Keeping up with Virat Kohli
Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, is a bit of a riot on social media. He, more than most sportsmen, knows exactly how to use Twitter to stir the pot, putting out cheeky one-liners that have large groups of people up in arms. But when he is being serious, there are some great insights to be had, and over the course of the World Twenty20 2016, he became a complete Virat Kohli convert.
Of all the praise he heaped on Kohli, one thing stood out. During the course of yet another well-constructed chase, Vaughan said to cricketers all around the world: “You may not be able to bat like Kohli, but surely you can run like him.”
It was not merely a point well made, but one that was most likely to come from a former cricketer. Of all the spectacles on a cricket field, running between the wickets is one of the more underrated, for it is not aesthetically as easy to appreciate as some of the game’s other facets. Even the casual fan will instantly recognize the beauty and symmetry of a classical cover drive well struck. Spectacular catches, stunning run-outs, these bits of athleticism will appeal not only to cricket aficionados but to sports fans at large.
Running between the wickets? Until you see two proficient proponents in action together, it is difficult to appreciate the majesty of this act. When Kohli and M.S. Dhoni run together, for example, it is an act of naked aggression, throwing down the gauntlet for the opposition fielders. Each time they set off, it is a challenge to the fielders, as if daring them to try and stop them from stealing ones, turning ones into twos and creating pressure where none existed.
Running between the wickets has recently come to the fore, thanks to Kohli, who is a perpetual newsmaker, but also because of Dhoni. While batsmen, particularly Indian ones, have traditionally viewed stroke-making as their calling card, taking the view that running between the wickets is a chore that needs to be endured, Dhoni has built his game around barrelling down the pitch as if his life depended on it. But while Dhoni and Kohli rightfully hog the limelight, it would be wrong to believe they were the first Indians to elevate this task to an art form.
Mohammad Azharuddin was as good as anyone between the wickets, but he had little company and therefore often had to settle for less than he might have wanted. Fortunately, Mohammad Kaif did not have this problem, batting often with a young Yuvraj Singh, who not only complemented his partner, but frequently pushed him. What was it, then, that allowed Kaif to understand the importance of running between the wickets well before it became fashionable? “I was generally quite focused on my fitness. But given the position that I batted (at), and my style of play, it was doubly important to keep running between the wickets in mind,” says Kaif. “I did not have bulky muscles and the ability to just stand and hit whatever ball came to me out of the ground. This meant that I had to make sure I did not miss any opportunity to pick up a single or a chance to convert a single into a double.”
The self-effacing Kaif’s understanding of the art, however, goes deeper. “The key thing to running between the wickets is getting that early momentum going. Just like a sprinter in a 100m dash, it is the early push that often makes the difference,” says Kaif, who did drills independently to enhance agility and enable directional changes before these things became de rigueur for teams. “When you are running those 22 yards, you have to have a bit of awareness. For example, if you’re playing to point off the back foot and then looking for a single, it’s one kind of approach. If you’ve come down the pitch, meaning you already have some momentum, and have played the ball to the deep, it’s another thing; then the manner in which you touch down and turn for the second run becomes crucial.”
While he is happy to accept that he was an early proponent of taking running between the wickets seriously, Kaif insists it is Dhoni who has forced a shift in thinking to the point that every cricketer in the team pushes himself. “A guy like Dhoni has the raw power to hit pretty much any ball out of the ground,” explains Kaif. “So when a guy like this places the highest premium on running between the wickets, it sets an example that others have to follow. How often have you seen Dhoni losing his cool on the field? The most common time is when he wants to push for a second run and sees that his partner is not ready to respond.
“At the beginning of a batsman’s innings, the fielding team always thinks: ‘Let’s not give him a single. Put pressure on him.’ At this time, Dhoni is always thinking, ‘If I can get 10 runs in 10 balls without taking a risk, I can assess the conditions, the bowling and gauge the opposition captain’s plans.’ Then, after that, he can always launch.” At times, so much of the work has been done in the early part that this isn’t even needed.
A classic example was India’s chase of 161 against Australia in Mohali during the World T20, which got them a semi-final berth. Kohli and Dhoni added an unbeaten 67 from only 5.1 overs, taking India home. “He (Virat) still needs to pay me. I was running his runs,” Dhoni said, allowing himself a smile after the game was won.
While Dhoni was praising Kohli, there was admiration coming from the other end as well, perhaps one of the keys to the partnership working as well as it does. “Dhoni and I have always run well between the wickets. We have a great understanding about where to hit the ball,” said Kohli after the Australia game. “You do all that work in the gym and in fitness sessions for this. When I’m tired, I should be able to run as fast as when I’m on zero. All that training paid off today.”
And it was not that any of this went unnoticed. Typically, you have players from one team wishing they could bowl a ball like someone else or copy a particular stroke, but for once it was the running that led to envy. When Alex Blackwell, the Australian women’s cricketer, was asked how she hoped to turn her middling form into something that would help her team more, her response was illuminating. “I will be looking to practise good cricket shots in front of the wicket, looking to turn ones into twos. Perhaps I can gain some inspiration from Virat Kohli and M.S. Dhoni and the way they have approached the middle overs,” said Blackwell. “That’s my job, to make sure to turn ones into twos and put pressure on the outfielders.”
That’s proof positive, if it were needed, of the most unlikely happening in cricket: Two Indians are showing the world how to do something that requires fitness, stamina and agility, and the Australians are lapping it up.
Anand Vasu is managing editor of Wisden India.