Firstpost Masterclass: Balance, footwork, mindset, and more, Aakash Chopra explains the technique of batting
Head position? Batting stance? Footwork? Dealing with bouncers? Former India batsman Aakash Chopra explains all this and more in this Firstpost Masterclass on batting.
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
One doesn't need to be an expert to tell that batting forms one of the cornerstones in the game of cricket. The sport survives on the grammar of batting; it attracts fans, prose, sponsors, and cash, and as natural as it appears, if done well, it adds a dash of magic to the game. Batting at the highest level, though, is as much an examination of skills, as it is of temperament. In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, we look to understand the craft with former India opener Aakash Chopra.
A Ranji Trophy-winning captain with over 10,000 first-class runs, Aakash was an opening batsman who prided in his defence, and was considered an ideal foil for the free-stroking Virender Sehwag when he broke into the national team. After a promising tour of Australia, things started going downhill for him, and his international career ended in a year with just 10 Tests.
Aakash, though, continued to stack up runs in the domestic circuit before moving to broadcasting, and has carved a successful niche for himself through his commentary and enormous social media presence. Here, he systematically breaks down the art of opening the innings and the technical skills needed to excel.
Tell us something about your days at the famed Sonnet Cricket Club in Delhi that has produced a host of international cricketers and countless first-class players.
Playing for Sonnet was an outstanding experience. As a young kid, you saw a number of international and first-class cricketers in flesh and blood, so the aspiration and the inspiration were right there. Watching everyone prepare so hard told me that there were no shortcuts, and things like hard work and work ethics were drilled into me quite inadvertently. I saw Ajay Sharma would bat for hours, late Raman Lamba would come to the club and run 40 laps...so the examples were right there.
I would like to give a lot of credit to Tarak Sinha sir. He had an amazing eye for talent, and once he spotted a promising kid, he knew how to back him. Being a top club in Delhi, hundreds of children would flock there every day, and callous as it may sound, it is not possible to pay equal attention to each child in such a scenario. So ustaadji, as he is fondly called, would identify the players he thought had talent, and then give them special attention. He knew how to treat players. He understood that each player is different, and so he was very adaptable in his approach. Also, once a culture develops, a lot of things take care of themselves.
The only drawback I would say is that if you're the only international cricketer in a particular club, you can bat for three hours in the nets. The entire infrastructure is designed to suit your needs. At a place like Sonnet that had so many first-class and international cricketers, you can't think of batting for that long. The maximum leeway you could get is that you can bat for 25 minutes instead of 20, but you could not even think of batting for hours. That can hurt you because at some stage you need to face enough quality balls in the nets to sharpen your skills. That could be the reason why Sonnet produced better bowlers than batsmen, because bowlers always ended up bowling to quality batsmen and they could bowl as much as they wanted. Having said that, one should not discount the fact that this kind of system succeeded in producing so many talented cricketers over the years.
What kind of student of the game were you? Were you very diligent, or you took things easy at times?
I think I was very diligent. Ustaadji made it very clear in the beginning that the opportunities will be very limited. Back then, there was only red-ball cricket, and no matter how good a cricketer you were, there were always enough people chasing you. It was not as if you will get five games because you are a good player. No. You will get only one or two games, and you should be equipped to succeed in those limited chances. That can only happen if you are ticking all the boxes all the time. So you have to become technically very competent, you have to work on your patience, and you will have to eliminate all the shots that can get you out. Then, you have to make sure you seize the opportunity when it presents itself.
I was anyway a very studious child, so I ended up learning a lot even when Ustaadji was busy coaching someone else. I would just stand, listen, observe, and see if those things could fit into my game.
You were always considered a technically solid batsman, but what does technique really mean to you?
Technique, to me, is basically playing the ball on its merit in the most appropriate manner that allows you to eliminate risks. It is having the simple knowledge that you can hit a straight ball cross-batted, but the chances of making a connection will increase manifold if you play it with a straight bat. Technique is the means to an end; that is what it always meant to me.
