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Four money shots that have made Virat Kohli intimidating

The Indian Express logoThe Indian Express 07-06-2016
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Virat Kohli has been Bradmanesque in T20s this year. Unlike others who have opted for the fanciful, his conventional shot selection allows him to react, and not pre-determine. Sriram Veera looks at four money shots that have made him intimidating.

It isn’t a surprise that Virat Kohli has piled up the most runs in IPL history. It isn’t a surprise that his international career is on a great leap forward. His batting is getting the raves from not just cricket watchers but from his fellow cricketers around the world. To be recognised as peerless by peers is quite something. But the greatest achievement of his batting is how little he has acquired from the prevalent batting wisdom. He doesn’t lap, paddle, reverse sweep too often or even the conventional sweep for that matter. He doesn’t dole out switch hits or upper cuts. Heck, he doesn’t even heave to the cow-corner, or run outside off to deflect balls to fine-leg. Instead, he just sticks to the conventional.

Those traditional Test-match cricket shots that modern-day batsmen had almost convinced us are a liability and impotent in shorter formats. The laps, ramp-shots, and the other fanciful stuff have caught the imagination of the old fans, and intoxicated the young. Far from looking wrong, it seemed like a natural evolution of the game that caught the spirit of the zeitgeist. But Kohli seems hell-bent on yanking us back to old days.

What does he do? He reels out the cover drives, flicks, on drives, and the cuts. And runs hard. Incredibly, he has managed to not just run with the hounds but lead the pack. Where others seem to try so hard with all the innovative shots or flex their muscle in power hitting, he has gone retro.

He didn’t have a great pull shot when he came. He didn’t have the finesse that seems so natural in his cover drives these days. He didn’t have such a gap-piercing cut shot in his initial years. He would not hide his preference to the onside play but now looks so compact on the off. Heck, he didn’t even have the swat-flick, considered his signature shot, in the early days. It’s this development in his game that’s astonishing. Normally, through the history of cricket, the really good batsmen come in with signature shots that almost seemed natural extension of them. The across-the-line whip of Viv Richards, the straight drive of a Tendulkar, the whiplash square drive of a Lara were gasp-inducing but they presented them at the first sighting itself. We identified them with those shots.

Though he always had the swagger, Kohli didn’t initially have the game that made you gasp like other special batsmen. He is someone who has almost willed himself to greater heights by not remaining content in just being a good batsman but desiring a lot more than that. He has reached out and extended himself. And to do it with the conventional shots in the frenzy of the here and now is quite a stunning achievement. Here we look at some of his shots, and how he has honed, controlled, made them their

The Swat Flick

And to think that that, by his own admission, he didn’t have this stroke in his formative years boggles the mind.

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Easily the most fascinating shot in Kohli’s repertoire. Not many in the history of cricket have managed to transform the simple flick into a tool of violence. It’s an instinctive deflection, classy and elegant for sure but a non-violent shot in its essence. You can get boundaries with it, of course, but it had always seemed a shot from a gentler times. Not with Kohli.

His bottom-hand powered swat-flick feels like a stroke borrowed from table tennis. Only two other batsmen from modern era have come close to producing similar mayhem from this mutant-form of the flick — Herschelle Gibbs and Moin Khan. Their’s was a dare. There would be a moment in the shot, just before contact, where it would appear that ball would miss the wood and crash against the pad. Suddenly, the bat would sweep across — Gibbs’ was more stylish, Moin’s was ballsier. Kohli’s is all that, and much more. His is the most consistent version.

And to think that, by his own admission, he didn’t have this stroke in his formative years boggles the mind. That he is a bottom-handed batsman helps. That he has played a lot of T20 cricket too did its bit but to take something so inherently instinctive in nature, inscribed in your DNA almost, and make it your own as he has done says a lot about evolution in his batting.

He eschews the risk associated with Gibbs and Moin’s versions through the arc his bat cuts when it’s swooping down to meet the ball. Unlike them, you don’t have that moment of apprehension with Kohli’s shot that bat might miss the ball.

The bat doesn’t come down as straight as for a straight drive of course but there is a lot more wood in the path of the ball than what those two managed to do. With that element of doubt that accompanies the risk out of the way, he can focus on twirling his bottom-hand a lot more than most batsmen.

