‘The first Virat Kohli’

That is how Ramesh Srivats assessed Virat Kohli’s place in the pantheon, in response to a reader question on whether VK is the next SRT: “He is the first Virat”.

The full “beer pe baashan” video above. (Okay, not “full” — the full version of conversations that take place when we get down to beer sessions is strictly NSFW. Oh, and apologies for the delay — things got unexpectedly undone).

In a piece as immaculately paced as the innings it celebrates, Siddharth Vaidhyanathan cuts to the beating heart of a Kohli special. By the end of it, Sid says, the real shock of what was accomplished is that it came as no shock at all.

That sense of inevitability is what kept Ramesh Srivats and I going over several more beers after we were done recording the latest episode of Gyandromeda, above. That, and the conundrum of the “thinking cricketer”.

Thanks to the commentariat, we are familiar with that exotic creature. From those naturalists, we have learnt to identify it by its stripes, to distinguish it from its presumably lobotomised peers. Thus, we know that Mike Brearley was a thinking cricketer, but Ian Botham was not. Srinivas Venkatraghavan was a thinking cricketer, in a way that the jolly Sardar, Bishen Singh Bedi was not. Even through his helmet, Anil Kumble’s brain shone through in a way that Virender Sehwag’s does not.

We know this because commentators din it into us relentlessly. “He is a thinking cricketer,” they say, nodding — thoughtfully — at each other. It is the sort of seemingly profound statement however that on closer examination fails the sniff test. A few minutes spent with a Bedi or a Sehwag  suffices to show you how deeply they think of their game, how well they understand its nuances — and how well their thinking shapes the way they play.

They all think — the indifferent, the average, the good, the truly great. Just like the rest of us. What separates the best from the others is not their cranial capacity but the willingness to do the hard yards. Think Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, for instance — the one, “supremely talented” since 2007; the other getting noticeably better with every single season.

But “hard work” is not glamorous, it is not “special”, it explains excellence through the prosaic vocabulary of the craftsman rather than the rarefied language of the intellectual. Ergo, the fiction of the “thinking cricketer”.

The thought occurs because commentators are currently engaged in fitting Virat Kohli into one of their prefabricated frames. He is a “passionate” cricketer. A “fierce competitor”, even. He “doesn’t give an inch”. But you no more hear of Virat Kohli being a “thinking cricketer” than you heard Sachin Tendulkar (to cite one example) being called one in his time. It is as if in the mind of the hypemeister the two qualities — passion and intellect — cannot coexist in one player.

Two examples from the Sunday game against Australia struck Ramesh and I as we relived that knock over a dozen or so beers. The first relates to the fifth over of the Indian innings — Kohli’s first. Josh Hazelwood bowled the third ball of that over, the second to Kohli, on off. A delicate shimmy got the batsman across his stumps; he let the ball come on to him and, when it was directly below the eye-line, a deft flick of the wrist sped the ball through the infield to the mid-wicket fence.

That is not the place to bowl to him, said Nasser Hussain, then on commentary duty. You have to drag Kohli across to the fourth or even fifth stump; you have to make him reach for the ball. In making that observation, Nasser was drawing on Kohli’s past — the strategy of making the batsman ‘fetch’ had worked for England in England; bowlers as different as the Kiwi Hamish Bennet and Bangladesh’s Rubel Hossain (in the 2015 World Cup) had used the wide line effectively to take out Kohli early, and cheap.

That’s where the “thinking cricketer” comes in. Kohli worked on his stance, altered it so his feet are closer together. The space he thus freed up in the crease allows him to get closer to the ball, and more on top of it — qualities you noticed during the Asia Cup in that brief, electric confrontation with Mohammed Amir. The returning Pakistan paceman, in the midst of a dream spell, tested Kohli out both ways — with the one wide and leaving the bat, and the other one, also wide, but cutting back in sharply. Kohli left the former, and had both time and space to play out the latter.

The proof came off the very next Hazelwood delivery. On the shorter side, on a 4th-5th stump line and shading slightly away, exactly as prescribed. Kohli shimmied further, flexed at the knee to get low down into the shot, and square drove it to the fence behind point. He has been working on that flaw; he’s found an answer that satisfies him, and the ball is literally back with the international bowling fraternity, who now have to probe for other chinks in his armour. A thoughtful Aakash Chopra piece from earlier this year makes the point, and goes on to show how:

Rahul (Dravid) brought up an important point that can be used as an indicator to judge an evolving career: is the player improving?

Every player starts his international journey with a few apparent flaws. While some work diligently to remove them, others work around them. Then there are those who become victims of their own flaws before they can eliminate them.

In this case, Kohli was ahead of his peers, we thought.

The other moment that captured our attention was the brief on-field post-match summation, where Kohli spoke of his innings. Given what he had just accomplished, he could have been forgiven for focusing on that electric 19th over when he took fours off Coulter-Nile through point, fine leg, extra cover and cover with immaculate cricketing shots and not a suspicion of a slog.

Instead, Kohli focussed on the four magical twos he and Dhoni ran in the previous over. This is why we do so much work in the gym, he said. This is why we spend so much time practicing sprinting, turns — “I want to be able to run as hard when I am tired, as when I have just come out to bat.” Later, he was to return to the theme of those twos, and what they meant in terms of changing the course of the game:

“I think what really helped was him (MS Dhoni) running those twos. The opposition panicked a bit because of that. They were unsettled because they knew we could run the runs as well and get 12 off one over without taking a risk. I think that is when the bowlers started thinking too much.”

You will hear many adjectives being used to describe Kohli. “Thinking cricketer”, “hard-working” and suchlike descriptors won’t be amongst them, though — they just aren’t glamorous enough.

Yet they, more than the superlatives now being thrown around like so much celebratory confetti, best sums up the essence of this man who has, in a relatively short span of time, become the ‘admired of all admirers’.

PS: Just for fun, watch this clip. Watch, in particular, that first shot. A straight loft played so immaculately, you have to remind yourself that the batsman playing it is blindfolded.