In his Hindustan Times column last Sunday, Gautam Gambhir had a fairly unique take on his recent scuffle with Virat Kohli, his India, North Zone, Delhi and ONGC teammate.
Making a reference to the Mahabharata, specifically the Gita, Gambhir mentions a discussion with a member of the Kolkata Knight Riders support staff on facing Arjuna’s dilemma – having to fight his brothers in war or running away to maintain peace, the classic fight or flight choice.
“Do you face this dilemma in the IPL when you play against your India teammates?” was the question. It is a valid question. Fighting an intimate enemy – lovers, friends, spouses, parents, siblings, mentors – can be nerve-wracking and emotionally debilitating.
But Gambhir draws a rather dramatic parallel with the epic and dismisses it summarily. His reply? “No, I’m playing for KKR and I want to win, it doesn’t matter who is the opponent. I do the same when I play for India.”
His problem instead, he believes, is lack of subtlety. “People say modern sportsmen need to embrace diplomacy but I’d like to leave that for politicians. I say it as I see it.”
What he said or saw is, of course, left to imagination. In the media’s constant quest for the next controversial story and its love of conspiracy theories, and the IPL’s tendency to oblige, the Gambhir-Kohli outburst – which led to a slap on the wrists for both – invited many comparisons with the Harbhajan-Sreesanth Slapgate incident during IPL’s inaugural edition in 2008, perhaps unfairly so.
It made one person particularly mad. Sreesanth hustled into fifth gear on Twitter as he posted updates on Harbhajan being a “backstabber”, talked about the original footage showing the offspinner up for his very calculated assault and urging everybody – “don’t judge me unless u have walked my path”.
Why Sreesanth felt the need to rake up a five-year-old incident, nobody is quite sure. And I won’t go into numerous stories of his immature and petulant ways that have been a constant source of amusement – at best – and exasperation – at worst – for his teammates in the Indian dressing room.
The backstabber tweet has since disappeared, as did his resolve to “tell the truth to the world”, undoubtedly after Sreesanth received a rap on the knuckles from the BCCI for his outburst. Harbhajan, annoyed by the posts, summoned all his willpower to refrain from reacting.
Presumably, Harbhajan has also forgiven and forgotten. If his reaction to Ricky Ponting’s stunning catch off Unmukt Chand is anything to go by – Harbhajan hugged his Mumbai Indians captain like a long-lost friend – then he doesn’t hold on to grudges for too long.
Ever since the IPL began, many Indian players seem to have buried the hatchet with their long-time nemeses – among international players – whether it’s Harbhajan and Symonds or Anil Kumble and Ponting. And it never ceases to evoke a chuckle when you see one-time sworn enemies ruffling each other’s hair, slapping one another’s backs, biting nails alongside each other in the dugout and celebrating together.
While I resist the columnist’s urge to force a trend where there might be none, one does wonder if the IPL – while improving relations between the Indian and foreign players, especially the Australians — has become the inadvertent platform for several Indian cricketers to vent their latent frustrations against each other as their interpersonal dynamic plays out.
Gambhir was much established in the Indian team when Kohli made his debut in 2008. How much has changed since, with Kohli replacing Gambhir as vice-captain of India and the KKR captain having to return to the drawing board to find his way back to form and into the team. Perhaps, Harbhajan and Sreesanth have never really recovered from the bitterness of Slapgate despite Sreesanth’s sickly-sweet assertions that Bhajjipa is like an elder brother.
I interviewed the duo together a few months after Slapgate, and you could tell from their body language that one hadn’t seen the last of that saga. It wasn’t quite the kiss-and-make up story that was being fed to the media.
In a spectacle as high-stakes as the IPL, if you are already a hothead – as undoubtedly Sreesanth, Harbhajan, Kohli and Gambhir are – this is just the occasion to put all of you out there – good, bad and ugly.
It may not be a stretch at all, then, to say that the IPL has fostered better relations between international players but could it be possibly damaging relationships closer home?
Players develop close bonds with their IPL teammates, not in the least because franchises have fewer disciplinary restrictions than international teams. After nearly two months on the road with your IPL colleagues – where you spend a fair amount of time bonding over drinks at after-parties and participating in various franchise-related sponsorship commitments – apart from all the time together on the field, it is only natural.
It is no coincidence, then, that Kevin Pietersen chose Dale Steyn, his IPL teammate, during South Africa’s tour of England last summer, as the recipient of disparaging text messages containing “less than flattering comments” about Andrew Strauss, then England captain, and other teammates in the England dressing room.
Steyn was Pietersen’s colleague at Royal Challengers Bangalore and the two developed a bond that allowed Pietersen to rant about his teammates three years later.
The 150th edition of the Wisden Almanack lists the first IPL auction in 2008 among the 10 most seminal moments in Wisden’s cricketing history – a time when players began to measure their worth not by where they featured in the ICC Test and ODI rankings but by the millions they commanded in the IPL auction.
Ponting openly admitted to Matthew Hayden and himself being jealous of Andrew Symonds’ US$1.3 million-contract with the Deccan Chargers. And he only voiced what many others have secretly felt. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that the big bucks on offer in the IPL for perceived Twenty20 specialists has most definitely led to much envy among their mates who have proved their worth in the trenches of Test cricket.
I was in Australia during the 2008 auction, and witness to private conversations between a small group of players as news updates streamed in of who went for how much, and eyebrows raised and judgements murmured about whether certain Indian players like Manoj Tiwary or Sreesanth really deserved the hefty sums they had commanded.
None of this is the IPL’s concern as it unapologetically hurtles along from one controversy to another: Slapgate (or Elbowgate), blabbing cheerleaders, Lalit Modi’s sacking, match-fixing, and Shah Rukh Khan’s drunken brawl at Wankhede, to name just a few. In fact, comparisons with the stage-managed bust-ups on WWE are not unwarranted at all.
So sit back, bring out the popcorn and await the next controversy. Coming soon. On a television near you.