Indian cricket team skipper Virat Kohli recently returned home on paternity leave, missing the last three test matches of the Indian tour of Australia that started on December 17, 2020. He did so to be with his wife and Bollywood actor-producer Anushka Sharma for the birth of their first child. On January 11, 2021, the couple became proud parents to a baby girl.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) backed Kohli’s decision and confirmed the news in an official press release. The Indian cricket team captain’s paternity leave then spiralled into endless debates on social media with a section of users trolling the cricketer for “choosing his family” over “national duty”. Comparisons were drawn with former Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni – who chose to stay back with the Indian team during the 2015 World Cup while his wife Sakshi Dhoni was expecting their first child.
Veteran former cricketer and present-day commentator Sunil Gavaskar also pointed out the hierarchal divide in the Indian cricket team with his comment about “different rules, different people”, citing newcomer and fast bowler T. Natarajan’s case. Natarajan, who became a father during the Indian Premier League (IPL) playoffs, has yet to meet his daughter.
Regardless, the 32-year-old right-handed top-order batsman, who has been one of the most beloved cricketers in India in recent years, has no doubt got an army of brand managers in place, navigating his advertising contracts and managing the graph of Kohli’s image as projected in media or social media – as it happens when you become a part of Indian cricketing royalty.
But Kohli is hardly an exception. His brand equity maybe higher than others in his team, but in the day and age of the IPL, most players are sufficiently groomed and “managed” – from their image to brand endorsements. A report in the Economic Times sheds light on how cricket managers are the kings of the celebrity management business.
Also read: Are We Allowing Fathers to Be Equal Parents?
Now personally, one may prefer Dhoni more for his captaincy skills, on-field and off-field demeanour and brand of cool. But this is not about Dhoni vs Kohli. Granted, cricket is an emotion in India and cricketers, likewise, are revered and reprimanded depending on their hits and misses. So before any cricket expert gets triggered while reading this and starts harping on about the glory of the Australia tour, let me make it clear that this pieces is not about the game, but about the politics of the game – specifically gender politics.
It’s about why the topic of paternity leave is such a taboo for Indian men at large, and specifically when it comes to our cricketers. The home, the family, the wife, the girlfriend and fatherhood are viewed as domestic topics that supposedly emasculate/domesticate the men in blue and therefore can’t be brought inside the sacrosanct 22 yards.
The exaltation of Dhoni’s said decision is problematic in this regard. First, cricket is an entertaining sport and the BCCI has a revenue-generating and marketing model in place. The idea that it’s fine to leave your pregnant wife alone if you’re a cricketer “serving the nation” rings hollow as a cricketer can’t be compared with a soldier on duty whose ordeals are much higher than the rewards. At any rate, it glorifies false masculine pride. This exaltation of “sacrifice” is akin to hypernationalism. It also points to a tacit male bonding wherein it is naturally expected of a woman to sacrifice her career for her role as a caregiver. However, a man, or in this case, the player, is never perceived to be a caregiver.
The glass-window cabins of cricket commentaries are known to be sophisticated. But when a legend like Gavaskar taunts Sharma for Kohli’s rough batting patch saying that it seemed Kohli only played to her balls during lockdown, it points to a deep-rooted sexism in the sport. It is akin to a generation of people mocking “hen-pecked husbands”, to use the derogatory term.
Cutting this archaic patriarchal strain is a new generation of cricketers, or so it seems. The “domestic” side of the bespectacled Kohli silently by the side of his wife helping her do yoga could be a carefully-mined woke image, but it offers revisionary optics to the gendered compartments of cricket and of Kohli, otherwise known to be raw and rough on field. It challenges the patriarchal culture of the boys’ club that cricket is. Notably, Australian batsman Steve Smith said: “…credit to him to stand up and say I wanna go home for the birth of his first child. I am sure there would have been pressure on him to stay but credit to him.”
The BCCI’s backing of Kohli’s decision to stay with this wife during her pregnancy has the potential to go a long way in “humanising” a cricketing icon like Kohli. It drives home the important point that both parents have equal stakes in co-parenting. Labour room duties are not for the woman alone to go through. Like marriage, the labour and loves of parenting and marriage are to be co-shared. India, a young nation with a significant millennial population with their aspirations and access to the internet is seeing a shifting of gender roles. Sooner or later, Indian cricket has to assimilate these expanding boundaries.
As a report published in NewsClick explains, though the term paternity leave is gender neutral, it has still not been normalised the way maternity leave, and is still considered to be not an equal but an ancillary care role. Still, in many cases, greater socio-economic empowerment can mean a reversal in gender roles. The father is no longer the sole breadwinner and with both partners pulling the economic chain, women have more agency in marriages/partnerships. Men, today, are inside delivery rooms accompanying their partners.
Regarding his leave, Kohli had said: “It’s a decision that was absolutely clear in my mind.”
Yet, without according any undue heroism to Kohli for doing what should be natural for any father, his move surely counters misogynist undertones that inform popular perception of men’s sports; a perception that sees players as devoid of domestic duties, familial obligations and parenting roles.
Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based independent journalist.
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