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Calling it like Kohli: When India needed their captain to stand up, he stood tall

Shami was not abused for having an off day but for being a Muslim - this needed to be said, and it was important that his superstar captain said it

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
"No, I'll elaborate on that a little bit more."
He needn't have. Virat Kohli had expressed his generic anger at generic social-media hatred already, which would probably have more than sufficed in the world we live in as a token response to the vile abuse Mohammed Shami received, for being a Muslim Indian cricketer losing a match to Pakistan. Kohli needn't have even given that generic response, because the BCCI media officer started the press conference reminding everyone "we shall only take questions purely on cricketing merit".
Kohli disregarded the diktat twice. When the media officer tried to quash the second question, which specifically focused on Shami's religion, Kohli was aware of the nuance he had missed out on in his first answer.
What followed was one of the more important statements in Indian cricket. A captain not only stood by, and stood up for, his team-mate, he also called out the abuse for what it was: an attack on Shami's religion. He called it the act of pathetic, spineless lowlifes.
In the week that has gone between India's match against Pakistan and this press conference, many a cricket personality - even Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, while still in possession of their dog whistles - came out in support of Shami. This is not to doubt the intentions of all of them. Some can be genuinely naïve. But what they said might have ended up doing more harm than good.
They have all spoken of how proud they are of Shami, of how he is a committed and a world-class bowler, of how he shouldn't be abused for having just one bad day. It was like all the cricketing personalities were feeling the gaze of the public on them and felt they needed to react, and quickly filed it under "over-reaction to an off day" and moved on.
Scary as it may sound, Kohli's might just be an unpopular position in today's India. We can't fully appreciate what these cricketers stand to lose by saying even this much and that too only when someone so close to them has been targeted
Yuvraj Singh is one of the cricketers who tweeted similarly. "One bad day cannot define you as a sportsman," he said. He should know. He had a bad day in the 2014 T20 World Cup final himself, and received a lot of abuse for it.
It is horrible, really.
However, nobody called Yuvraj a traitor. Nobody told him to go back to the Punjab across the border or to a non-existent Khalistan or Canada. If you are a farmer and of Yuvraj's faith and ask for your rights today, you might just be told those things, but back in 2014, Yuvraj was not abused based on religion.
It is important for the cricket community to acknowledge and repeat it - over and over again - that Shami was abused for being a Muslim and not for having an off day. There is often a tendency to be coy with the description of such events, which only empowers the perpetrators. By linking the abuse Shami received with his performance, you almost provide it some kind of legitimacy. Almost as if some enthusiastic, harmless cricket lovers went overboard with their criticism.
This is still better than what happened earlier this year when the home of Vandana Katariya, an India women's hockey player, faced casteist abuse when India lost a match in the Olympics. The perpetrators burst crackers - see the irony? - outside her family home in Uttarakhand and celebrated India's defeat to Argentina, telling her family that this is what happens when people of their caste get into the national team.
The reporting around the incident didn't even mention what caste Katariya is, what lowly occupation befits her community, according to these bigots, and why there is caste discrimination in India. Apart from her captain Rani Rampal, who managed to mention casteism despite being at the mercy of government-run bodies like most non-cricketing sportspersons in India, other reactions were not too different from the cricket community's reaction to Shami's abuse.
As long as we don't come face to face with the national shame, we can't hope to eliminate it. As long as we don't share that shame, the only person suffering is the victim. That is why it was important that a captain whose every word the public hangs on to spelt it out clearly. No pussyfooting around safe terms.
Kohli could have said this sooner on his own social media, he could have resisted listing Shami's achievements because you needn't be an elite performer to deserve rights and respect, but what he has said still remains seminal. We might want cricketers to be more vocal and uphold everything that is right, but in the real world they work in monopolies, which make taking unpopular positions hazardous. And, scary as it may sound, Kohli's might just be an unpopular position in today's India. We can't fully appreciate what these cricketers stand to lose by saying even this much and that too only when someone so close to them has been targeted.
The board that employs Kohli has the son of the home minister of India as its secretary. Even the board president, a man credited with bringing down divides when he was captain of the national team, has been tellingly silent. It is a board that chose to look the other way when Wasim Jaffer was communally targeted in Uttarakhand, or when Daren Sammy spoke of racial abuse in the IPL. The BCCI makes zero effort to achieve representation for the scheduled castes and tribes of India, and it failed to discipline or educate an India player when he used a caste name as a putdown for a fellow upper-caste player.
Kohli is perhaps too big a star to have to fear repercussions. He is comfortable and confident in his cricketing achievements. He is not from a minority that can be targeted. Which is why it is important for such big names to lead the way.
This was a week in which India's defeat to Pakistan and Quinton de Kock's refusal to take the knee dragged cricket into the real world. Not just in India and South Africa, but Pakistan too. When Waqar Younis can manage to project this as a religious triumph, imagine how horrible it must have been in his country when they lost 12 World Cup matches to India.
Some good has come out of it on all fronts. Waqar has been forced to apologise, even if with the usual rider of "if I offended someone". Quinton de Kock has been forced to realise the irony in his fear that his rights were being taken away when told to make an overt gesture against racism, an institution whose very existence relies on denying a vast majority of humans their rights. That process of resistance and realisation has hopefully made him aware of his entitlement.
In another country, where the choice of supporting a sporting team is being forced on its people, Kohli's impassioned defence of a friend and a team-mate has ended up turning the gaze on the perpetrator. Kohli has told people Shami doesn't need their pity or support, but it is the abusers who deserve unequivocal derision. If it makes the fans of Indian cricket squeamish, add one to Kohli's 70 centuries.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo