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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Wristory: Evolution of the shot from Gundappa Viswanath to Virat Kohli

Is it possible to place Kohli’s swat-flick in the lineage of the shot and try trace its evolution? And then understand why his version is at the zenith of that evolution in the mayhem it unleashes.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: December 15, 2019 9:37:23 am
Wristory If the stunning assault on Malinga at Hobart in 2012 was the coming-of-age moment of Kohli’s swat-flick, the 2019 series against West Indies has birthed newer mutant versions and hints at more wristy adventures ahead of us. (Illlustration by Suvajit Dey)

Sunil Gavaskar laughs when the question is put across to him – was he surprised the first time he saw the classy wristy whips from his contemporary Gundappa Viswanath, and what does he feel about Virat Kohli’s murderous swat-flicks these days?

“Surprised? No, I was mesmerised by GRV’s shot. I am awestruck with Virat’s shot. Perhaps because the era was different, GRV would not whip the ball aerially as there was no need to, then but his leg side whips were very powerful. Now, Kohli’s shot is murderous. Do you know the common thing between them that enables them?”

Wrists?

“Yes, yes of course, but how powerful and strong those wrists are. You get to know when you shake their hands and feel and observe them,” Gavaskar says. “There have been batsmen between these two who have really great flick shots, like Mohammad Azharuddin and VVS Laxman, but I would say their wrists weren’t as powerful as GRV and Kohli’s. Hence, the difference in power. Perhaps, it an illusion in my mind, but that’s my gut-feel. Of course, this magnificent shot of Kohli’s isn’t just due to wrists; it takes a lot of skill just as it was for all the others before him.”

We shall come to the shot (played to the faster bowlers) and the skill and technique behind it but first the context. Is it possible to place Kohli’s swat-flick in the lineage of the shot and try trace its evolution? And then understand why his version is at the zenith of that evolution in the mayhem it unleashes.

Mid ‘80’s. Kids at school suddenly started to flick their tongues out and mimicked a strange whippy shot. A wiry Azharuddin was becoming the new hero on cricket grounds in the country with his outlandish flick shot. It seemed an untameable magical beast, where you had to drag balls from even outside off and try to whiplash it through the on side. It proved impossible to mimic for us kids in competitive cricket against leather ball. Adults would chuckle as they recounted cricket lore about Indians’ flick shots — how the English were in trance at the ‘sorcery’ of Ranjit Singhji’s leg glance. How the Bangalore wizard Viswanath did it and now this young Hyderabadi is doing it. Same old, same old, they would say. That shots evolve, sometimes decades later.

Mind you, Azhar’s wasn’t a gentle flick by any stretch, especially as he got fitter. It wasn’t like Ravi Shastri’s elegant variation. As years went by, he started to thrash-whip the balls furiously, triggering headshakes and smiles in fans.

Even Courtney Walsh did it once after watching his outside-off delivery being thrown back from wide midwicket boundary; he walked to the top of his run-up, playing imaginary flicks as if the mere act of mimicking would strip the shot of its mystique and give him some clue to taming it.

Years later, Lance Klusener would do the same in Calcutta dusk. Walking in a trance, as it were. But at its ferocious avatar, Azhar’s flicks reeled off fours. These days, though, the flick-shot world has gone mad.

Virat Kohli, ICC T20I rankings, ICC top 10 T20I batsmen, Virat Kohli ICC rankings, KL Rahul, India vs West Indies T20I 2019, Babar Azam Virat Kohli played a scintillating 29-ball 70 knock against West Indies on Wednesday (Source: AP)

Mid 90’s, Laxman arrived. His was a more controlled version of Azhar’s, less powerful perhaps, but as effective in run production and the effect it had on the bowler. Where to bowl now? The same ball is either been classily creamed through the off or when the mood seized him, whisked away to the leg-side alleys.

The shot came to him while trying to handle the bounce and pace on matting tracks that he grew up on. He had minor problems initially (odd leading edges or tendency to flick in the air) but nailed the shot by ’98 when he worked out the lengths against which he was going to attempt that shot to pacers.

The most graceful of the flicks belonged to that artist Mark Waugh who conjured powerfully-clipped fours without any trace of violence.