And how those wrists work overtime. The right wrist almost snaps, a feverish frenzy kicks in, the bat cuts down the angle as alarmingly and thrillingly as it creates it in first place through that wrist-cock. You could do that with a smaller table tennis racquet but to get this longer and thicker piece of wood to cut arcs at a frenetic pace needs supple and steely wrists. This oxymoronic combo creates the power, and the overall balance that he maintains in his body, helps in consistency.

It’s a stroke that has consistently improved over the years, especially through the IPL years, but it was on a Hobart night in 2012 when he dismantled the yorker-slinging Lasith Malinga that it achieved the polish of the now expected perfection.

He stayed well back inside the crease, and repeatedly swatted and whipped Malinga to distraction. It was the most gently-executed cricketing massacre that one had witnessed. In many ways, it was also the coming-of-age moment for the elegant flick.

The Cover Drive

With his technical base, there are many things that could go wrong with his goal to keep the ball along the ground.

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The toughest shot for a bottom-handed batsman like Kohli to pull off. Especially with the demands he exacts on himself. Sample his quote about the cover-driving on the up. “When you’re driving on the up, you need to make sure that you are connecting with the ball in a way that you can see the ball bounce in front of you before heading out in the outfield. The ball should ideally bounce around two feet in front of you. That’s when you know that you have actually connected very well and you’re in control of the drive. If it goes up in the air, then more often than not, it’s just a risky shot that came off.”

Carl Hooper, that wonderfully skilled batsman who didn’t do his talent full justice, might not agree. Hooper specialised in the controlled punches over covers — and often would awe-inspiringly get it to drop between cover and the deep cover for couple of runs — but then he was a different batsman. In fact, conventional logic suggests it would have been easier for Kohli to go the Hooper way with this shot.

With a little bit of help from top hand, he could have allowed his bottom-hand to take over more and gone aerial — it would have been more natural, fewer mental restrictions, lesser pressure to adapt his technique, but then it wouldn’t have been Kohli who is walking the tightrope between retaining the aggression even as he strives to cut down the risks.

While it’s a gorgeous sight, his more fluid cover drives to length deliveries, that he finishes up with a crispy punch, should come a tad easier to his talent. The head and the leaning upper body aligned in the direction of his left foot — or to be precise, with the toe as he says — allows him to make contact as close to body as possible but it shouldn’t be too difficult a task for someone as good as him.

It’s that on-the-up sortie that throws up the cerebral feast. With his technical base, there are many things that could go wrong with his goal to keep the ball along the ground. For starters, the bottom-hand can take over completely and the ball could lob up to short cover fielders that Australians, especially, always keep for him.

He manages to get the top hand into the shot just about enough to throw as a counter-balance. But that bottom-hand can still be a pesky nuisance to his goal of keeping the cherry on the ground, especially for someone brought up on flat tracks. Growing up, he wouldn’t have needed to really stretch so forward across, get as close to the ball as he does these days, for the lack of bounce in the pitches would have allowed him to let the wrists do most of the work.

But now, on some overseas tracks, he has to get the whole shin bang rolling in unison towards a common objective — the head, the body, the feet, the hands and the skill to control his bottom hand’s domination. It’s quite a thing to do for someone with his technique, and the consistency is quite an achievement. It would be however interesting to see how this shot plays out in English conditions.

The Cut

The real beauty lies in timing and placement. For someone who doesn’t go back and across, it must not be easy but the combination of peripheral vision and soft hands does the trick.

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It’s the tiny adjustments he does with this shot that makes it so watchable. His isn’t even classical in the sense he doesn’t always play the horizontal cut shot that often.

Many other batsmen have played it far more ferociously and with greater effectiveness — Gordon Greenidge would murder that poor ball, Michael Slater’s horizontal cuts were more stylish, Ijaz Ahmed’s was a brutal butcher’s chop, a young Richie Richardson’s was flamboyant whip crack, and even a young Tendulkar played the classical horizontal version a lot before he traded it for the punchy on-the-up square drives.

