Why India’s Virat Kohli, and the Twenty20 format deserves little more credit in the big picture

Kohli has the ability to score quickly, but he does so from a base where the small, simple things are always looked after.

Virat Kohli was on 11 at the time, from nine balls, and facing Shahid Afridi, the Pakistan captain. Kohli was still settling. His one boundary till then, off Mohammad Sami, was some magic of hands, eyes, mind and balance.

In guiding him through point, the Indian batsman absorbed the true fury of a fast bowler and dissolved it, not so much Sami’s opponent in that moment but psychologist, serenely showing him the futility of such rage.

Still, Kohli was not yet in. In Afridi’s previous over – the sixth of India’s run-chase – he had mistimed a couple of big-ripping legbreaks so badly that he played, to disbelieving eyes, shots that were not pretty. No, they hit every branch down on the Tree of Ugly.

India were 41 for three and not out of this mess. Nagpur and New Zealand was not yet far enough behind them. The website Espncricinfo says Afridi bowled this ball slowly, but watching live it appeared to be no such thing. If nothing else it was Afridi pace, which is zippier than almost any other spinner.

The line stuck resolutely to off-stump and it straightened just a hint, and for most batsmen that hint is enough to foresee, a split second before it happens, their demise.

It had the length too, the one that makes a fool of batsmen whatever they decide, to go forward or hang back. All in all, it was a delivery to be proud of.

Kohli chose to stay back, maybe in recognition of Afridi’s natural pace. He adjusted to that hint of break, opened the face of his bat and bunted it to the left of point for a single. Afridi hates giving singles away there and at his peak, drying up precisely that area was the source of much success.

Afridi’s only victory was, in all probability, an illusion: in that quick adjustment, Kohli’s body seemed to jerk, as if almost beaten.

Three overs later Kohli swept Shoaib Malik for six, which was the shot that said India will win this game. But that single off Afridi, that innocuous, nothing little single in which he was almost defeated – that was the shot that said India will not fall in a heap as they had done in Nagpur, and as they do every now and then.

As much as any boundary, any six, in that single lay the command of Kohli’s batting in Twenty20, which is also to say that in it lies the command of Kohli’s batting, period.

Here is a way to look at it. Kohli loves driving and in particular, driving at speed. A former member of India’s support staff once sat in the car with him in Delhi and so fast did Kohli drive, the passenger felt he aged after the experience. Know this too, that he was used to sitting alongside Narain Karthikeyan, the Indian racer, and still he was impressed by Kohli’s control of the car.

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To allow for that love for speed, Kohli takes the kind of care that we associate with old uncles who drive, and who we make fun of. He makes sure his seat belt is on. He makes sure he is wearing his glasses. He makes sure his cars have airbags.

He makes sure he quenches that thirst for speed only when the roads are empty. “All these small things really matter,” he says.

We may as well be describing a Kohli innings. He has the ability to score quickly, but he does so from a base where the small, simple things are always looked after, like that single off Afridi or the 18 doubles he ran. When he is chasing, he likes targeting the part-timer, so, having played out three balls in one over from Malik, he made sure he took 11 off his next over.

He did not go to any great lengths to manufacture shots, because he never does. The one outlier was that Malik sweep, which is a conventional cricket shot but one that is unusual for him – he said later he only plays it when there is excessive turn.

Three different cover drives also adorned the occasion, as if cover driving is a rainbow and he was showing us some of its colours (and who is to say it is not?).

Two, off Afridi and Mohammad Amir, were slightly differing shades of the one accepted approach: stride out to delivery, drive through the ball.

They were not any less pretty for being conventional and were versions he has developed recently and organically, when he realised in Australia he could stride out further than he thought to fast bowlers.

But the third, also off Afridi, was the one that is his and nobody else’s. This is the one in which he only half-steps forward but slightly towards leg and, temporarily, it appears as if he has gotten too close to the ball, both in line and length.

He resolves this with a twirling, bottom-handed flick, and if flicks are ordinarily reserved for legside shots, here, magnificently Kohli subverts it to the cause of the off. It is a more muscular, crouched version than VVS Laxman’s but I mean, that is no complaint.

The overriding impression of the entire innings though is important and it is that it was difficult to apply the context of format on to it. Of course we all knew this was Twenty20, but Kohli could have been playing this in a 50-over game, and it could just as easily have constituted at least a significant phase of a Test innings.

You could conclude exactly the same of Joe Root’s 83 in the chase against South Africa in Mumbai. There were six fours and five sixes but also, crucially, five doubles, and not a single shot – an audacious reverse scoop apart – that would not have been found in a coaching manual of 50 years ago.

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Some day you will be watching Kane Williamson bat and you will think the exact same thing.

In each case all that is happening is a subtle calibration of the risk-and-reward equation that has been central to batting forever. A little more patience the longer the format or dicier the situation; a little more risk the shorter the format and stronger the position. Everything else remains the same.

All of which does not dispute that Twenty20 has been a platform for expanding the parameters of batsmanship as never before. It just reminds us that it is a more accommodating platform than we often give it credit for, open to, if you like, older and more enduring expressions of the form.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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