Virat Kohli’s virtuoso performance on Sunday was yet another pointer that he is the champion of champions, a batsman par excellence and inarguably the number one batsman of this era.
In white-ball cricket, particularly after the advent of T20 format, batsmen have been looking to pull-off ‘un-cricket-like’ shots in the quest to chase down huge totals or get a drop on the bowler. Strike-rate is the name of the game and to desperately get there many ‘un-cricket’ strokes like the reverse sweep, slog sweep, paddle sweep, switch-hit, Dilscoop, upper-cut, etc have made their way into batting lexicon.
Almost all these strokes are ungainly. But for fans who get excited by edged shots sneaking to the third man fence or a ‘lemon cut’ slicing off the inner edge to the long leg fence, anything that fetched boundaries was cause for rejoicing.
It is here that Kohli’s batting methods have stood out in stark contrast and come like a breath of fresh air, much to the relief of exasperated cricket coaches all over the world.
These coaches earlier had a harrowing time when they tried to wean away wards from copying a young Sachin Tendulkar’s unconventional low grip on his unusually heavy bat. Luckily for them, Kohli is a lot more devoted to the orthodox school of cricket.
On Sunday, chasing West Indies’ imposing total of 322, for instance, Kohli did not play a single unorthodox stroke even as he raced to a match-winning 140 off a mere 107 balls (21x4, 2x6). His magnificent knock was almost risk-free even when he encountered the fiery first spell of fast bowler Oshane Thomas.
The strong, well-built Thomas got remarkable lift and pace even off this flat, docile deck and had accounted for the perplexed Shikhar Dhawan in his very first over. But Kohli was another matter altogether. He played some astounding hook shots, both in front and behind square, even as he gave a textbook exhibition of rolling his wrists over with the shot.
Kohli’s punch off the back-foot to point and covers were just as telling of a man in supreme command over his wide repertoire of strokes. As well as Thomas bowled in that spell, Kohli not only had an answer to every delivery, he literally tamed him and led the way through the tough, initial period.
“Usually I play the sheet-anchor’s role among the top three batsmen. But it was one of those days when I felt good. I told Rohit (Sharma) that I would play positively while he could anchor the innings,” said Kohli after the win.
The innings had the Kohli stamp all over it. The master craftsman bats in similar fashion in all three formats of the game: quick singles and twos at the start of the innings and a gradual acceleration with aggressive strokes as he goes along. It is this game plan that has seen him notch up a remarkable 36 hundreds in only 204 ODI innings. (Record-holder Sachin Tendulkar has 49 centuries from 452 innings).
On Sunday, the singles and twos came quickly enough. But it was the timing of the strokes and skillful punches through the gaps that took the wind out of West Indies’ sails. Years ago, batting maestro of an earlier era, GR Vishwanath, erstwhile chairman of the national selection committee, had revealed what he considered to be hallmarks of a good batsman.
“I don’t much appreciate batsmen who play excessively on the off side. I look out for young batsmen who get over the ball and work it towards mid-on and mid-wicket. Those are the sort of batsmen who will have longevity in international cricket.”
Kohli is almost an epitome of that class of batsman. The punch he plays towards mid-wicket off the front foot is his most error-free, productive stroke. The only time he played it uppishly on Sunday was when he deposited paceman Kemar Roach over the mid-wicket fence and even that stroke was played only after he had reached his century.
Impressively, Kohli did not play a single desperate stroke despite chasing a massive target of 323. Drives off either foot, glance, hook and cut shots were all that he needed to keep the scoring rate ramped-up all the time. Even the great Tendulkar used to resort to slog-sweeps and upper-cuts every now and then. But not Kohli. In fact, his batting was the very essence of percentage cricket.
There were more vertical bat shots than horizontal bat ones and this augured well in a run chase where the need was for the top order to really fire and at the same time preserve wickets. He did not throw bat to ball, and this gave further proof that he was in control of the situation. His 246-run partnership with Rohit Sharma (152 not-out) was as entertaining as it was productive.
The Kohli impact on young, aspiring batsmen would be all the more positive for the unfazed manner in which he sets after a target. He has proved time and again that you can bat within the confines of pure batsmanship without getting bogged down by any bowler. In this, his skill is extraordinary. It is also a great advertisement for the range and scope of classical batting.
Amazing as it sounds, Kohli is not only re-living textbook batting, but also endorsing its virtues on the world stage. And that is a great eye-opener for sure.