It is like driving a car. There are certain steps you follow as a rule, and you know that if you stick to them, you will minimise the chances of an accident. That doesn't mean you will never crash, mind you. Similarly, technique makes you more consistent and allows you to play percentage cricket.
Being a batsman in a very classical mould, did you ever feel that you were a prisoner to your technique?
When I was just starting out at Sonnet, I would actually get my runs very quickly. I would always race to 60-70 with a flurry of fours. One day, our coach told me, 'It is great you are getting runs for the club, but you will never play for India if you play this way.' So that's how my game was initially. We played a lot of 40-over cricket before we graduated to days' cricket. The endeavour at Sonnet was to create a player who can play four-day Ranji Trophy games while being good in the 40-over format. It was a difficult thing to do, but that's where Ustaadji's teachings came in, that you have to aim to score big runs in days' cricket.
To score big in days' cricket means you should be able to leave a lot of balls, so you should know where your off-stump is. Of course, you can drive, but the fact is that you should also know how to leave. Did I feel being a prisoner of my technique? I would say, not for a very long time. The only time when I felt that way was maybe for two years after I was dropped from the Indian team. That was when I started thinking too much.
Before that, I played cricket in a very different manner, and after that phase, let's say, for two years starting 2007, I played in a very different manner. I played a lot more shots and batted with a lot more freedom. Unfortunately, people haven't seen me play that kind of cricket, so they don't know I could play my shots. Coming back to the question, I largely never felt chained by technique. In fact, I felt empowered by the way I played. In Delhi, we used to play on green tops, and in winter months, the ball does all kinds of things. Unless you don't have proper technique, there's no way you can succeed as an opener. I took a lot of pride in the knowledge that I was technically equipped because if I wasn't, I couldn't have scored the runs that I did.
Let's talk about bat selection. How do you select a bat? Is it purely by feel, or is there a science behind it?
Unfortunately, it has always been through feel all these years, and feel is something you can't really describe. That's where the failure of our ecosystem lies. As kids, we don't know what works for us. We begin to play with any bat that is given to us by the coach, and the coach may give you a light bat, heavy bat, or just any bat lying spare with him.
Then, some coaches may send you to some sports shop and the shopkeeper, looking at your size and build, will give you some options. The shopkeeper is not aware of your game, or your strength. Imagine a 10-11-year-old having to select a bat that works for him/her when even thoroughbred professionals find selecting bats a difficult task.
It is like testing perfumes. You get confused after smelling three or four fragrances, and soon you have no clue of what you are smelling. Similarly, unless there is a massive difference in the weight of the bats, you won't know the difference among five bats that a shopkeeper will show you.
Now, once you've bought a bat worth Rs 5000 and you discover it is too heavy or too light, or if the weight is more towards the bottom or higher up the blade, you don't have a choice but to model your game on the bat you have. That is the bigger worry. The bat should suit your game and not the other way round. Thankfully, these days there is technology available to help you select a bat.
Personally, my coach gave me a lighter bat to start with. I didn't have a bat until I was playing at the U-19 level. In one such match, I picked up someone's bat but it turned out to be too heavy. That's when I started thinking of the right bat and eventually got one. So, after a lot of trials and errors, you will find a bat that you feel will work for you. Then, you take that bat to a manufacturer and ask them to make a carbon copy for you. Even then, you won't get a perfect copy because the cleft and log of the bat may be different. There's an enormous amount of trial and error involved, and that is a sad part.
During a match, we see batsmen changing bats a number of times, generally towards the end of the innings. Why is that?
There are broadly two choices, either you go heavy, or you go light. If the body is tired, you switch to a lighter bat. Sometimes the weight of two bats is the same, but the weight distribution is different. So two bats of equal weight may have more mass at the bottom or in the middle or higher up.
When you are trying to finish the innings, you would like to go with a bottom-heavy kind of a bat because the scoring, six-hitting shots in the end overs are generally down the ground or over mid-wicket. If the bat is bottom-heavy, the downswing will take care of the upswing and give your shot the necessary push and momentum. On the contrary, if the weight of the bat is more towards the centre, it is more suited for cuts and pulls. These are some minor adjustments that you make even when you are touring.
