“I have to stay true to my technique,” said Virat Kohli after the first of two successive centuries in the IPL, reminding everyone, “We’ve got Test cricket after the IPL.”
He was saying, in effect, that there are two ways of making runs. One is the way he normally plays, and the other is to play like someone else. When a traditionalist makes a century in a T20 game playing his normal game, the cricket gods rejoice.
The IPL can be cruel. Joe Root, according to some the greatest England batsman of all time, spent much of this year’s tournament sitting in the dugout. When he was finally included in the Rajasthan Royals eleven after about a month and ten matches, he didn’t bat in his first two games. After a promising T20 scoop to the fence in his third, he was dismissed for 10.
Root has played the scoop at Test level too. He has played the reverse sweep to good effect. He has consciously expanded the range of shots that have fetched him nearly 11,000 runs in Tests and over 6,000 in ODI cricket. He is going in the opposite direction from Kohli, reinventing himself as a T20 batter while Kohli is reinventing T20 in his image.
Watching the two contemporary greats in white-ball cricket has been fascinating. Root enjoys T20. He earns a good salary and he hopes to play the World Cup next year. As he told an interviewer, he wants to see “how far I can take that side of my game.” To explore the limits of what one is capable of is a commendable notion.
Yet, something seems off kilter. Watching Root batting in T20 is a bit like listening to classical music being played at the wrong speed. You don’t want to listen to the Carnatic maestro Sanjay Subrahmanyan sing rap (even if he is very good at it).
Can there be ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ in sport too? And if so, are Tests and T20s the respective examples? There are those who will run to their social media accounts to insist there is only good batting and bad batting just as there is only good art and bad art. Dividing into high, low and middlebrow, they will aver, is the devil’s work.
How Gavaskar adapted
Years ago, when the 50-over game was beginning to assume airs and threatening to wipe out the longest format, India’s Sunil Gavaskar expressed a dislike for it that influenced a whole generation. It wasn’t real cricket. It was pyjama cricket. It was this, it was that. And it wasn’t until Gavaskar made 90 in a game against the West Indies that India believed the World champions could be beaten. In less than a year they beat them twice more to become World champions themselves.
Gavaskar, the consummate professional, didn’t alter his game much, he merely speeded things along, playing the supporting role especially when opening with Krishnamachari Srikkanth. His first century in the format came in his penultimate match. He finished with 108 matches, over 3,000 runs and a decent (for those days) average of 35. Srikkanth had an average of 29 from 38 matches more.
Great batsmen play to their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. As Gavaskar did in ODI, and Kohli is doing in T20, Root could too, playing his own game.
In the last Test against India at Edgbaston, Root acknowledged the cheers on reaching a century by pulling off his glove and cocking his little finger at them. It took a moment for the penny to drop. This was from Baz Lurhmann’s biopic of Elvis. Apparently, a local judge had threatened to arrest Elvis for “ruining the morality of youngsters” if he waggled his hips on stage. So Elvis waggled his finger! As he says in the movie, “In the end you’ve got to listen to yourself.”
Root has been doing that throughout his career. And if he is set on playing the T20 World Cup, chances are he will. Batters are not obligated to look elegant when scoring runs. “I’ve never been a guy who tries many fancy shots,” says Kohli.
Sometimes you have to look inelegant in the team’s cause, Root seems to suggest. That is the burden of T20 cricket.