“What the fuck are you going to do about it currypot”. When I think back to days of high school sport, one moment remains etched in my mind amid the half-time oranges, early morning trainings and bantering friendships. It wasn’t the intense tackles, the passionate parents or the triumphant victory. Years later, I remember that game as the first time I was racially vilified on a sporting field. I remember the sense of helplessness, the raw dejection, and the lingering shame as I aimlessly ran around for the rest of the game, bewildered by what had just happened.
Since then, I’ve heard a lot more about my brown skin, both on and off the field. Some comments, were filled with stinging hatred, while others, made in jest almost made me laugh. But somewhere down the line, the way I reacted changed. Shame turned to anger, and the scared child confused by racial taunts became a more authoritative person, ready to give it back and not take any shit. It was a process I now like to call ‘The Virat Effect’.
As an Indian Australian, cricket was a critical way for me to engage with my culture. It allowed me to bond with the kids in my Aunt’s neighbourhood in Ranchi, and feel a connection with Uber drivers finding a home in a new country. Put simply, it was a way to feel more brown in a country filled with whites.
In many ways, cricketing heroes like Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar reminded me of the values my parents sought to instil; working hard, accepting the inequalities of life and making the best of bad situations. More specifically, they shaped the way I would react to my white counter-parts. By watching Dravid maintaining Gandhian composure as an angry Michael Slater sledged him, I learnt how to exercise dignity in the face of aggressive white masculinity.. The attitude of “turning the other cheek” was the invaluable lesson my Indian heroes had taught me.
But merely avoiding conflict left me unsettled. I needed something more. Sourav Ganguly gave me hints of it, as he stood up to Ricky Ponting, refusing to be swept aside as yet another weak Indian. In the summer of 2012 I finally found what I had been craving all these years. In the middle of one of Indian Cricket’s most humiliating performances, a young Virat Kohli was taking the fight to the Aussies, returning insults and flipping the bird at antagonistic fans. When he drove Peter Siddle through the covers to a hundred I felt goosebumps- this was the future of Indian Cricket. As a commentator at the time put it “the flood gates of Virat Kohli had finally opened”.
Since then, Virat Kohli has been unstoppable. As captain, he has, in just a few seasons, changed the attitude of the entire team. Gone were the passive days of Laxman, Tendulkar and Dravid. Indian cricketers were a force to be reckoned with. A side that was going to give it back and stand up to their white counter-parts with the same fire and aggression that Australian teams have been notorious for. This was the new culture of Indian cricket.
Importantly, Virat Kohli’s temperament had impacts that extended well beyond the eleven players in his dressing room. It was a new attitude that affected an entire generation of Indian youths. For me, it was a way to challenge the ideas of white supremacy, my taller blonde-haired friends would exercise daily. I found myself willing to speak up, to fight back and believe in my abilities. Despite the “Virat Effect”, I hadn’t erased the lessons of past Indian cricketers from my mind. It was about balance, about picking our battles and knowing when to channel aggression. At times, it was best to just move on and not waste energy on an ignorant person. Yet ultimately, in times where people cross a line, both an entire generation of Indians and I can look to Virat.
Of course, it made me more aggressive on the sporting field, but it also made me more resilient in life. Today, when white people in University attempt to intimidate me, I look to Virat, finally realising that I need not constantly internalise their racism. Sometimes I can fight back, and I don’t need to care about how that makes my oppressors feel. Sure, it may be somewhat performative and the racism and leveraging of white privilege still hurts. But at least it denies them what they’ve always wanted- an air of superiority as our people bow down to them. In my book, that’s a win.