Like his pull shots, Kohli’s cuts are not really exceptional in the visual or even visceral sense but it’s what he does with them that make them stand out. It’s the ability to find the gap with his gentler cuts that screams out his talent. Sanjay Manjrekar has this theory that he has often spoken on air: that the steer/cut/square drives that has the ball plummet in the gap between backward point and gully can’t be really that intentional. Only Brian Lara, among the modern-day batsmen, incredibly managed to nail this elusive act often enough but his was a whiplash square drive, not a cut.

With the cut, a batsman sort of throws his hands at the ball, or fists it away and sometimes the ball would rush through the gap. The combination of peripheral vision, the hand control that the acute angle of the field demands, the essence of the shot that makes it difficult to get close to the ball, makes gap-finding a tough proposition.

However, Kohli has begun to tame this cut shot by trying to get as close to nailing those three dimensions. He doesn’t go full horizontal — the way he picks his bat up, gets it down, and that bottom-hand wouldn’t always allow him to go classical (to seamers). But he gets the bat down at an angle somewhere in between horizontal cut and vertical punch of the on-the-up square-drive. And with that he retains more control over its direction.

For someone who doesn’t naturally go back and across, to get close to the ball for a cut shot should be difficult. More often than not he looks to get forward, towards the ball, but he manages to rush across in a hurry for this one. The real beauty lies in timing and placement. Even as he is reaching out, he retains his balance — this should be tough in theory — collapses his arms, contorts that right wrist, keeps his head still and lets his intuitive play take over.

The peripheral vision and the soft hands guide the eventual shot. All this sounds like precious complicating stuff — and it is! — but that’s the hallmark of good batsmen.

They make descriptions and analysis look silly — they somehow make it all look not simple but natural. Kohli’s real achievement lies in the fact that he has worked on his shots like the cut and reels them off with a natural ease.

The Pull

The pull shot also tells us the difference between the personalities of Sachin Tendulkar and Kohli.

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Kohli isn’t the best puller in world cricket. Not by a distance. But the manner of its evolution from tentative beginnings, the subsequent iffy learning phase, to a sense of surety exuded now speaks about Kohli’s development as a batsman. With this shot, it’s more apt to trace the journey of his troubles which can tell us the adjustments and strides he has taken as a batsman.

The short ball had proved to be a problem early on his career. In fact in 2011 he was dropped after the first few Tests in West Indies after Fidel Edwards harassed him with a slew of bouncers. The flaw was always there. In domestic cricket he had his troubles against the short ones. In an Irani Trophy game in 2008, Munaf Patel, who had lost his express pace after injury by then, had induced an awkwardly fended catch with a bouncer. Zaheer Khan too had his moments against Kohli. Last April, Rahul Dravid, who incidentally had played that Irani game, had this to say: “Kohli was a walking wicket against bouncers then. Six months later I saw him and that problem was gone. He had sorted it out. That’s what I admire about Kohli.”

It still surfaces now and then. Occasionally he freezes when the ball rears up at his body, as he famously did to Mitchell Johnson once, or doesn’t quite ride the bounce well, as seen in the last World Cup semi-final in Australia to the other Mitchell, but the core threat has been negated. He isn’t a walking wicket as he used to be.

It’s the one shot that can still threaten the most admirable quality of Kohli’s batsmanship — the balance. By its nature, the short ball always holds that threat. The batsman has to make couple of adjustments — watching the initial trajectory till it lands, and adjusting to the subsequent jump and transition in bounce. Kohli’s stillness and balance allows his eye to adjust to this jerky shift and the problem now kicks in only when the third dimension of threat swings into picture — when the ball seams or bounces more than his anticipation.

It’s one thing for a batsman to be naturally good at the pull to awe us but it’s more credit worthy for a batsman to make the changes necessary to almost eradicate the problem.

The pull shot also tells us the difference between the personalities of Sachin Tendulkar and Kohli. If only it wasn’t for Fanie de Villiers and his captain Hansie Cronje plotting a downfall at short midwicket, and to a lesser extent Chaminda Vaas and Arjuna Ranatunga, one wonders whether Tendulkar would have allowed himself a greater run with that shot. For a brief while, he had almost become obsessive with that shot and when his obsession turned into a tool of his entrapment, he abandoned it mercilessly. Kohli didn’t have that choice. He had to first show that he could play that shot before he can abandon it. And his character suggests he won’t shelve it that easily.

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