What I've loved about the first half of the IPL

The Bumrah-AB-Kohli Super Over, Tewatia's feats, Pooran's catch, and more

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Virat Kohli takes off for a single, Dehli Capitals vs Royal Challengers Bangalore, IPL 2020, Dubai, October 5, 2020

Virat Kohli realised that to bat well once again he had to let go of the pressure he was putting on himself  •  BCCI

It came home to me in the Super Over. Not the one that resulted from the Kings XI Punjab effectively drowning themselves in a sea of misadventure against the Delhi Capitals but the one when Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers had to make eight runs for the Royal Challengers Bangalore against Jasprit Bumrah's Mumbai Indians. Eight runs, pah!
These are three exceptional cricketers; in the case of the two RCB batsmen, among the best there have been, ever. Bumrah is somewhere near the height of his powers: young and fast enough to be a genuine threat, old enough to know what to do with it. That he is unorthodox is a boon for the game that needs its many interpretations.
Bumrah slipped de Villiers two decidedly slippery bouncers in their Super Over, one that shot past his nose, and one that flew from the flailing edge of his bat to the long-leg boundary. That was four of the eight right there - lucky. Kohli pulled a ball from back of a length that would have made a hole in an advertising board but picked out the fielder at deep backward square. It was a shot that, if not exactly heard around the world, changed his IPL. Later in the over he flicked an attempted yorker off his toes and the match was done and dusted. Virat and ABD were never not going to manage eight runs, but Jasprit made them think and fight tooth and nail. This drama lasted five minutes, that's all, but it was five minutes on another level. It came after Kieron Pollard's onslaught - 60 from 24 balls - gave Mumbai another even-money crack at a game they had long lost. It was kind of mad but immense fun, everyone on the edge of their seats in wonderment. The five minutes of the Super Over alone crystallised what this whole thing is about.
The IPL is surprising, stimulating and on speed. Most of the elite are here, and when they go at each other, they do so as if they are in the ring, trading blows in the name of franchises that have become an integral part of Indian life. Yes, their bank balances improve to often unimaginable levels but most take the vow and perform. What's not to like?
Kohli gets his groove back
Kohli said that pull shot was a relief, given he had barely located the middle of his bat since the tournament began. He had put too much pressure on himself, he added, the corollary of which was that he was tight and, in desperation, simply trying too hard to influence every moment of every match. One over, to be bowled by a serious opponent and in which he faced only three deliveries, reminded him to loosen up and watch the ball, only the ball. He hit the shot so well, it became a eureka moment. He hasn't looked back since.
On Saturday Kohli played one of those innings for which he is famous - the slow build and the quick strike. His way is that of the hunter and his prey knows the odds only too well. In his first 30 balls on a sluggish and two-paced pitch, he eked out 34 runs; in the next 22 he smashed 56. He never blocked and he never slogged, he just did what he does: he outplayed his opponent.
Funny how even the greats have doubts, fears even. There is something of Novak Djokovic in Kohli: in the abhorrence at anything less than the ticking of every box. Having done so, they see themselves as pre-eminent and delight in asking their opponent what he's got and how long for. On these pages four years ago, Ed Smith wrote a brilliant piece about the development of modern batting. It's a must read if the link between art and science, body and mind in the act of sporting performance is to be fully appreciated. "Kohli's investment in success is total and self-reinforcing - hard work, desire and self-belief loop back into each other," wrote Smith. "Like Djokovic, Kohli has turned his body into an agent of that self-belief; a body dedicated to a game that is dedicated to success." Smith might well have added "mind" to "body". He wrote that each man "combines fierce and literal determination with hints of mysticism - if you want something enough and commit to it sufficiently, good things will happen."
Early in the tournament, it was clear that during the long days of lockdown Kohli had driven himself to excess but had forgotten how to let go of the expectation that came from it. To bat well again, he had to let go. Put another way, he had to be free. The pull stroke off Bumrah was the key to the door of freedom.
Nicholas Pooran's miracle save
