Modern batting and the gift of fearlessness
While commentating on the final of the Big Bash on Sunday evening, Mark Waugh said something that caught both ear and eye. It came after one of the other commentators suggested there was a hint of Brian Lara in Usman Khawaja's approach, and that even Lara couldn't play much better than Khawaja in present form. Though not an exact quotation, Waugh said something like: "Khawaja is batting better than Lara, better than anyone probably, now or at any time. He has to be, because you can't bat any better than this."
Waugh's not given to hyperbole. In fact, the dryness in him leads to a suspicion that he envies modern batsmen for the pitches they play on and the bowlers they face. His exaggerated point is worthwhile. Of course, he wasn't saying Khawaja is Bradman or Richards or Tendulkar or Lara. Instead, he was pointing out that right at that moment even the greatest in history would have been hard pushed to match him. High-class batsmen have streaks like this; Waugh had the odd one himself. During them, all things are possible. This is the state of a Zen mind invaded only by confidence and not yet touched by hubris.
Batting is moving so fast it is hard to predict what comes next. Beyond all things - such as bats, balls, pitches, bowling and boundaries - it is self and ambition that have changed most. The nature of cricket has always led to one inherent fear: the fear of failure. T20 all but eliminates this, certainly for those who are sure of their place in the team. It is near impossible to be bowled out in 20 overs and therefore the licence and expectation are very different.
A couple of years back Kevin Pietersen and I were talking about risk. Well, I was. He just laughed. He said I was missing the point and that he didn't care about getting out, only that he had given himself the main chance. He alluded to this again prior to the final the other night, when asked how he thought it would go. His reply went something like: "As long as we prepare well and play to our ability, the result will take care of itself. Either way, the sun will come up in the morning." Laissez-faire!
The batsmen of the age weigh up myriad different options from those of the past. When Viv Richards first hit balls from outside off stump through midwicket and Barry Richards backed away to leg and drove over cover, they drew gasps of admiration. He who dares… Nowadays if you bat at eight and can't hit over cover, you're not good enough. Over cover is a starting point. The zeitgeist is a straight half-volley over the third man.
Fearlessness is a beautiful gift, especially when used within clear thinking. Imagine the parameters. "Do I, don't I?" becomes "Where next?" When once a run a ball was the holy grail, two a ball has become an acceptable, if challenging, ambition.
Khawaja set about the Melbourne Stars attack utterly fearlessly. During the first half of his match-winning innings, he scored off every ball. Mainly in boundaries. One early six over mid-off was a perfect moment in sport. Head, hands and eye joined as one with balance, timing and power to send the ball soaring into the night sky, straight and far as an arrow. It was a thing of beauty. Mesmeric in its execution and effect.
The power is worth exploring. Khawaja's power is not Chris Gayle's power. They are at opposite ends of the power spectrum - think David Gower and Ian Botham. Pietersen is somewhere in between. Khawaja's power is almost subliminal in that it dawns on you as the ball disappears into the ether. Gayle's power is evident from the minute he takes guard. Gayle is a huge man and brutal. David Warner is a munchkin by comparison but immensely powerful too. Warner is just damned strong. And a bit brutal.
The two great innovators, AB de Villiers and Glenn Maxwell, have a brutality in the way they crush the mind of the opponent, but it is the originality in their strokeplay that creates the unmissable theatre. All these batsmen are the inspiration of the next generation. It was ever thus but at a more gentle pace and with the coaching book to hand.
The night before the Big Bash final, India chased down 331 to beat Australia at the SCG. Rohit Sharma led the way, as he has done all series for his team. In fact, he, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli had played pretty much on their own in the preceding matches. Ajinkya Rahane helped a bit. Then Manish Pandey and MS Dhoni got involved and all of a sudden, Eureka! A win. It is easier playing Australia with five men than with three.
Rohit is a remarkable batsman. He makes the game look a trifle. You'd bet Mark Waugh likes him too. Rohit's power is unhurried and graceful. Dhawan's batting is contemptuous and riveting but made inconsistent by hubris. Kohli is all prizefighter: a physical lightweight - middleweight maybe - more than able to mash the heavyweights.
None of them seem to fear a damn thing. Until it gets close. Then you can smell the fear. Kohli had the game in his grasp in Canberra but let it slip when things got squeaky at the other end. The greatest fearless innings must be Dhoni's in the 2011 World Cup final. Very few start the job and finish it too. Those that do are gold.
It took years for batting to evolve. Then helmets, international one-day cricket and a sudden burst of opportunity in equipment rushed it along. Clive Lloyd and Graeme Pollock used three-pounders. Fifty-over cricket found a batting method separated from the long form. Indifferent players of fast bowling became bravehearts.
In England the 40-over game - the Sunday League - was the T20 of the late sixties and lasted with true relevance until the early 1990s. Goodness knows for how long T20 will drive the game forward. The key to cricket's future is to not let it ride roughshod. A blend of T20 and Test match cricket - slightly reworked - has great promise. The context of the 50- over game needs a reshuffle but the format has a heartbeat that bridges the gap perfectly.
Back to Khawaja. The essence of cricket's appeal is in its level of skill and moments of high drama. Khawaja has given us both this Australian summer, within a structured technique and natural elegance. He is a beacon of hope for stylists and artistry.
Can ball survive the heady advance of bat? What is there for the other side of the coin? Limit bat size at where we are now, push back boundaries, give the ball a proper seam and let bowlers do with it as they wish. All of these are easier than "organising" pitches, which is a far more subjective initiative and open to abuse. The challenge for cricket is to keep everybody moving forward together, reflecting, as far as possible, the times in which we live. That way Khawaja and others really can remain comparable with anyone, of any age, because they will have driven the force of change with their own imagination.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK