Virat Kohli was born on the fifth of November 1988, Joe Root on the 30th of December 1990. Between those dates Kane Williamson and Steven Smith also entered the world. When they all appeared almost at once, they dethroned AB de Villiers; Hashim Amla was an afterthought. Since the start of 2013 they are the top four run-scorers in all international cricket, with 34,876 runs and 97 international hundreds between them. They are the big four. This summer I saw all four of them live.
Kane Williamson waits for the ball. He is waiting after backing away and clearing his front leg. He wants to smash the ball, he is fully committed, but when the ball isn't where he needs it to be, he just waits and then plays a back-up safety shot. Every cricketer is told to watch the ball, but most only casually look at it, or they look in its area, or they see signs from the bowler that let them know roughly where it is going to bounce and play from there. Williamson watches the ball from the hand until his bat obscures it, meaning that he hits it later and more under his eyes than other players. There is no waiting or lunging; it is zen batting.
It isn't as sexy as Martin Guptill's timing or Corey Anderson's power, but it means that few things can go wrong with Williamson. If your basic strength is that you watch the ball longer than other people, you're ahead of the game to start with. But Williamson combines playing the ball late with an eerily textbook technique. There are times when he plays a shot and you feel like you are watching the Test match batsman from Subbuteo Cricket play a drive. And no matter what the shot, even a six off a rampaging Pat Cummins when batting with the tail to ice the game, there is no ego. The game situation, the bowlers, the conditions, might dictate what he does, but they don't seem to affect him like they do other players. His batting is like a robotic liquid that instantly bends and contorts to whatever space it is in, without you ever truly noticing it has changed. When he's out, it's like a systemic failure, not just one person's error.
"If batting is code, then Smith is a hacker. He understands how it is supposed to work, but his real skill is bending it to how he works"
Williamson's method is the simplest to follow. There are few moving parts; he waits for the ball. If he premeditates, he has a safety fallback position, and all of his risks are calculated seemingly well in advance of the bowler starting his run-up. When he was born, the waters broke, his mother screamed, but he came out smiling, shook hands with the doctor, cut his own cord, went off to find milk and a bouquet of flowers for his mum.
The ball doesn't come off Steve Smith's bat right. I don't know how to explain this, but it's like his bat is a rubber mallet and he's hitting a golf ball - it has this weird dull ping. And as the ball goes away, it seems to get quicker, not slower, the longer it travels. Inside the ring, it's a well-clipped single; by the time it gets to the boundary, it's roaring away. Now all of this might be an optical illusion. Smith's bat is probably made of wood because of MCC laws, and science will suggest that the maximum velocity of his shot will be just after he hits the ball. But with Smith, the laws of science and cricket seem to not apply.
The fields he saw when he arrived couldn't have been weirder had they been set for an alien with mandibles, dreadlocks, a yellowish hide, a large multi-spiked blade for a tail, and luminescent green acidic blood. New Zealand tried three leg-side catchers, straight leg gully and twin short midwickets. Bangladesh tried a leg gully and catching short point. England tried versions of both of them. Because slips don't seem to worry Smith when he spends most of his time standing in front of them playing the ball to the leg side.
If batting is code, then Smith is a hacker. He understands how it is supposed to work, but his real skill is bending it to how he works. How can you keep pressure on someone when they hit the ball where they want to every single time? If you can, with seemingly no risk, hit the ball to any part of the field, if you can take standard catching fielders out of the equation, if you can believe in yourself to bring an untested and ridiculed technique to the top of cricket, you can probably do anything.
If a young girl turned up in the nets of some regional cricket team and fussed around with her gear, walked across her stumps, played with open and closed faces and predetermined where almost every ball was going to be sent, the coaches would probably decide she needed to be trained out of it. What Smith does is an affront to everything we are taught, to the aesthetics of what we see as the art of batting, and - whether many of us admit it or not - it is something we are still expecting to fail. Smith doesn't seem to think about much more than making his next run.
Joe Root is jogging a single. If you've watched ODI cricket over the last few years, you'll have seen this a lot. Root jogs through singles a lot. Maybe you notice it more because his running style is so shaggy dog, he moves with the pace of someone who is athletically gifted, but he runs like a four-year-old boy still learning how to sprint. Even his jogging style is a bit weird, like his shoulders and hips are competing rather than in alignment. But maybe I have just spent so much time watching him go from end to end that I've started to overanalyse every part of it.
"When you bowl to Kohli, you are bowling not to the man who may become king, but to the man who thinks he is king"
There has been no batsman in ODI cricket who has run more singles than Root since the start of 2013. Or twos. Some have scored more runs, and others have played more innings, but no one has run more. People say Root is already on (insert middling surprising score here) and you haven't even noticed him yet. Because while you're waiting for some big-hitting buffoon to hit a boundary every six or so balls, Root has already scored at roughly the same rate and is leaning on his bat, hand on his hip, at the other end, wearing a vest on a hot day. And while many players pushing for extra legged runs get run out a lot, Root doesn't. In all those runs he has been run out only four times, fewer than Williamson and Kohli.
Part of the reason is, so many of his singles or twos are not through hurrying and pushing it like David Warner, but by the kind of preternatural timing and placement that only the special few ever achieve. Most of the greats have the ability to memorise the field down to a few feet, and control of the bat face and spatial awareness to find the gaps through them. Root seems to have it down to a few millimetres. The only top-order player in the world who faces fewer dot balls than him in ODIs is de Villiers, and that's because de Villiers really goes for every ball.
If we were to a make a fantasy situation where Root was facing Joel Garner at one end with a new ball, Wasim Akram with a reversing old one at the other, and there was an entire nine-man ring field made of Jonty Rhodes clones, somehow Root would find the gap in the field to take a single at get up the other end. For most of England's ODI innings, Root is standing at the non-striker's end.
You don't bowl at Virat Kohli's stumps. When Wahab Riaz, bowling about as quick as he could, tried to get a leg-stump yorker in, it wasn't a horrible ball, and yet by just being bowled at the stumps, it was useless. Kohli is not the first to play across the line successfully. Trumper, Bradman, Viv and KP have all done it, but they also went out lbw or bowled a lot. In ODIs since the big four took over, Kohli has been lbw three times and bowled only five. If Kohli is king, his stumps are his castle.
There is an extra arrogance to players who play from the stumps. In just playing that way they are essentially goading the bowlers into trying to bowl them out, like a bullfighter with a cape or a boxer with his hands down. They want you to come at them, to feed them, and they are mocking you. It also often hides other flaws they have. Kohli still seems, despite his incredible record, despite him batting as if cricket was invented for him to arrive and conquer, to be weak outside off stump. It's something he has worked on. When the English targeted him outside off stump, he changed his technique to counter it. When limited-overs teams started bowling full and wide, he developed a new grip to destroy it.
He did this because he is a professional. If batting has seemed like an art form at times from Indians, he has done everything he can to mass-produce it. His entire raison d'etre seems to be to make himself the very best he can be, the winningest winner of them all. He watches what he puts into his body as much as he watches the ball. Every single action he makes seems to be taken for him to reach his goal: not just greatness, but the greatest of the great. A perfection unknown before he came along.
His innings look as if the queen of the witches saw the future and let him know that the world will be his. He has been playing like he was a great before the rest of us even knew he existed. You can take his wicket, you can defeat his team, you can better him, but he plays cricket like he has a divine right to rule it. When you bowl to Kohli, his strengths and weaknesses are to one side, because you are playing against a zealot of his own religion. When you bowl to Kohli, you are bowling not to the man who may become king, but to the man who thinks he is king.
They are really all kings, the kings of modern batting.