Does the sweet spot on the bat change according to the pitches you are batting on?
Yes. In India, the sweet spot will be a lot lower. In Australia, the sweet spot has to be a lot higher. You have to get your bat customised to the tracks you are batting on. This, however, is not science. Not even the most professional player gets to that conclusion based on the data or analytics. It is again about the feel. A batsman playing at the highest level has played so much cricket that he has developed the feel for the right bat, so he is able to select what works for him on a particular pitch and then go back and adjust to what he was using earlier.
As an opener, did you prefer to take the first strike or would you like your batting partner to face the first ball, and why?
I always liked to take the first ball. I remember Sunil Gavaskar once said that early in the match, bowlers are not ready and are less likely to bowl a wicket-taking ball. So, if you take the first strike, you can get off the mark and cross the first hurdle. That stayed with me, and I was actually very happy to play the first ball. Secondly, when you begin to open regularly, you tend to get fidgety if you are made to wait for too long. That's why I always wanted to play the first ball. I liked the fact that no matter what, I am the one facing the first ball and setting things in motion. I never had to immediately ponder over how my partner was batting or how the bowler was bowling.
The only time I didn't take the first strike was on my first-class debut because I was told that I will be dropped after the match. There were so many established names in the dressing room that Raman Lamba had to drop himself to give me an opportunity. So I thought I will have to make it count somehow because I am not getting any other chance in the near future. Also, in the previous season, I was dropped without getting a game. So I asked my partner to take the first ball as I didn't want to get out early.
What was your thought process before you went out to bat? Did you think of the opposition, the bowlers, or would you blank yourself out?
My thought processes evolved over a period of time. When we begin, we start out with a certain mindset, but as you play longer and get older, certain impressions are formed and your thought process changes. The preparations actually start a day before the match. You go to the ground, observe the pitch, visualise your batting, and tell yourself these are the shots you are not going to play, and these are the ones that you will play.
You think of the bowlers you'll be facing, you stand at the crease, or sit near the pitch...you do a bit of shadow practice of leaving the ball, and then anticipating a full ball that you would drive. These are the things that batsmen generally do throughout their careers. Also, you keep reminding yourself to play the ball on its merit. Not a lot of thinking beyond that. You've got certain thoughts that are based on the evaluations of the things you've seen so far, and then try to react to the ball and allow your instincts to take over. One basic thing that I learned over a period of time and did it was visualising what worked for me and what didn't on that particular surface.
Things, however, are slightly different when you're going through a bad phase. It's natural to overthink about your head position, your stance, and so on. When in form, you are in a very happy space. You are absolutely oblivious to any thoughts and you simply pad up happily and start playing.
When you are going through a bad patch, it is natural to have too many thoughts. How does one manage to hit the right balance of confidence and caution in the head?
I would be lying if I say I found the perfect balance. I discussed this with a number of people in my career, and one chat with Sridharan Sriram stayed with me. He told me, 'Don't fight with your thoughts.' He advised me to start observing such thoughts as a spectator. The moment you start challenging them or engaging with them, they stay longer. You think you're pushing them away, but when you attend to a thought, you end up giving it more power. Even the basic intent of replacing a negative thought with a positive thought involves dealing with the negatives, and that makes them last longer.
It is better to be an observer and let them pass, and believe me, they do away quicker than you expect. That is something I tried doing, but could not master. There were times when self-doubts would come in, you would think of getting dropped and so on, but difficult as it is, the trick is to not attend to such thought and look to be 'thought-neutral.' The funny bit is, these thoughts go away when you let them stay.
You spoke about the process of visualisation that, in your case, began a day before the match. Did you always visualise the same set of scenarios or was it an organic process?
It is difficult to tell. Over a period of time, you begin to understand your game a lot more, and once you understand the game, who you are playing doesn't matter beyond a point. Each bowler has an outswinger, inswinger, yorker, bouncer, off-cutter, or leg-cutter, and you are trained to respond to all these deliveries. Your instincts take over once the ball is released. Once the ball has left the bowler, it doesn't matter who has released it. It could be Wasim Akram or anyone else, all you do is just react to the ball.
My visualisation process was always about knowing my game. I knew if my head is not falling, I am in a good space. If I am playing straight and not across the line, I'll be more or less sorted. Those are things that you tend you visualise. Then, you also visualise the bowler you'll be facing. You know a certain bowler will bring the ball in or out, so you prepare accordingly. The process becomes a part of your system and you stop thinking about it completely. You tend to do a lot of things at a subconscious level without dwelling over them on purpose.
Wasim Akram has gone on record saying that he would observe the body language of the batsman as he walked in, and if he saw that the batsman was perhaps not too confident, he knew he could dominate him. As a batsman, when you walk out to the pitch, do you need to put on a certain mask to give a perception of confidence, even though you may not feel exactly the same way?
Well, fake it till you make it. You cannot be 100 percent confident of how things will turn out every time you walk out to bat, but what helps is a routine. If there's a routine you follow and you have a habit that you've built over time, you will go through the same process irrespective.
So I will run out to the field no matter how good or bad my form is. My walk will never change. That is something that I developed unintentionally. There are certain things that are cast in stone. So I run in, shut my eyes and look into the sun, I'll do my drill of taking the guard, scratching the crease and so on. There's no way my body language will give away what is going inside my head. I could be fighting a storm, or I could be as calm as Buddha, but my body language would not give away an inch.
Taking guard is the first basic step that a batsman does when he is at the crease. Do batsmen stick to a uniform middle-stump guard, or does it differ according to your game?
It differs. To each his own. Personally, I always took a leg-stump guard. I stood on leg stump and then shuffle a bit with a back and across movement. But that was my way, and everyone does it depending on what suits them best. I was a predominantly off-side player, so I wanted to open up that side a bit. If I had preferred the leg-side, I'd have stood on the middle stump because that opens up the leg-side a lot more.
I don't think people change their guard in the middle of the innings, at least I never did. My guard was sacrosanct. It was always leg-stump. It was important for me to draw a straight line at the crease to know where my toes were so that my front toe was never going ahead of the back toe because that would mean the body would close a little too much.
Let's talk about stance. How do you distribute your weight? What should be the head position be like and how open should the stance be?
Ideally, the width of the feet should be the same as the width of your shoulders. If the feet are wider than the shoulder width, you are compromising on mobility, but enhancing stability. If the feet are too close to each other, you'll be more mobile but less stable at the crease.
Look at boxers. They keep their feet narrow because they need to be very mobile. If the stance is too wide, you pretty much can't go back or forward because of the base that you've created. An ideal stance is somewhere in between.
The weight of the body should be on the balls of the feet; this is fundamental to giving balance to your body. Both your feet should be equally loaded to give you the freedom to move either forward or back. If the weight is on toes or beyond, you'll fall over; if it is on heels, you'll go back. I followed a principle that your knee should be slightly flexed, but not flexed to the point that they are going beyond your toes. That means you are not crouching too much.
For head, if you were to stand in your stance and look at the point region, and then you look down, your head should not be outside your toes. It should be within your body, and if you do that, you'll find yourself in a perfect side-on position.
The opening up of the stance depends on the kind of bowler you are facing. If you are a right-handed batsman facing a left-arm bowler, of course, you'll have to open up a little, but you don't open up too much. You open up your legs a little, but not much of your upper body. The moment you open up your upper body, you end up compromising your movement outside the off-stump. Then, the bat also starts coming down at an angle.
If you are a right-hander batting against a right-arm bowler bowling over the wicket or a left-hand bowler coming round the stumps, the umpire should not be able to see much of your right shoulder. If he is able to see both your shoulders completely, there's a problem. And if the umpire is able to see your right hip or even left hip too much, that means you've closed your stance a bit too much.
A number of times the batsmen get out LBW not so much because of the ball, but due to a wrong head position. Just how important is the head position?
Head is the heaviest part of the body, so wherever the head goes, your feet follow. If the head starts to fall, it doesn't really matter how perfectly you have distributed your weight on the feet. How do you know your head is falling? The trick is simple. If you are standing in your stance and your head is outside your toes when you look down, it means your head is falling. If it goes outside your body, the front leg is obliged to go across because it has to follow the head's path.
If the head goes towards point instead of going towards the ball, the front foot will also not go towards the ball or the bowler but will instead go towards covers. The moment you do that, you have started a chain reaction. Whatever happens after that is just a by-product. Once the head has fallen, the front foot goes across. No matter how your bat has come down, it will have to create another loop to go in front of your front leg, because your front leg is now blocking the straight path between bat and ball. So you go around the front leg, and you are a leg-before candidate to the ball that comes back in.
Sunil Gavaskar has previously said that he would imagine his head against an imaginary wall to keep it still, and while in his stance, he would look at the off-stump from the corner of his right eye. That was one of his methods to know where his off-stump is. How does one develop an awareness of where his/her off-stump is?
See generally, wherever you think where your head is, is where your off-stump is. You should be able to leave anything outside the line of your head. Ideally, when you've made your trigger movement, your head should finish on top of your off-stump. If it is finishing outside the off-stump, you'll end up playing the deliveries that you should be leaving alone. One way of actually ensuring that your head doesn't go out too much is to keep your head close to your left shoulder (if you are a right-handed batsman). If you are able to tuck your head in close to your left shoulder, it is highly unlikely that your head will fall, unless of course, your trigger movement takes your head outside the off-stump.
A lot of time we hear experts say that a particular batsman is bringing the bat down from over the slip cordon, or from the gully region. Then, there are certain batsmen who keep their bat very straight and it seems to come from right over the wicketkeeper. Is there an ideal way to model your backlift or batswing?
Ideally, if the bat comes from between off-stump and first slip, you are fine. Where you lift the bat is not as important as where the bat is coming down from. You could lift the bat from the point, for example, but you will have to cover that whole loop and come down from almost on top of the off-stump. The wider you go, the bigger the loop becomes at the top of your backlift; so before your downswing begins, you have to cover the journey from third slip, second slip, first slip and then bring the bat down. That is something that should be avoided, but the key is how quickly and how straight your bat comes down.
Rahul Dravid's bat came down in a loop too, but his success in all conditions proves that you can make that loop, but the timing of bringing the bat down has to be right. You can't be late doing that.
A lot of batsmen these days stand outside the crease to negate swing, but traditionally, it is said to play as late as possible in swinging conditions. What do you make of it?
I don't see a harm in doing that, because you are changing the length. The fuller the ball, the more is it likely to swing. When you stand outside, you end up shortening the length. The moment you shorten the length, the swing starts disappearing. Personally, I actually recommend this approach. If the pitch is on the slower side, please try standing outside the crease because it does help to shorten the length, and it may end up upsetting the length of the bowler.
Let's talk about the act of watching the ball. Batsmen look at the bowler's hand to gauge what he is trying to do, but what actually are you looking at - seam, shine, fingers, wrist, or something else?
As an opener, you can't see the shine when the ball is new. Eventually, the shine becomes visible, and I would say it is a definite clue. It tells you if an outswinger has been attempted; whether it actually swings is a different matter again. But it still allows you to be in a slightly better position to play. So shine is something that you should see.
You look at the wrist, for sure. It gives you a fair idea of where the ball will go. You definitely try and see the seam, because the position of the seam again tells a few things about the kind of delivery attempted. These are some of the visual clues that a bowler has to give away, and if you can process this information into something concrete, it allows you to be ready with a better response.
Thing is, the brain has to process all this information is less than half a second...
That's the interesting thing, isn't it? We underestimate what our brain can do. The brain can process all of that because you've done that drill thousands of times. Once you've done that, your brain automatically tells you a number of things. You see the bowler going wide of the crease and you kind of know what he is trying to do. The brain tells you, 'Look, he is showing he will bowl an inswinger but he will bowl an outswinger, so stay ready. He is going to pitch it fuller, slightly wider. Don't flash.' By the time I am actually saying this, the ball has been bowled already. So you see how the brain works...the body just reacts. That's how you actually play 145 kmph, otherwise, it is impossible for your brain to think, process, and then come to a decision that this is the best possible option.
You've played league cricket in England. As a sub-continent batsman, what adjustments are needed to play in damp, swinging conditions such as those in England?
I learned a few very important things playing league and club cricket in England. One is, you ought to stay on the front foot quite a bit because everybody will look to bowl fuller to extract swing. So do not compromise on your front foot stride. Then, don't go fishing. Play as close to the body as possible.
Also, you have to become very circumspect, almost suspicious in nature. What I mean by that is you should always expect the ball to do something. No ball is a straight ball unless it is a straight ball. Expect the ball to move. Once you expect the ball to move, you won't play on the up, you will not flash outside the off stump, you will play close to the body...basically, react appropriately. If you think it is a straight ball and it moves late, you won't have any recourse. On the contrary, if you expect a moving ball and it comes straight, you will be fine.
When I say expect the ball to move, I do not mean you commit yourself to playing an away swinger, for example. Everyone knows that James Anderson bowls a lot of outswingers, so you are expecting that, but Anderson can also bring the ball in or get one to hold its line. So you expect an away swinger, but be ready to play anything.
The trick again is in watching the hand closely. There is no way for even a bowler like Anderson to not tell you that he is bringing a bowl in, because if not the wrist position, the seam position will definitely change. An outswinger's seam position is different from an inswinger's, as you know. Once you see that, you have to adjust. It is easier said than done though, but it is not that you don't get the clues.
What troubles the batsmen more are the cutters - the deliveries that move after pitching. There are very little giveaways in such deliveries unless the bowler has actually pushed his fingers down and the seam is wobbly. However, there are bowlers like Mohammed Shami who always release with an upright seam, but the ball moves either way after pitching. But as far as swing bowlers are concerned, I think they give enough hints at the point of release.
We know footwork is very important, but do you feel it is overrated at times? A Test opener like Virender Sehwag clearly believed that and one can look at the success he has had outside the sub-continent.
I kind of agree with Viru's approach. Let's be honest, you cannot take a metre-long stride against Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar. But then, is standing completely still on the crease without going forward, backward, or at least across a better proposition? I don't think so either. Forget Viru; he was a maverick. Only Viru could do what he did, but for other batsmen, to get the body in the right position, you need to move a little. That movement need not be exaggerated, but that movement has to be there and should not be underrated. That little movement doesn't take you any closer to the ball or stumps, but it is required to make sure you eventually end up in the right position.
If you look to play the ball without moving at all, you end up opening up all the time. Even Viru, who apparently didn't move, actually did move just a little bit. Everybody has to move; this movement could be very minimal or slightly exaggerated, but there has to be a movement.
What do we mean when we say a particular batsman has more time to play a shot? Is it an illusion, or do certain players actually feel that they have an extra millisecond to play the ball?
Having more time to play the ball is a function of picking the ball early. When the ball has left the bowler's hand, you know that a fraction earlier than the rest that this is where it is going to land. Then, with a lot of these guys who give an impression of having extra time to play the ball, you'll see that they have lesser feet movement. That gives you an illusion of time of sorts. It's the same with VVS Laxman, Rohit Sharma, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and so on.
The thing with these players is that even with minimal movement, they tend to get their bodies in the right position. Rohit does that, but for Virat Kohli to get in the right position, he has to move a little more. It is not that Kohli has any less time or he is hurried when the ball is quick, but he doesn't give the impression that he has extra time to play a ball. When Rohit gives the impression that he has extra time, it doesn't mean that he actually has it. It is the illusion created by minimal movement at the crease.
