Root, Kohli and art in T20 batting
In his final notes on the game, Martin Crowe talked of the worry he had once experienced about the long-term effects of T20 cricket. He was by nature a traditionalist, though, thankfully blessed with a modern mind. He recalled the first T20I ten years ago in Auckland and 30,000 people at Eden Park watching Ricky Ponting bat wonderfully well. In those recent notes Martin wrote, "Ponting, a true great, caressed the ball to all and sundry for 98 glorious runs. In the com box we wondered, and worried a touch too, about the effect this [new cricket] would have - on everything."
I thought of these words while watching two supreme innings played under almost unbearable pressure last week.
The first, by Joe Root, saw England home. The second, by Virat Kohli, did the same for India. It has been hard to celebrate batting in T20, as distinct from ball-striking, because the game is essentially about power and there is more to batting than that. The very best batsmen of all time from England and India would have been hard-pressed to bat as well as Root and Kohli did, simply because the physical and mental range of batsmen has changed so much in this last decade. This isn't to say that Walter Hammond and Sachin Tendulkar did not have the requisite talent, sure they did, just that self-expectation is very different. Almost literally, batsmen now think anything is possible. T20 has removed doubt in a way that has improved cricket in general.
I never agreed that nerves were a good thing. You cannot be tight to be at your best. You need to be loose of shoulders, arms and hands to bat freely, and you need to be loose of mind to think clearly. Crowe described a cluttered mind as "traffic" and said traffic gives you no chance. Nerves, doubts, fear all provide potential for failure in my eyes.
Though the shortest form of the game lacks the opportunity for colourful or in-depth storytelling, it has expanded the reach of batsmen who no longer fear the loss of their wicket. They play outrageous shots that can hardly be explained by words - having said that, it would be fascinating to hear or read Arlott, McGilvray, Mukherjee, Cardus or CLR James have a go - and often perish because of the outrageousness of their ambition.
The beauty, the sting, in the situations in which Root and Kohli found themselves was that their wicket mattered just enough for them to have play within some parameters. To crystallise: both teams were all but out of the tournament if they lost. The cold facts tell us that Root made 83 from 44 balls in pulling off the second highest chase in T20 history. What they don't do is tell how.
Here is how. He scored from 41 of the balls he faced, many of which were singles. These dissolve dressing-room tension because they give the impression of the game moving along. He hit four sixes. These bring dugout ecstasy. He had never previously hit more than two in an international T20 knock. The rest of the time he hit the ball along the ground, into gaps, which suggest he is finding it easy and allows the next man in to see the light. On the odd occasion that a boundary came from an aerial route, it was done so as a deliberate up and over - witness the shot of the innings for me, the upper cut for a one-bounce four over backward point. This led to a group of team-mates leaping from their seats, applauding wildly and then gawping as if in awe of their buddy.
Joe the Lion punched the gloves of the men with whom he batted: this suggests we are all in it together. He kept smiling: this gives the lads an idea that things are fine. He bats with purpose. He bats with poise. You watch him and think he has got this thing covered. You are amazed when he is out - like, what, really? He even played that reverse-ramp thing that sent him back to the pavilion at Lord's in an Ashes Test, wait for it, for 180. This time, three years on, it added another half-dozen to his total. Root played a beautiful innings and a brilliant innings. He showed himself to be both complete and replete. He knew this too, because he later called the innings the best he had played in T20.
Kohli made 55 in 37 balls, which might not sound much but it spared blushes. At 23 for 3, India were not the horse to back. Root played the role of diamond geezer on a belter of batting pitch. Kohli found his gem on a deck that was dry and slow and turned. Worse, the ball stuck in the surface, saying to batsmen: come get me if you dare. The pitch was a temptress and not to be trusted. He reined his exhibitionist instincts and instead ran like the wind between the wickets for 19 singles and a two. Later he scored back-to-back boundaries through extra cover off Shahid Afridi, the shots of the day, both elegant and crushing - one punched with the straightest bat, the other flayed with a flat bat and the most powerful wrists in the game.
After the last of the January short-format matches in Australia, Ian Healy said Kohli was the best batsman he had seen. This was neither tongue in cheek nor literal. It was a teaser, an alert. His point is that Kohli is that good - orthodox, effervescent, cocky and hungry. This is the must-watch Indian batsman of the moment, an irresistible force, and he follows a great line.
Healy might have added that Kohli is the master of the chase. No one better, not close. He averages 83 in pursuit of the enemy, close to double his nearest challenger, who is MS Dhoni. That is Bradman stuff, almost doubling the next man. While maintaining 83 runs per innings, he strikes at 130 per 100 balls and has made nine scores of 50-plus in 18 innings. Bradman would have loved the stats, complimenting the sense Kohli gives us of a primal hunter defending his territory.
It is a tragedy that Crowe is not with us. It is a shame he did not see these innings. While we can all watch aghast at Chris Gayle's muscled blows and Martin Guptill's explosive opening acts, they do not linger - at least not for me - as pieces of art. Contemporary batting was waiting for these translations of the textbook. They are a reminder that good technique is relevant and adaptable. Perhaps Root and Kohli have given us the paradigm shift of batting. Perhaps attaching attack to defence has done a 360-degree turn. Perhaps now the skill is attaching defence to attack and applying it to short periods of batting during which survival matters but at relatively little cost.
As these games rush by, leaving only faint impressions, it will be the ability to bat successfully at crucial moments that remain with us. If that achievement comes with the beauty that first ignited our senses, we will begin to see how T20's future can enhance the landscape and touch not just the young and impatient but the old and supposedly wise too.
Back to those final stimulations from Crowe: "Young children were watching, transfixed to the exciting energy... The future of cricket far into the night is safe and sound... T20 created a wave and no one has got off the ride that might well have to sustain the game eternally. With a tweak here and a tweak there..." And he signed off for the last time. Some of those tweaks are the player's responsibility. One of them was made by two young batsmen who proved that cricket in all its guises can satisfy purists and pretenders alike.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK