Denis Compton, the original Brylcreem boy, was many things – batsman supreme, first-class bowler excellent, footballer more than passable. In a professional cricketing career spanning 20 years, he made 17 centuries in 78 Tests, winding up with 5807 runs at 50.06. A whopping 515 first-class games yielded 622 wickets earned through left-arm spin. He played in the successful Arsenal sides of the 1930s and 40s, winning the English first division title, the League title and the FA Cup.
As accomplished a sportsman as he was, Compton also had the reputation of being absent-minded. It was an endearing trait at most times, but not when he was at the batting crease, and not when his partners were on tenterhooks while running between the wickets.
Trevor Bailey, the England allrounder whose career overlapped with Compton’s, once famously averred that ‘a call for a run from Compton should be treated as no more than a basis for negotiation’. Not sure if there were enough ‘Yes! No! Sorry’s! thrown in when Compton was batting, but there must have been a fair share of consternation within his dressing-room and mirth outside if legend is not over-exaggerated, as it generally tends to be.
The single is the most unglamorous run in cricket; it is also the most crucial component in innings-building. The boundaries are the high that the adrenaline-junkies thrive on, the humble single no more than an anonymous brick in an eventually sturdy wall. The fours and sixes thrill the audience, the ones and twos lift the team. And, as Virat Kohli has been showcasing for so many years now, they don’t need to be mutually exclusive. You can be a great boundary-hitter, and you can also work the gaps and the fields adeptly. If you have the skills, yes, but also if you have the intent and the enterprise.
India’s mercurial, energetic, perennially charged-up skipper is one of the most spectacular runners between the wickets. Agreed, his cover-driving is an unmatched thing of beauty. His punches down the ground breathtakingly eloquent. His whippy drives wide of mid-on jaw-dropping. He can be, and is often, the poster-boy of seductive strokeplay. And yet, while the glory strokes are branded into your consciousness, it is impossible not to marvel at Kohli’s brilliance as he eats up the 22 yards between the stumps. With consummate ease.
Which is perhaps why it comes as a surprise that Kohli has been involved in 26 run-outs in One-Day International cricket. His partner has been run out 14 times, Kohli himself has been caught short of his crease 12 times. On five of those 12 instances, Kohli was batting alongside Rohit Sharma. What does that mean? Does it really mean anything at all?
Kohli and Rohit are a prolific pair in ODI cricket; they have been even more so since Rohit was pitchforked to open the batting on a permanent basis in the 50-over game in January 2013. Together, they have put on 3518 runs in 62 innings, piecing together 13 century stands and nine alliances between 50 and 99. Their average of 60.65 is second only to Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers’s 72.34 for all partnerships worth more than 3000 runs in the history of the ODI game. Clearly, Rohit and Kohli do many things right when they bat alongside each other. But the one thing they don’t always do right is when they run between the wickets.
Alright, so seven run-outs in 58 completed innings isn’t really a cause for concern, much less alarm. Roughly, the run-out accounts for just 12% of the dismissals when the duo has batted together; Kohli’s reactions on being dismissed thus, Rohit’s contriteness in the immediacy of the disaster even if it is not of his own making, and his uncannily inevitable tryst with three-figures – is he trying to give his captain as much time as possible to cool down before rejoining him in the dressing-room? – have combined to give the Rohit-Kohli ‘yes-no-sorry’ sequence a life of its own that is too compelling to ignore.
The unshakeable association of ‘laidback’ and ‘lazy elegance’ with Rohit paints the picture of a reluctant runner between the sticks. It is a wrong and unfair picture. You can’t amass 6579 ODI runs – to go with more than 3000 international runs in the other two formats – and smack three 50-over double-hundreds through running reluctance. It’s just that Kohli is so frenetic between the stumps, so eager to look for a second, so ready to pounce on the slightest of fumbles, that he makes all others look almost pedestrian by comparison.
Kohli flying down the pitch is a spectacle in itself. The aggression that he has become so synonymous with oozes out of every pore as he eats up the ground effortlessly, the effort barely discernible even though he is pushing himself to the limit. He seldom seems to decelerate even when looking for a second run. It is as if he suddenly pulls the hand brake out, defying the laws of physics and momentum and whirling himself around for the second, with the possibility of a third lurking just beneath the surface of his mind.
Because he is so unbelievably quick and decisive, Kohli probably struggles to come to terms with the fact that most of his colleagues are not. Several years back, VVS Laxman spoke of how, when batting with Sachin Tendulkar, he always ‘felt at ease because Sachin would run at my pace, not expect me to run at his pace’. Tendulkar was excellent too as the stubby legs flew across the length of the pitch; Laxman was the stately Rolls Royce to Tendulkar’s Ferrari, and yet the two entities found a way to bat together with few alarms. Maybe that’s something for Kohli to consider. Especially if his mates are not in a position to up their running game.
To run well as a pair, one needs to have complete and utter faith in each other – in the partner’s judgement, in his calling, in his ability to do what is best for the team of two. The best running pairs – Greenidge and Haynes, Hayden and Langer, Tendulkar and Dravid, Jayawardene and Sangakkara – haven’t necessarily felt the need for verbal communication. Eye-contact was more than enough at most times; at others, there was instinctive and total trust in the caller. It wasn’t as if these pairs never had mix-ups, but very little of it had to do with ball-watching or wavering confidence.
Maybe that’s also one of the reasons why Kohli loves having Mahendra Singh Dhoni around. Dhoni offers great value behind the stumps – with his glovework non-pareil, his attention to detail when it comes to field placements, and his near-accurate reading of DRS calls – and even though his consistent big-hitting might be a thing of the past, he can match Kohli for speed, desire and hunger between the wickets. One of the highlights of India’s World T20 campaign at home two years back was how brilliantly the then captain and the heir-apparent ran first Australia, then Windies, ragged in back-to-back games. They fashioned twos out of one-and-a-quarter, threes out of one-and-three-quarters. They did so with intelligence and understanding, not through recklessness and on a wing and a prayer. They ran like the wind. Wonder what Mr Compton would have had to say about that.