Sunday, 9 October 2011

IN PRAISE OF VIRAT


So, today’s the final and, despite what I might have written elsewhere, I’m quite looking forward to it. Not quite; a lot. Yes, there are still aspects of Twenty20 cricket – and Indian-hosted T20, in particular – that are likely to bring on nausea (the supper-singing hyperbole of the commentators, and the all-singing, all-dancing Yankeefied razzamatazz make it the cricketing equivalent of a non-stop diet of chocolate cream cakes), but, to paraphrase the subtitle of the Peter Sellers movie Dr Strangelove, I have Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love CLT20. (And yes, this is despite it clearly being an unlevel playing field, the tournament structure blatantly gerrymandered to allow Royal Challengers Bangalore to remain at home for the semi-final, despite having been runners up to Somerset in the group.) 

The tournament has been a harum-scarum ride, with Dave Warner’s twin-peak pyrotechnics ultimately eclipsed by Gayle’s brutal power (112 metres!!); with the crafty, grafting cricket of Somerset and Trinidad & Tobago, the two teams that freelance biffer Keiron Pollard might have played for had Mumbai Indians not had first dibs on him; with the virtually unplayable yorker-bouncer-slower ball combinations of Malinga the Slinger; with close finishes galore to keep the neutral absorbed (or at the very least not tempted to see what dress Rachel Riley was wearing on Countdown). 

But most of all, there’s been Virat Kohli, the kind of guy who, to borrow a favourite metaphor of the current India coach, brings a lot to the party. In fact, he probably rocks up to every soiree with a platter of exquisite canap├ęs, a selection of quality wines and a chocolate tort (compliments of RCB), such is the range of his shot-making ability. 

I will come out and say it: I have not been as thrilled by a batsman for a long time. For all the ball-munching excellence of Trott and Bell or the occasional audacity of Morgan and KP, the current England team does not simultaneously take the breath away and have you purring in acknowledgement of cricketing correctness. For all the monumental batting feats of Ponting, Hussey and Watson, Kallis, de Villiers and Amla, none are particularly easy on the eye. Same goes for the best of Pakistan, New Zealand and West Indies. Oh, and Tamim too. 

Then there’s India, that vast nation of iron-wristed batsmen. In terms of purity of stroke and easy elegance, Ajinkya Rahane is close, but not quite Kohli’s equal (there is the chance, of course that this could be the whole throbbing spectacle distorting my perspective and usually impeccable judgment). Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag – great players all, but none of them are so completely classical as is the 22-year-old from Delhi (Laxman and Sehwag are not big movers of their feet, while the King of Method, Dravid, is often bailed out by lightening hands and defensive instincts). So it is probably not since Lara and Sachin that I have been as turned on by a level of batsmanship that more or less says to the bowler: “whatever you have, it’s probably not enough.”  

Talking of quick hands, Kohli wields his willow like a ping-pong paddle, bringing the blade through an extraordinarily pure arc, too, whether tucking it into the legside, clipping it wide of mid-on or playing his signature stroke: the lofted extra-cover drive, hands accelerating up through the hitting area like a golfer. This shot is not played inside-out, with fade, as it is for so many who hit the ball well in that area, for Kohli simply lasers it to his intended target (more or less to the exact seat number) and can also hit the ball bolt straight down the ground. Actually, it is often his footwork that determines where the ball goes, the hitting arc dictated by body alignment. 

But all this technical talk is already to take some magic away, to render it matter of fact, scientific, when it is clearly the work of an artist, a genius. Yes, he has those two founding principles of all the great players – balance and picking up length – but what I marvel at in Kohli is his manipulation of the field, the physical (balance) and perceptual (length-judging) feeding into the cognitive act of shot selection, then back into the physical (the motor system). The shot selection hasn’t always been flawless in this tournament, but such is life in the overheated world of Twenty20. However, just watch how he plays the ball on the offside, steering the ball either side of the backward point, gliding it fine of third man, forcing the offside configuration to move clockwise in synch then drilling the ball over extra-cover (or, utterly fearlessly, straight over long off).

Kohli’s manipulation of the field is only possible because of the glorious palette at his disposal (not all great players have such breadth of options). And as is often the case with batsmen who have such liquid shot-making possibilities, there is a tendency to be too self-critical when perfection isn’t reached. Watch Kohli mistime a drive or misplace a ball and he will berate himself ferociously; again, this could be a symptom of the context rather than intrinsic to Kohli himself, but it speaks of a fierce will. Is this too excitable? Perhaps, but by and large he appears capable of immediately re-focussing. And when he does, he plays without fear (is this why the shot selection occasionally askew?). I’ve lost count of the times I’ve though ‘you just need to nudge twos and put the bad ball away’ only for him to launch it into the stands. 

To grasp the jack-in-the-box Kohli’s sheer enthusiasm for the game, you only have to observe him sat in the dugout, up and down, touching colleagues, chatting, chirping, living and breathing every single ball. You’ll often find him alongside his coach, Anil Kumble, and a cynic might be tempted to surmise that he was a teacher’s pet. But that hypothesis doesn’t stack up: there is no question of him needing to creep in order to advance up some notional pecking order; alongside Gayle, Dilshan and skipper Vettori, he’s clearly at the top of the RCB food chain, frequently consulted by his skipper on bowling changes. You only need to see how he speaks to such veterans as Mohammad Kaif to realize he exudes seniority, an authority deriving from both charisma and on-field performance. And he takes responsibility, the hallmark of any leader. 

In fact, with India having been utterly demolished in England this summer, it would make sense for Duncan Fletcher – if indeed he is able to make such a decision – to install Kohli in the Test team without further ado, and to make him vice-captain to Dhoni. This will not compensate for the lack of bowling penetration, the discovery of which remains India and Fletcher’s greatest immediate challenge, but it will ensure there is no apathy on the field. And after the cricket they played here, at times, that can only be a good thing. 

But first things first: the CLT20 final is here (you may already know the outcome). Having been central to RCB’s back-to-back 200+ chases, definitely no second fiddle to the celebrated T20 batting imports Gayle and Dilshan, we wonder whether the young man born on Guy Fawkes’s Night has one more display of stroke-making fireworks left in him. If he carries his team home, then the livewire tattooed extrovert with the pumping fists and bulging eyes can be anointed as the new face of a modern, confident India.