Across professions, the desire to get better is often a very good indicator of excellence. When you are starting, getting better is easier. Just a different kind of role for an actor, cutting the fluff out for a writer, getting more accurate for a bowler, keeping shots down for a young batsman, maybe. But as the mistakes become fewer, as success grows, not everyone can keep working on the little things. Sometimes it is laziness, occasionally complacence and often, putting in hard yards for seemingly smaller improvements becomes tedious. Perhaps the most dangerous is the knowledge that not getting better can still produce reasonable success.
And so you search for the little things in champions to get an indicator of their hunger. Sometimes the changes are so subtle that the untrained eye cannot spot them, only the opponent can! Sometimes you need to mine numbers, look at charts, look at trends. And that is why, even though this was such a small tour of Australia, and the pitches were as Australian as lassi and rajma, it was fascinating to watch Virat Kohli bat.
I suspect his views on where he got better would be more enlightening because there is no greater satisfaction than a little aspect worked on generating success. But from beyond the boundary, there were a few indicators that our young analysts on Star Sports were diligent enough to spot.
The most obvious, and this was as true for Rohit Sharma whose batting drew gasps of elation, was the drop in the number of balls not scored of. For Kohli, the difference was as much as 12 per cent and it meant he was controlling the game earlier. It might well be that he trusted the bounce, and generally the pitches, more or it could be that subtle change that signifies a move upwards. If that continues, it has implications as much for one-day cricket as for T20 where India have top order batsmen manning the top four positions. The luxury of playing yourself in can only be afforded to a couple of players and quick starts means, India’s top order is more menacing.
As he did on his last tour to Australia, Kohli gave as good as he got and with his personality, he is bound to attract conversation. Assuming he isn’t initiating it in the first place! But the Kohli in the Test matches in end 2014 tended to get carried away by the confrontation, occasionally seemed to play shots to prove the point he had articulated. This time, and admittedly this is an observation, he stayed calmer; if the ball after a chat needed to be defended, it was more likely he would offer that option. I think it will make him more resilient, less prone to getting carried away by the heat of the moment where he can often reside.
Earlier wagon wheels showed a preponderance of on-side shots. Then, post England 2014, bowlers started bowling fifth stump lines and were sometimes rewarded with a nick. It was inevitable that the run scoring chart would look different but this time in Australia you could believe he was primarily an off-side player. There were many more shots square off the wicket and that punched cover drive was employed to breathtaking effect. It will be interesting to see, in the season to come, one that will be dominated by test cricket on very different surfaces, whether it will remain that way.
And he brought a classical touch to T20 batting. It was wonderful to hear him say, in our post match programme (and if only more Indian players thus explained their game to viewers!), that because he batted in all three forms, he didn’t want to introduce exotic shots into his repertoire. Essentially he was saying he didn’t want a temptation to creep in and corrupt his game.
And so, there was no scoop over fine leg, no reverse sweep, no upper cut over the keeper. His batting was as orthodox as it can ever get in T20 cricket and that means he is playing relatively risk free cricket. In the modern T20 game, that is rare.
You could argue, with some reason, that this is too small a sample to be drawing conclusions from; that the wickets were one of a kind and, as seems to be decreed, cruel to bowlers. But given those limitations, these are fair calls to make. And, in any case, it is searching for these nuances that makes watching cricket so much more fun. Kohli made it more fun in Australia.