How many World Cup sixes by a modern-day Indian batsman can you call iconic and will remember forever and a day? Sachin Tendulkar’s thump over point of Shoaib Akhtar, for sure. MS Dhoni’s thunderous wallop to cap off a perfect Wankhede night. Yuvraj Singh’s six-orgy off Stuart Broad, perhaps. Anything else? Right on top, alongside Sachin, will sit Virat Kohli’s “freaky” swat-flick of a six against Haris Rauf at MCG.
It’s a variation of a mutant that he had created in the first place from a regular flick. A couple of years ago, Sunil Gavaskar had predicted to this newspaper how Kohli was going to evolve even further with that shot and target newer areas. “It’s because he now wants to cover not just square-leg but wants to use that shot to target the full arc from fine-leg to wide long-on,” Gavaskar had said. It’s coming true.
Before we come to that shot of doom off the last ball of the 19th over, we have to linger a minute on the previous delivery, whose residues spilt into Haris Rauf’s mind for the next ball.
Until then, Rauf had seemed unhittable. Balls leaping from the back of a length; the hard lengths as they say. Even the man known for hitting, Hardik Pandya, couldn’t do much. Pandya prizes holding his shape – all the modern-day power hitters do as hitting has transformed from savagery to a scientific art, but that was the very thing that was holding him back at MCG. He would stand on the off-stump guard, open up in his stance, and swing. But the hard lengths at MCG with its tennis-ball bounce proved elusive for his technique.
It needed a technique akin to what Tendulkar had and used memorably once at Nairobi when he charged out at a back-of-length kicker from Glenn McGrath. He would get his bat a bit more horizontal, which allowed him to control and smash the rising ball that much better. Like a forehand down the line, if you will.
Kohli has appropriated many of Tendulkar’s methods and made them his own – – even a single to the third man off pacers where he doesn’t actually turn the bat-face but just taps it softly was an idea that Tendulkar had once suggested to him. ‘Don’t turn the bat, it’s risky, just place it gently in line and the pace will automatically take the ball to third man region’ was the advice, to paraphrase.
Now on the biggest night of his life, Kohli would borrow another Tendulkarism – the almost flat-batted straight punch. His bat would lift up almost horizontally behind him before he knifed through the line.
Picture this: Rauf’s only mistake – and a crucial one as Wasim Akram would say later – was he went for the slightly slower version on the hard length. Tendulkar’s version could still whack it, and probably Kohli too might just have but we will have to find that on another night.
On Sunday, Kohli sprang up as soon as he saw the release. And he thumped it high over to the right of the sight screen. On air, the Bill Lawry of this generation, Ian Smith would begin his joyous Kiwi-accented gurgle of appreciation, which would end after the next six with this beauty: “This boy is a genius, he might not win it but he is a genius.” Oh, wait to be surprised, Mr Smith.
Rauf, who had called MCG as his second home and intimately knows the pitch, would now abandon his brutes from hard lengths; self-doubt kicked in by that almost-flat-batted smack.
Now, to that six that Kohli would call “freaky”. Several other gobsmacking adjectives hover, but he chose the right one.
It wasn’t a bad ball at all; not quite the kicker from a hard length, but bending in from the back of length towards Kohli’s hips. At what point did the evolved mutant of swat-flick hover in Kohli’s mind?
In the past, his regular swat-flick is usually played off the front foot, weight leaning forward, gaining momentum and weaving timing into the shot. It’s mind-boggling that it’s not even a natural shot.
“Kohli’s flick isn’t natural as a kid?” Gavaskar had blurted out, puzzled and curious. Even Kohli doesn’t know how it sneaked into his quiver. At the end of an IPL press conference in 2009 in South Africa, as he was leaving, a short chat bubbled up between us. “Hey! Some flick shot, that. Comes naturally to you na?” Kohli’s answer stunned me. “No, no, in fact, I can’t recall how and where it became part of my repertoire. I think from playing these T20s, I would just play the normal flicks before. What are you calling it?” “Er… thinking of swat-flick, you seem to be swatting the ball but flicking it at the same time.” And he pursed his lips and walked away.
It has its evolutionary lineage in cricket. That wondrous Pakistani batsman Saeed Anwar’s wristy-snap to change directions of balls angling across him to the backward square leg was a thing of awe-inspiring beauty. Ask Javagal Srinath.Herschelle Gibbs’s version was a lot closer to Kohli’s. Gibbs’ version was one of the great ODI shots in the first decade of this century. But highly risky when compared to Kohli. Gibbs’s was a dare. There would be a moment in his swat-flick, just before contact, where it would appear that the ball might miss the bat and crash onto the pad.
Suddenly, however, the bat would swipe across just in time to crash-land the ball over square leg. Moin Khan of Pakistan played a somewhat similar version in the ’90s. His, too, was a risky version in that the lbw possibility always loomed but he wasn’t a top-order batsman. Gibbs’ shot was a thrill, Moin’s was ballsier. Gibbs picked the shot from the West Indian opener Desmond Haynes, who played in South African domestic cricket from 1991.
“It feels good to see Virat play his version of the shot,” Gibbs told this newspaper. “The difference is that Virat has taken out the risk of lbw. I had a lot of fun with that shot. No bowler had a comeback to that shot, did they? It was like showing a finger to the bowler as you suggest!” Gibbs laughs.
On Sunday night, Kohli startled himself. Here is him on that shot of a lifetime. What was cooking in his brain as Rauf was about to begin his run-up?
“I was expecting him to go back of length trying to double bluff as he had brought the third man in and the point in as well. I knew he wasn’t going to try to bounce me as I was kind of expecting the short ball and I can swing over fine-leg for a six. I didn’t move much. I was trying to make some room, and when the ball came towards my hips, I just swung through the line. Honestly, I didn’t plan that shot.”
“Just. Swung. Through.” Really? Punch me. Can he keep swinging away through the line for the rest of the World Cup, please?!
That side-ways movement had taken him out of his preferred position for the swat flick. Now, the weight was almost on the back foot but curiously it worked out quite well for his instinctual reaction. That even his instincts are evolutionary says much.
The hands would whirr across, the bottom hand taking over in a flash to get under the ball to change its destination and India’s (and his) destiny. “Those shots were just meant to be,” he would say. As good an explanation as any.