Weekly Sports Newsletter: Why Pakistan can’t understand the Kohli captaincy drama

It was only after Muhammad Ali’s 1964 visit to Africa that he became one of the most-recognised faces on the planet. That was also the year he had decided he no longer wanted to be Cassius Clay. While America was still reluctant to call him Ali, in Africa they applauded him for giving up, what the boxer called, his “slave name”.

Even at the time of his death, there was a different tone of the obits emerging from divergent geographies. The ones from his country, the USA, were more balanced. Those tributes also spoke about his serial adultery and double standards. They even ridiculed his quotes about blacks being original humans and whites the product of some botched experiment of a rogue scientist. For the rest of the world, Ali was largely flawless. He was plain vanilla ‘The Greatest’.

The unconditional love from foreign shores wasn’t just for Ali, other superstars too have enjoyed this perk. This is an intriguing global phenomenon; a fascinating human trait that sport has a power to highlight with a fluorescent marker.

For the world outside Brazil, Pele was the one-dimensional magical dribbler, the sparkling Black Diamond. At home he was also seen as a sold-out. They regretted that he couldn’t be the strong voice that spoke-out and stood by football. Bjorn Borg was the ‘cool dude archetype’ for the neutrals. In Sweden too, they did worship him but he also got labeled as a tax dodger.

This isn’t exactly about familiarity breeding contempt. It’s about local fans more clued into the careers of the home stars. They understand their own better, get the nuance of their character and are better equipped to call them out or judge them. They are also more invested and thus prone to be more objective.

Most away-fans of megastars are generally fair-weather followers. They can take the lows and defeats far better than the home fans, who as a tribe are known to be less forgiving. With sports inter-linked to the pride of a country, the fandom of the locals is layered.

The Virat Kohli captaincy drama has seen a similar reaction in the cricketing world. While India seemed to have seen it coming, elsewhere fans are in a state of shock. Kohli’s modest ICC events record has been a topic of intense debate in India, a country obsessed with World Cups, for a while now. Maybe, after their initial outrage, even Kohli’s die-hards in India might rationalise the change and make peace with the change. But for the non-Indian followers of Kohli, the batsman, this wouldn’t be easy.

Interestingly, Kohli has an army of followers in Pakistan. Within minutes of him stepping down as Test skipper, the neighbours couldn’t believe India could let go of a Kohli kind of leader. Before Babar Azam triggered the Naya Pakistan dream at the recent World T20, the fans in green would see Kohli with longing eyes. Only if they had someone like him. There was a grudging respect among the fanatical fans, as for others they openly praised him.

On the day Kohli stepped down, the Pakistan Whatsapp groups started sharing pictures of him with Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam after the recent India-Pakistan game in UAE. Salutes and respects started getting hashtagged. Kohli’s fierce rival on field, but also a friend, Mohammad Amir put out a message: “Brother for me u are a true leader of upcoming generation in cricket because u are inspiration for young Cricketers. keep rocking on and of the field.”

For a while now, former cricketers in Pakistan have given Kohli’s example to the far-from-fit players. Some time back, on a popular cricket show, Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq and Shoaib Akhtar had poured their hearts out in praise of Kohli.

Saqlain, then England’s spin coach, had met Kohli during a recent tour to India. He would tell the others about the extremely courteous Indian captain and his fitness obsession. “Paaji paaji karta raha, he was meeting me like I was from his country. He was eating bhutta (corn), he said he hasn’t had paranthas for the last five years,” he says. The Punjabi-speaking panel would shake their heads in disbelief. Akram would have the final word as he would say, “Usko success ka raaz pataa chal gaya hai.”

They seemed to like the fact that Kohli was playing their brand of cricket. . Even for the man on the street in Pakistan, Kohli was a reminder of their golden days. Like Imran Khan, they saw the Indian captain as an aggressive captain who was never overawed by the surroundings or the opposition.

Ironically, while in India the perception about Imran from his playing days hadn’t altered much; in Pakistan the opinion on Khan saab had seen a sea change. As I said before, away fans are always far more forgiving and home fans are far more invested.

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