Khutch, khutch, khutch, khutch.
A long time has passed but I can still hear the sound of her spikes sinking into cinder. It was Calcutta, maybe 30 years ago, in a stadium I can’t remember. I was trackside and I’d never watched P.T. Usha from such proximity and it was overwhelming. Power comes to mind. Pistons. Propulsion. PT poetry.
Did I watch legs before that, I can’t remember. Maybe the 1970 Brazilians who seemed to purr as they moved. Except when Pelé pushes the ball casually to his right in the final and Carlos Alberto arrives like a runaway locomotive. Goal, of course.
Legs, in most sports, never get the applause that hands do. Even if Rahul Dravid, serious dude, with an upright running style, says, “The hands cannot correct the mistake that the feet make.” On the phone, we immediately register the same exception to that rule: Virender Sehwag.
Legs is what is on my brain because of Virat Kohli in Pune. I hadn’t watched cricket in a while and he does what exceptional players do: He won’t let you leave. You sit another over. Then another. An hour passes. Coffee cools. Greatness acts like a glue. Genius closes Exits. But it’s not the shots that hold me, not even that six he hits into heaven like an offering (here, God, catch), but the running between wickets.
Kohli’s running for me that day was like watching Roger Federer’s feet. Entertainment in itself. Federer’s gift is that he doesn’t run but pads, and could sneak up on a leopard. Perhaps his feet do not stay on the ground long enough to make a sound. His speed is a surprise, even at 35, and Noah Rubin, suitably reverential, said after defeat by Federer at the Australian Open: “He took a ball that I swear to God was past him and hit it for a winner.”
Federer moves in the manner we expect of African runners. Without violence. Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, is a version of Plastic Man, an elastic genius, able in his prime to do a split, reach out his arm, swipe a forehand and hit a line. Djokovic’s physical speed was psychologically devastating because the space to hit a winner against him kept shrinking. You have to go for the line but how many times can you walk it?
For two days I scrolled YouTube and enjoyed movement. Steffi Graf’s lateral flight. Messi zigging with the ball close to his toe and then taking it almost too close to a defender and zagging. Some seconds of Stefan Edberg, a minute of Hicham El Guerrouj, a peek at gymnastic vaulters creating mad momentum in 20m and a longer look at Lin Dan, the clairvoyant, who always knows where to go. Badminton players never get their athletic due: Who else leaps high, and backwards, and dives sideways, and lunges forward and down? They’re volleyballers and fencers all in one.
We focus more on hands as watchers but feet give sport its technical foundation and also its grace. Misty Copeland, the ballerina, said once “we’re athletes, too”, to which some athletes might insist “we’re dancers, too”. No stylish player ever had unstylish legs, which is probably why on YouTube Muhammad Ali’s footwork is set to music.
One day David Remnick is watching the Sonny Liston fight with Ali and writes in his book King Of The World: Muhammad Ali And The Rise Of An American Hero about Liston lunging with a jab and missing by 2ft. “At that moment, Clay hinted not only at what was to come that night in Miami, but at what he was about to introduce to boxing and to sports in general—the marriage of mass and velocity. A big man no longer had to lumber along and slug, he could punch like a heavyweight and move like Ray Robinson.” Who was a welterweight and middleweight.
But not all movement is elegant, some is beautifully agonizing, like Emil Zátopek, who ran as if in terrible pain, but never stopped. What we forget occasionally while marvelling at movement is the labour behind it and Zátopek was the president of a masochist movement. In Endurance: The Extraordinary Life And Times Of Emil Zátopek, Rick Broadbent’s finely researched new book on Zátopek, a younger runner speaks of his mentor: “When I trained with Emil...he gradually increased his training—40x400m, 60x400, 80x400, 90x400. He said all this proudly to us and I thought I will try to be better and run 100x400.”
Kohli similarly must be adding kilometres in training and subtracting calories, for his movement is thrilling. He’s as slim as a whip and moves like an uncoiling lash. But even more than that, his running reflects who he is. Wired. Intense. Limitless. “His running is symbolic of his energy,” says Dravid. “There’s an intensity to his cricket in everything he does.” There is simply no enough to Kohli. He wants one run when the ball goes straight to a close fielder and two runs where there may not even be one. Sometimes he is mystified he cannot get either. Sometimes he waves his hand at the non-striker as if to say: Sound barrier. Break. Can’t? Sachin Tendulkar’s ambition was hidden, but Kohli’s lives on his face. Kedar Jadhav spoke for human beings when he said, “It’s tough to run with Virat, but I will get better.”
Kohli’s running is, like his captaincy, or batting, all of him distilled into the act he is currently involved in. And so of course you get sucked into Kohli’s running madness. You think, paagal hain, and laugh nervously, but what else is greatness? You want him to be careful and yet you’re drawn to this lean figure who strives not to score boundaries as much as reinvent them.
There have been finer runners between wickets. Better judges. Faster feet even. But Kohli’s running is part of his pursuit for his best self. But if his quest will take him to great places, it will also bring trouble. Not everyone will keep up. Not everyone wants to be pushed so hard. Not everyone wants to be so fit. If he lifts his team, he will also occasionally grate on them. So be it. Everything extraordinary comes at some cost.
Boyhood has been tossed aside, Kohli is flowering. All that rage which he wasted on sulks and spats now goes into his cricket. His form can’t last, can it, but who cares, it’s this sort of ride we wait for. From a distance, through a TV set, as he runs you can feel his flame. And no one is complaining of being burnt.
Rohit Brijnath is a columnist with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Also Read Rohit’s Mint Lounge columns