As an opener, you get your fair share of bouncers. Do you think batsmen get hit because of pace, or because of the wrong technique?
Pace, by itself, doesn't hit you. It's the misjudgment of bounce or pace. If you misjudge, there will always be high chances of you getting hit, but you don't get hit just because the guy is rapid. The idea to deal with bouncers is to create a very solid defensive technique.
Bouncers are difficult to handle on pitches that are untrustworthy. On such tracks, judging the bounce and pace becomes difficult, and that's where the problem arises. On such pitches, if the bowler has extra pace, it becomes another issue because it tends to cloud your judgment. Imagine you are playing on a Ferozshah Kotla pitch where the ball doesn't bounce, and you have a Shoaib Akhtar to deal with. He bowls a ball short enough to be a bouncer and for you to duck, but the moment you duck, you realise the ball has not risen enough. What do you do? You have nowhere to go. Once you have taken that decision, there's no way you can abort and do something else.
Playing bouncers on pitches that have true bounce is easier, but to do that on slightly slower, lower, sub-continental pitches, it becomes difficult to always avoid it or play successfully and confidently.
So, is it better to sway rather than duck a bouncer?
I would not say so. Certainly, not always. Swaying is great. You have to stay side-on while swaying because the moment you open yourself up, you have nowhere to go. Staying side-on while playing a short ball is important when you are looking to play defensively. Having said that, ducking is not a bad choice either. In fact, it is an excellent option on certain tracks. When Lee digs in short in Australia, you can simply get down because you know it will go above you. You can do that at the Wankhede track in Mumbai, where you know that from a certain length, balls will sail over.
Ducking nullifies the chances of what might happen if the ball moves after pitching. What will you do if you sway but the ball follows you? Of course, you are watching the ball all the time, so you'll drop your wrists and won't get out, but you may get in an awkward position. Comparatively, ducking is a good option if you are comfortable with the pace and bounce of the pitch because it keeps you out of harm's way.
Virat Kohli has often spoken about how he looks to be aggressive even while defending. What exactly is that approach?
An aggressive mindset is basically being decisive. It means you are getting on the front foot and your body weight is not hanging back. Imagine you are looking to play a bouncer defensively. Now, if you go back in the crease way before the ball has arrived, you have no recourse. You cannot get out of that position because you have planted yourself on the backfoot. The only way you can get on the front foot is to unload your back foot and transfer your body weight on the front foot, and then come back on the backfoot. This loading-unloading exercise takes time, and you don't have time at the crease.
On the contrary, if you are on the front foot while playing a short ball, your back foot is still free. You go towards the ball with your loaded front leg, and since your back leg is free, if you want to go back and defend, you can. Instead, if you plant yourself on the backfoot way before, you are a sitting duck. Then, you can only crouch further or collapse, and when you collapse, you are in a very bad position. You will end up scooping the ball. This happens because while crouching, you are actually reducing your height and getting under the ball, that too in a very awkward position. Your front shoulder gets higher than your back shoulder, and you are pretty much done.
Defence is obviously an important aspect of batting, but do you think it is appreciated enough? The likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Faf du Plessis are not spoken about in the same breath as a Virat Kohli or Steve Smith.
If you look at Virat Kohli, he has a fairly decent defensive technique. If you play 100 balls in a day of a Test match, how many balls do you actually score off? I would say you'll play at least 70 balls defensively, and to do that properly, you have to have a good technique. You'll have to know how to leave balls, play balls without scoring and not get out. There cannot be more than 30 scoring shots out of the 100 balls you face, generally speaking. So I do think the way you play those 70 balls need to be appreciated enough. It is just that, those 70 balls are a zero-sum return. You have played well defensively, but the scoreboard hasn't moved, you are still there, nothing practically has changed. So yes, it is not appreciated beyond a point.
It is just means to an end, and the end is to score runs. Those dot balls should allow you to score, and when Kohli scores those runs, he is appreciated. When Pujara scores those runs, he is appreciated too. This game is only about scoring runs, and playing a defensive shot allows you to play an aggressive shot and score. Like I said, defence is a means to an end.
Brian Lara once said that when he was in form, he would not look at the fielders but at the gaps between them. Does that actually happen?
Yes, it does. It happens automatically. It is a happy, comfortable space to be in. You feel invincible. You feel you cannot be dismissed. You are the boss. That is a very heady feeling, and you like to replicate that feeling as much as you can, but it is not that easy to manufacture. It comes and goes.
Batsmen often talk about being in a zone. How do you define it?
Being in the zone is when you are not thinking anything. You just allow your body to react. There are no thoughts whatsoever. That is a difficult thing to achieve on a regular basis, but when you achieve that space, your life at the crease becomes very easy. You are just seeing the ball and playing the ball, simple.
Not that you are not thinking anything at all; you think of the team and the score and so on, but when you are batting, you are so comfortable in your skin that you're not thinking about what you are doing. It's like mentally you are at the other end when the bowler is delivering the ball - you are so relaxed. You are absolutely in control of your response.
When you are going through a bad patch, you are constantly thinking of your response - this is how I will play, this is what I'll do - without realising that your response actually depends on what the bowler decides to do. You cannot decide to play a drive when the bowler decides to bowl a bouncer.
You are now a social media personality. How do you deal with people who take a dig at your modest international record? Not many realise that you've scored over 10,000 first-class runs, won Ranji Trophy, and have a triple ton to your name.
It is absolutely fine, man. If someone wants to recognise my batting or appreciate it, or if someone doesn't want to do it, it's all that individual's choice, and I am completely comfortable with that because I am not looking for validation. I played the game at the highest level because I enjoyed it. I will always be the 245th cricketer who played for India. What happened after that...that has already happened and none of us have any control over it. Nothing can change the number of runs I scored at the first-class level or at the Test level. Since no one has any control over the past, why bother about it?
I don't get frustrated when nameless, faceless trolls say nasty things. It has stopped bothering me, honestly. Something that I realised very early in my broadcasting career is that since I haven't played 100 Test matches, I cannot simply pass off my opinions as facts. I need to back what I say with data, numbers, and solid facts. More than people targeting me for my international record, what affects me more is if they have a problem with my analysis because that is something I am in control of.
Once Moeen Ali had an issue with my analysis and he took a dig at me on social media, saying I didn't score enough runs. I was very happy that day because to counter my analysis, all he could do was to point at my international career, and the two are completely unrelated. He obviously had no answer to my analysis where I said that he has a suspect technique against the short ball. I am not saying I have been validated, but he has got out to short ball a few times. Had Tendulkar asked Ramakant Achrekar how much cricket have you played, his life would've turned out completely different, isn't it? It is like we questioning the state of roads, and someone turning up and saying, 'But what do you know about road construction?' So yeah, I am fine with what people say; they have the liberty to do that and it honestly doesn't bother me.
At the beginning of this interview, you told me that you started off as someone who played a lot of strokes before you got pigeonholed as a certain type of batsman. What gave you more joy then, a good square cut, a good leave, or a perfect forward defence?
Actually, a good cover drive. My first first-class run was a boundary driven through covers. It came on the first ball I faced in my first-class career. It is one stroke that I always relished, and it is very close to my heart. A good cover drive would always give me a lot of pleasure, and I ended up playing a lot of them as well. The fact is, that phase or part of my life where I used to play a lot of strokes was never covered by television, so not many people know that I had an aggressive game too. I hit enough sixes and big shots in List A cricket to be very happy about myself.
Any advice you'd like to give to young cricketers?
Don't get obsessed with goals and ambitions. That is something I learned quite late in my career. We start playing the game for a reason, and that reason is very pure. The purity of that act lies in the sound of the bat hitting the ball, but over a period of time, it starts fading away. You start focussing on the number of runs you've scored, selections, the next step, and so on. Your cricket then becomes the means to an end, but it is not that. Cricket is the end, not the means. Don't let the joy go away. The moment you become too process-driven, the fun gets sucked out of your game. That should not happen.
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