***

Not that the others didn’t play it before. Gavaskar himself had a gorgeous whip of his legs, where he would allow the ball to come to him, and then clip it ever so prettily. Tendulkar then took it and made it his own. Tendulkar’s was fiercer, Gavaskar’s oozed style. Gavaskar also had couple of variations on the flick. One of them came up during a match in England.

“Ryan Sidebottom ka father hai na, Arnie, pretty quick, was trying to tie me up from a length. So, I adjusted, chose to flick the length deliveries in the air. For two sixes. So, Arnie stands mid-pitch and shouts, ‘Sunny, they weren’t bad balls!’ That’s the thing with this shot. A good batsman will adapt and produce tiny variations of a shot, and make the bowler think.

“See what Kohli has done now. He isn’t just a bottom-handed player but uses the top hand perfectly well when he wants to. So, the ball on the off stump he can play the punchy cover drive but suddenly, use his bottom hand and wrists to smash it for a six over midwicket. What does the bowler do now?” Gavaskar says.

Kohli’s isn’t a flick, really. It’s a mutant. A swat-flick, maybe. The bottom-hand powered shot feels like a stroke borrowed from table tennis. A crack of doom. Even he didn’t know what to call it initially. At the end of a 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. “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, leaving a few questions in the head.

How is a variation of a flick shot, so instinctive in its essence seep in like that and not be part of your childhood? It isn’t a slog sweep or even an upper cut, where it’s about positioning the body and can be learnt. Like Steve Waugh did, after watching Hansie Cronje’s slog sweep his spinners. Like Sachin Tendulkar did, training the slog sweep to stub out Shane Warne’s round-the-stumps threat in end 90’s. But this flick shot, especially if it’s a signature shot, wouldn’t it be a natural, even if forced due to circumstances when playing as a kid?

Like Viv Richards’s imperious across-the-line whips. The one man whose name has been recalled by cricketers raving about Kohli’s swat-flick swagger.

Shastri brings up the comparison in his rave “Boss! What a tremendous violent shot! GRV used to play powerfully but along the ground. Viv did now and then, as he generally used his top hand and muscles more. But now and then, he would pick a bowler, and send it up and over midwicket. Kohli has that kind of presence now with this shot,” Shastri says. Rashid Latif, former Pakistan captain, has run a YouTube show about how he was reminded of Richards when he saw Kohli swat-flicking sixes.

Richards’ brother Mervin talks about how that signature on-side whip came about. There used to be a fisherman, at the end of the off side in the park near home where the brothers played as kids. “He didn’t like the ball land in his area and would chop off the ball and throw them back! So, Viv started to develop that shot. Soon, it became part of him.” Or the story of Gavaskar himself, whose straight drive came as a result of playing in a narrow space as a kid, where straight shots were the only way to go.

***

“Kohli’s flick isn’t natural as a kid?” Gavaskar is, as ever, curious. It’s then he talks about the sixes he hit against Arnie Sidebottom to suggest how a batsman does adapt as he grows and how shots start to come in and can become natural.

Like Herschelle Gibbs. The one batsman who came closest to Kohli’s swat-flick. Gibbs’ version was one of the great ODI shots of last decade. 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 on to the pad. Suddenly, however, the bat would swipe across just in time to crash-land the ball over square-leg. Somewhat similar version was played in the 90’s too by Moin Khan of Pakistan. His too was a risky version in that the lbw possibility always loomed but he wasn’t a top order batsman and was looking to score some quick runs in the end. Gibbs’ shot was a thrill, Moin’s was ballsier. And Gibbs too didn’t always possess that shot.

“I picked it from Desmond Haynes, actually,” Gibbs says from Dhaka where he is commentating on BPL. Haynes, the former West Indian opener, played for three years from 1991 for Western Province in South Africa. There Gibbs observed Haynes use the pace of the wicket to unfurl his swivel-hip flicks. “Though he would now and then hit it aerially, he would usually hit them along the ground but it was a very effective shot. So we ended up chatting and he taught me how to play it. I practiced it a lot, started to play it, and at one point decided, why not hit it in the air. Why settle for couple of runs or four when I could get a six with it?!” Gibbs laughs.