It might not have been completed in the old days because the boundary was often a picket fence, an iron railing, an advertising board, or a rope with spectators sitting on the grass beyond. I watched the 1967 Gillette Cup Final at Lord's from behind that rope and in front of the Tavern. The players of Somerset and Kent signed autographs but definitely did not go leaping into and out of the crowd to pull off the double whammy on a boundary catch. Why? Because no one had thought of it, simple. Alan Knott would surely have played the ramp and reverse had they been invented. Colin Cowdrey might not have done.
Pooran's effort was beyond brilliant. It was magical, really, causing a general dropping of the jaw and deep intakes of breath, followed by "We gotta see that again!" And again, and again. Pooran is a wonderful athlete, or contortionist should we say in this instance, and has a lovely instinct for cricket, as if the game is in his blood. Keep an eye on him with the bat by the way, there is a rare talent in this fellow.
Rahul Tewatia
…was at it once more on Sunday, and by that, I mean dragging the Rajasthan Royals' more celebrated batsmen out of the mire. Steve Smith looks strangely rudderless at the crease, as if his strong mind needed a break and it has come in the form of carefree swings at the ball that might or might not come off. This is high-tariff cricket, not usually his thing. One imagines he will work it out soon enough and that one of Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes will sprinkle some stardust over the Royals in the coming days and weeks.
Meantime, hail Tewatia, the man who surely saw the other side during the excruciating first part of his innings against the Kings XI at Sharjah. Watching, you felt the world wincing with you - indeed, someone said he should walk past a straight one and save himself the humiliation, but oh ye of little faith.
The rest is history. Tewatia played the innings of his life, which probably saved him from a fate worse than death. He played another little gem on Sunday afternoon, easing the Royals over the line with his rather charming brand of off-side elegance and leg-side wipes.
Tewatia is the feel-good factor of the tournament - an unlikely hero but a hero all the same. He gave us all hope that day in Sharjah, reminding cricketers the world over that the game is our gift and that to give it away is never an option.
On the subject of feel-good…
Young Indian batsmen with good technique and enviable flair: Devdutt Padikkal, Mayank Agarwal, Sanju Samson, Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Prithvi Shaw, Ishan Kishan, and Shreyas Iyer. Proper fast bowlers not afraid to let the white ball fly: Jofra Archer, Pat Cummins, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, and of course, the boy Bumrah. Wristspinners going well on pitches that make life less easy for them than they are used to when under the pump. Oh, and David Warner and Jonny Bairstow, an Australian and an Englishman on the field together and in cahoots.
The yorker, or absence of it
You'd think the coaches would work their bowlers to the blister in search of a consistent yorker when the slog is on. Perhaps it's harder said than done in these days of invention. On Sunday Sandeep Sharma bowled a good one to Riyan Parag, who ramped/scooped it over Bairstow's head to the boundary. I mean, please. Having said that, I'm convinced the yorker should be a default position.
Even more feel-good
The Delhi Capitals chairman and co-owner surprised the team by calling an impromptu meeting saying he wanted to show them a video about the past, rather unsuccessful, week.
Instead, the video was a collage of family messages to each of the players from their homes all over the world - wives, girlfriends, kids, mums, more kids, dads and dogs. Even Ricky Ponting shows emotion (insert laugh emoji). He then makes a nice speech about the sacrifices involved with three months in the IPL bubble. It confirmed the feeling I have had that the IPL is less mercenary than it appears from afar and that the players mainly buy into the "family" that has paid their asking price.
As if to emphasise this, yesterday there were a couple of shots on television that told the story well. With eight needed from the final over, the camera picked up Shane Warne on a balcony above the Royals dugout. The Covid mask had slipped down his face and we saw him close his eyes and mouth to himself something like "C'mon, please, this time, please." It was a prayer of sorts. Warne is a Royals mentor, low-grade stuff after the glory days of leading the team to the title in the IPL's first, barnstorming year.
Only a couple of hours later, Harshal Patel bowled too straight at Suryakumar Yadav, who worked him off middle and leg to the square boundary. Ponting looked daggers. Harshal had missed his mark by three inches. But Ponting cares. So too Warne. And their bar is set high.
Credit big time those who have dressed the grounds, curated the audio and created an atmosphere from nothing. It really does fell like the real thing, albeit in a different space.
Finally, finally
The absence of spectators means that the cricket has taken centre stage. Confirming the quality of that cricket is no bad thing. Much as we love the bling, the cricket is the thing.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator