohli

IT IS VIRAT all the way. Good, bad, and ugly. Let us start with the good. The Indian skipper has swept the annual ICC awards, being named as both the cricketer and captain of the year. He became only the fourth Indian to win the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy for Cricketer of the Year, and the ODI Cricketer of the Year award. ICC has also picked him as the captain for the Test and ODI teams of the year.

Kohli became only the second India batsman after the legendary Sunil Gavaskar to reach the 900-point mark in the ICC Player Rankings for Test Batsmen, which were released after the Centurion Test got over, and India were handed a series loss by the South African team. This was bad, as the Indian team is the numero uno Test team in the world, and the current team has been anointed as one of the best Test teams India has ever had and was expected to at least give a good fight to the Proteas, if not win against them.

For Kohli, the loss is real bad, as he had single-handedly saved the first innings with a majestic 153, but had to watch angrily from the pavilion as the much-vaunted batting line-up messed up a manageable chase in the final innings of the match, giving the South Africans an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-Test series.
The loss set the tone for the ugliness that Virat carried with him into the post-match press conference, where he got into a needless argument with a South African reporter when questioned about the inconsistency in team selection. Considering the fact that the Indian team has been a different one in each of its previous 34 matches, the question was a valid one in the context of two crushing defeats.
When you are winning, your bat is scoring runs by the dozen, nobody has any questions for your actions, even if you throw a tantrum to have the head coach changed. But it is during times of defeat that you must know that you will be criticised for the same decisions, and you need to learn to handle it maturely, and not let aggression be the answer on and off the field.
Consider the following actions of the captain during the first two Tests away from home against an equally strong opponent enjoying home conditions: decides not to reach the country early to get acclimatised to unfamiliar conditions; cancels the practice match; includes two batsmen who do not have the credentials to make the first eleven in the opening Test; changes only one of these two batsmen for the second Test though both performed miserably; drops the best bowler from the first Test for the second one; defiantly does not pick the batsman with the best average overseas though he is the vice-captain.

No wonder then that there are social media posts claiming that it was not an India team, but Friends of Virat XI that played the matches. If the criteria for selection of Shikar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma was current form, it was clear before the team left India that they would be in the playing eleven, and not Ajinkya Rahane, the vice-captain. Why on earth would you even name him vice-captain if you knew he was not going to be fielded in the team? And why wouldn't you respond to a question questioning this bizarre selection procedure. Rather than accepting that an absurdly bad call had been made, Kohli chose aggression for the answer.

Aggression, which has become synonymous with the captain, unfortunately, has become the bane for the team, as lesser mortals under the captain have not been able to apply it in the right doses. The best captain and best batsman in the world can get away with aggression at all points of time (mostly unwarranted), but when others try to ape him, the results are disastrous for the team.

That is how you see an otherwise sane Cheteshwar Pujara attempt non-existent runs to get the dubious record of being run-out twice in a Test, a Hardik Pandya play a shot not even attempted often in a T20 match, both Parthiv Patel and Sharma pulling short-pitched balls to the only fielder in the fine-leg area when there is all the time in the world to chase a win. The aggression is getting to them.

But even for Kohli, undue aggression will be bad for business. It has been reported that just this week, Cornerstone, the company that manages him, announced a foray into mineral water under his One8 brand. This follows a number of other business interests already existing under brand Kohli. It even includes a kids’ initiative with Stepathlon Lifestyle, a wellness-promoting entity. Reason enough to focus on managing the brand image better.

The captain’s brand equity has been on an upswing during the last many months as he piled on the runs and won series after series on home conditions and against less fancied opposition. Year 2018 is supposed to be the one where he cements his credentials as India takes on the only worthwhile opposition in international cricket – South Africa, England, Australia – over the year. But with two losses in the first three weeks of the year itself, the trend seems to have been set. There are already talks of a 3-0 drubbing in the Test series.

With such a dismal future looming large, Virat the brand, could well do to learn a thing or two about ‘controlled aggression’. The Indian cricket fan is a fickle one and has brought down the best after giving them godlike status. But that was a different era, and so much money was not at stake for the athlete. In the current scheme of things, the persona of the athlete gains importance as not only does he endorse other brands, but has own products which derives value directly from his brand equity.

Moreover, with Kohli’s management company invested with him in his business ventures, it is just a matter of time before the much-feared ‘conflict of interest’ issue crops us. This, because a number of Indian players are contracted and managed by the same company. When the chips are down, there will be interested parties who will rake up this issue. They will be very aggressive about it, and it couldn’t get uglier than that.

(The author is a co-founder of SportzPower and The Fan Garage. This column first appeared in Financial Chronicle on 20 January 2018.)