“It feels good to see Virat play his version of the shot. The difference is that he 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. But the best shot he played and is proud of was a backfoot six over covers that was witnessed by Haynes. “He came over and said that it was the best shot he had ever seen in his career — boy was I thrilled to hear that! I batted with flair, and hopefully entertained the fans with my flick shot.”

***

Kohli cuts out the risks associated with Gibbs’s version, through the arc his bat cuts when it’s crashing down to meet the ball. You don’t get that pang of apprehension what would happen if Kohli fails to connect. The bat doesn’t come down as straight as for a straight drive of course but there is a lot more wood in the path of the ball. In the absence of any worry about a plausible lbw, he can focus on twirling his bottom-hand a lot more than most.

And how those wrists whip themselves into a frenzy. The right wrist almost snaps and the bat blurs down thrillingly. You could do that with a smaller table tennis racquet but to get this longer and thicker piece of wood at frenetic pace needs supple and steely wrists. This oxymoronic combo creates the power, and the overall balance that he maintains helps in connecting as firmly as he wants. It’s a stroke that has consistently improved over the years, especially through the IPLs, but it was on a Hobart night in 2012 when he dismantled the yorker-slinging Lasith Malinga that it achieved a finesse. That night, he stayed well back inside the crease, and repeatedly swatted away.

“Oh yes, that Malinga knock,” Gavaskar says. “I was awestruck. It was risk-free, almost, despite him going all out. No fear of lbws with the way the bat comes down. Back then, he played those shots squarer. Now, he has started to go midwicket.”

“Did you see that shot in the first T20 against West Indies?” Gibbs asks. “That six over midwicket off (Kesrick) Williams?” The batsmen seem to be in love with it, it even moved Kevin Pietersen to tweet: “Your flick this evening was quite something, bro! Holy smokes!”

Holy smokes, indeed. It was a fullish delivery, fairly straight, and at some point, in its trajectory, Kohli decided it had to go. For a six. The bottom-hand took over, and he drag-scooped it up and over midwicket.

“I won’t say drag-scoop, but drag-flick,” Gavaskar says. “Scoop suggests it has popped just over midwicket; doesn’t convey the astonishing distance it went. Look at how his wrists came in, and how he extended his arms afterwards. Not your swat flick, not scoop but drag-flick is perhaps more apt.”

It’s the latest in the continuing evolution of Kohli’s flick shots — more mutant versions are coming up every other day. “It’s because he now wants to cover not just square-leg but wants to use that shot to target the full arc from square-leg to wide long-on, or in other words, he wants to hit the balls from off and outside off as well, not just middle and leg” Gavaskar says. “Gibbs is right, Dessie (Haynes) did play the aerial flick occasionally, though his arc was from square-leg to backward square-leg.”

India’s captain Virat Kohli gestures towards a teammate during the second Twenty20 international cricket match between India and West Indies in Thiruvanathapuram, India, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

“Now, Kohli is picking the balls from off stump, at times outside off (something that you will see him doing more and more) as he is growing in confidence. Minor tweaks in the way he works his wrists in combination with the lines he now choses allow him to target that arc,” Gavaskar is oozing rave now.

The stillness of the head also helps in peppering a wider arc with that shot now. “It definitely does. You are going across the line to fast bowlers and from the off or off-and-middle stump lines. If the head is still, you get better control of the shot, you don’t fall over or across, and the balance helps in hitting the ball where you want,” Gavaskar says.

Gibbs points out another factor — that unlike him, because of playing in South Africa, Kohli stretches a lot on the front foot. “That means he can get that bat well ahead of his body after stretching – just imagine where he is now meeting the ball, he can potentially slap even back-of-length balls on tracks where you can trust the bounce with that shot.” A bit like what Pietersen used to do. No other modern-day batsmen, perhaps barring Pakistan’s Younis Khan to an extent, had the kind of upper-body elasticity like Pietersen. Kohli isn’t as elastic top-up but because of his huge strides, and his balance, he has enough malleability to stretch forward and let his bottom-hand and wrists do the rest of the work for him.

If the stunning assault on Malinga at Hobart in 2012 was the coming-of-age moment of Kohli’s swat-flick, the 2019 series against West Indies has birthed newer mutant versions and hints at more wristy adventures ahead of us.

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