Three images stand out for me from recent cricket matches involving India. The first is Virat Kohli giving a raucous bunch of fans in Australia the finger during the 2011-12 series, as MS Dhoni's team careened to a 4-0 loss. The second is Shikhar Dhawan pantomiming a limp, mocking an injured Shane Watson, who was batting at the time, during an ODI in Bangalore in November 2013. And the third is the bizarre sight of Ishant Sharma hitting his own head repeatedly with his hand as part of an ongoing altercation with Sri Lankan players in the recent Test in Colombo.
These images are embedded in a larger movie reel filled with aggressive Indian body language, mocking hand claps, animated appealing, and general in-your-face machismo. To someone accustomed to watching India play over the decades, there is a surreal air to all of this: it's as if someone had injected the gentle and calm Dr Jekyll with an overdose of testosterone and transformed him into a snarling Mr Hyde.
This Indian team seems to lose sight of the fact that aggressive play is not an end in itself - it's a means to win the game
Now I am sure each of these players has a defence for his actions, and we all know there's two sides to every story. Crowds can turn from cheerful to obnoxious in a trice and it's asking a lot of a young man to keep his cool in the face of continued and anonymous provocation. And Watson and most other cricketers do not seem especially reticent when it comes to expressing their views about the ancestry and masculinity of their opponents. Yet India's actions of late have a feverish and barely-in-control aspect to them that should worry any serious fan of the game. Matters are not helped by the explicit commitment to such an attitude by both the new captain, Kohli, and the major-domo-cum-Grand-Poobah of Indian cricket, Ravi Shastri.
There are at least three aspects to this machismo worth thinking about. Firstly, there may be something to it if it helps elevate your game and diminish that of your opponent. In his prime John McEnroe was a great (if also often churlish and unlikeable) exponent of this form of motivation. It seemed that in order to let his brilliance flower he needed to feel that not just his opponent but the linesmen, chair umpire and crowd were against him.
I am not convinced that, barring a few freak instances, this hyper aggression has helped India perform better; in fact, one can argue the opposite. In this regard, there is a difference between the way the Australians, or even the likes of England fast bowler James Anderson, practise their aggression: there is an instrumental and purposive quality to it. This Indian team, on the other hand, seems to lose sight of the fact that aggressive play is not an end in itself - it's a means to win the game. They might do well to remember that McEnroe never engaged in any histrionics when playing against Bjorn Borg: he smartly figured that it wouldn't ruffle the glacial calm of the Swede and possibly detract from his own focus.
Secondly, if I think of the best players India has produced over time, the guys who put their hands up match after match, whether home or abroad, they are marked by inner strength and a complete disinterest in engaging in histrionics or displays of machismo. The likes of Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble never took a backward step, and no opponent ever doubted their strength and resolve - in fact, quite the opposite. This Indian team is really in danger of confusing posturing with reality. One hopes they snap out of it before a physical altercation breaks out on a cricket ground.
Finally, India find themselves at a point of disjuncture between their limited cricketing prowess on the field - especially on the road - and their domination of the game off it. It's the Indian market that bankrolls the game today and its cricketers are probably the most well off. India's obdurate opposition to the DRS when everyone else has signed on adds to the image of a country out of step with the rest of the cricketing world. In this situation, the actions of its cricketers are going to draw greater scrutiny and less sympathy than ever before. Proponents of aggression may do well to ponder the old saw about "talking softly and carrying a big stick". In contrast, all too often it seems Virat Kohli and company are talking big while waving a broomstick.
Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu