Virat Kohli has had a fabulous T20 season both in Internationals as well as in the IPL. He has shown with his remarkable batting abilities a level of consistency in T20s that has never before been seen. To average upwards of 80 runs per dismissal is an astonishing achievement whether you are playing T20 or having a knock about with a tennis ball in a corridor with modified rules or in Tests. The fact is that he is a tremendous batsman. We have already been given ample evidences of that in his career and his purple patch in the last two seasons only burnishes the luster.
But the question arising out of Kartikeya Date’s recent piece at ESPNcricinfo “Two Myths about IPL”, isn’t whether Kohli is a great batsman, but is his style of batting – a more ‘conventional’ mode of building an innings – best suited for T20s (in this case IPL)? Date has argued that, even as mind-boggling Kohli’s returns are in IPL 2016, he “was not even the best player in the Royal Challengers Bangalore side, let alone in the IPL”.
Going by Strike Rates of batsmen (min. qualification: 7 inns, Average length of inns: 15 balls), the best eleven “hitters” in the IPL 2016, in decreasing order of strike rates, were: Krunal Pandya, Chris Morris, AB de Villiers, Andre Russell, Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, David Warner, Chris Gayle, Dwayne Smith, KL Rahul and Yusuf Pathan.
T20 has been around since 2003, and IPL has been around since 2008. Teams have been trying to figure out a way to squeeze the most out of their resources (11 players and 120 deliveries) by cobbling together the best possible XI and identifying strategies that would yield them the best avenues for success. Recently, Indian spinner R Ashwin stated just as much: “I think that T20 cricket is a completely different sport. The percentage of people and teams that realise and move in that direction will find early success in this game. I think we are in transition phase.”
After 14 seasons of T20, we are reaching a point where we might be able to imagine what is possible in T20. We are beginning to understand what sort of players will be best suited for it and what roles are expected of them. And we have already seen some of this put into practice.
When the numbers bear out that a line up of boundary hitters (sixes preferable over fours) with an ability to last more than the basic arithmetic need of 12 deliveries in a T20 game, would accumulate more than someone as grounded in what Ed Smith calls as “Total Batsmanship” like Kohli is, it makes us question our own views and understanding of cricket. How is that someone averaging 80+ per dismissal, striking at 152 runs per 100 balls, with the remarkable consistency of 11 50+ scores in 16 outings including 4 hundreds have his value questioned?
When I read Date’s piece, and saw his thoughts on who’d constitute his IPL 2016 Best XI (ignoring the limit of only 4 non-Indians per side), I wanted to reflexively remonstrate with him about excluding Kohli. Why choose Warner or Smith over Kohli when they have similar strike rates? Because, Warner and Smith score boundaries (4’s & 6’s) at a faster rate, and that they do get dismissed more frequently than Kohli which allows for someone else with better boundary striking ability to take strike. In other words, better utilization of available resources.
I wanted to remonstrate because I looked at it from the point of view of what Kohli brings to the table and not what is actually required (and is possible) in a T20, to maximize the scoring. It is impossible not to be seduced by what Kohli has accomplished this IPL season, by implementing a classical batting style and bending the arc of T20’s needs to it. To question Kohli’s value as a batsman in T20 is to question the value of cricket in T20. But then, it isn’t really about Kohli or AB de Villiers. It isn’t about Krunal Pandya or Andre Russell. It is about our own perceptions of what is a good measure of merit.
Players come, players go. Perhaps 2016 was a fluke one for Pandya. Perhaps Kohli won’t be able to replicate the consistency of 2016. But the basic need of T20, or for that matter any enterprise, to maximize the effectiveness of available resources indicate that the sport will further move towards a deeper lineup of big hitters (already shown to work by West Indies WT20 winning sides). A Kohli with his classical approach is even in the discussion is an exception rather than the rule. The future of T20 batting is Pandyas and Russells of the world and not Kohli. (It is bloody hard to do what Kohli has done, for one). If R Ashwin, with his experience and insider’s view, is anyone to go by, we are still very far from what T20 could actually become.
T20 makes it imperative that we disentangle from the romanticism of cricketing aesthetics, because a cold, hard sport built on capitalistic principles demand it. (One can claim the same about Tests and ODIs but the resources and outcomes are markedly different). If we do, then, we can make sense of the fact borne by numbers that a de Villiers is a better hitter in T20 than Kohli, and Pandya is a better value and fit than Kohli within the confines and demands of T20.
As followers of sport, it behooves us to understand what it is that we are following; Whether what we spend innumerable hours watching and dissecting is of any merit, and what those measures of merit are. It is an innately human to be curious and to understand and interpret reality. That’s why we have science, to provide explanation of some aspect of the world around us, by repeated testing and confirmation through observation and experimentation.
When a Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane or for that matter Kohli bat in a Test match, we can reasonably conclude whether they are batting well and when they are not. It is based on their ability to size up the conditions and the bowlers, having a tight technique, knowing where their off stump is, choosing when to leave and when to defend and when to play an attacking shot, evaluating risk vs. reward every delivery they face, trying to score runs while holding their wickets dear for as long as possible. How fast they are scoring the runs and how many sixes they hit to get those runs, by and large, are inconsequential. This knowledge of the measure of batting merit in a Test has come to us through watching and understanding the entire scope of time and space occupied by a Test match.
Now, if we were to consider the batting merits of the same three batsmen mentioned above in a T20 match, how would we evaluate it? Not many would argue if the claim is made that Kohli is the better T20 batsman than Pujara and Rahane. Obviously, it would be based on certain measures of merit. What are those? Are they the same as in Tests? (No.) Do batting averages matter in T20? (No.) Do strike rates matter? (Yes.) Does boundary hitting ability matter? (Yes.) Does the ability to hold onto your wicket as long as possible matter? (No.) Does the ability to hit sixes clear boundaries matter? (Yes.)
If we agree with the basic premises of the two paragraphs above, it would then be apparent that Tests and T20s are two different sports, played by an intersection of players and some specialists. Saying T20 is a different sport than Test doesn’t boost Test’s credentials or takes anything away from T20. If we consider T20 as a different sport from Tests and not just miniaturized version of it, it could just only mean we disassociate the measures of merit in Tests that have come to be over the years and have withstood scrutiny and analysis, and improvements. T20 will, as time goes by, have its own set of robust measures of merit. Even T20 broadcasts do not show a batsman’s average but the strike rates. Some broadcasts show “Batting Index” (Ave+SR), and another has a “Power Index” which incorporates a slew of things.
Now, one could very well argue that metrics of six hitting rates, boundary rates, and strike rates etc., do not accurately define the reality of batting in a T20. Well then, go ahead. Propose your model. Compose your theory. Provide evidence. Repeatedly test and confirm through observation. If your theory describes the reality of T20 better, that will be the one that will be embraced and will supersede any existing models and theories. The name of the player doesn’t matter.