Years back, when you rollicked on the verge of batting immortality, I would beseech the boys who had lapsed, to watch cricket again. I would tell them there is no better time, watch for Kohli, watch for what he’s doing with the bat.
They had lapsed so bad, even you couldn’t pull them back to cricket. Instead, they would romance a time they had played the game. They didn’t know what they were missing, they were missing out on you: your batting trance.
Then the other day, Asha aunty asked me to write about you. I excused myself then but maybe not entirely, so here we are.
Perhaps your knock against Pakistan compelled me to write about you again. Days later, I’m still thinking about it. The control, the saneness of it, the self-knowledge, yes, most importantly, the self-knowledge.
For the longest time, your batting had been about self-knowledge. About knowing your own abilities. This was far more evident in the white ball game, where you read the course of the innings as a masterful composer – you summoned the ebbs and flows of the innings with your bat; eventually thrown into a tizzy with that final spurt.
You were the batting equivalent of my Black & White TV memory when Zubin Mehta summoned his powers to Delhi in the mid 80s. If Mehta was “Baron of the baton”, you were baron of the bat.
But you know this, or at least I hope you do. Over the last few years, it’s been convenient for many to unknow this.
That is unimportant. Or is it? Has this marred your self-knowledge? Has this compelled you to reinvent yourself?
Probably not. Not from what was evident against Pakistan. My realistic expectation of you is to strike at 120, steer the innings to a shore where the mad hatters and hitters can rave with their bats in the death overs.
In the IPL, as too against Pakistan, you were well within that ballpark of 120. Coincidentally, it’s been similar in the last two IPLs. Not that it matters. You could be AWOL during the IPL, it wouldn’t matter much to me.
Or play fewer matches; when you spoke of player burnout not too long ago, you did mention that India regulars should be given a breather from the IPL calendar – but it doesn’t work that way. Even if the IPL is bang in the middle of a World Cup, chances are, key Indian players will have to play both.
For some reason, my mind always goes back to the aftermath of the 2011 World Cup win – followed by the IPL within no time, followed by the drubbing in England.
I cannot make sense of this entire mentor business. Or your twin retirement announcements.
The hype around the mentor business borders on propaganda, akin to those years when every Indian cricketer was thanking Tendulkar for anything good that happened to him. There is a mentor-cam. It’s a soap opera out there.
As with any soap opera, there’s this urge to suck this story dry. So the story goes on and on.
On the sidelines is a coach on his last assignment. There is little interest there.
And then there are your parallel stories, as captain and player. Gracious to a fault after a defeat, thoughtfully eloquent in your interviews.
This is all pretty much autopilot, both you and your handlers have excelled here.
There is you on the field, easily triggered, yet dispassionate in defeat.
There is both restraint and knowledge of the game’s vagaries.
What I wonder though is, how are you coping with the appointment of the mentor? Beyond the platitudes, the laughs on camera, what does it do to a team management already in place – in particular to the captain.
This is team India, not some IPL franchise where a dugout has to be endowed with former greats.
By the looks of it, you seem to be doing quite well. Who knows, maybe you saw an angle to this mentor business that’s eluded me. And if that’s the case, these last few weeks could be pivotal in your career as a captain.
The timing of your twin retirement announcements, the appointment of the mentor, everything moving to steady your batting grip.
That’s probably all that ever mattered. All those years where you just had to bat. Where you notched up those 70 centuries.
There was also a time, not too distant, when you were at your batting peak; you often spoke in post-match interviews of not knowing how long you had in the game.
It was a curious comment. One that made me wonder about you. And yet not altogether surprising, as who would know a sportsperson’s body and mind better than the player himself.
And that’s something you’ve been all along – the player. And Waddaplaya!
There is a point when the soundbites take over, and even through your driest patch, each innings tends to have that one bite, where the voice in the box becomes a child again.
Something which you yourself are quite familiar with – for often, that’s what you are on the field. No wonder you collude so well with Rishabh Pant standing alongside. It’s no mean feat, alongside you, even Pant appears to be the serious one.
And that, for whatever it is, is you, Virat. The prankster, the silly commenter on the field, the compulsive reviewer, the foot soldier hurling one from the boundary. Those uncalled for arguments with the umpire. The entitlement, yeah, that too. It’s far more telling than your post-match corporate avatar.
The comparisons with the mentor will only grow through this tournament – it’s that one narrative that needs no thought. If India wins this World Cup, chances are, the mentor’s guiding light will shine brighter. That’s the lazy narrative, it’s already written.
However, if this is yet another ICC trophy that eludes you, you know how that will pan out.
There are other noises which emanate from beyond the cricket field. Trust you have blocked them out.
These 22 yards are your f******g backyard. Your language is your language. Whether it is in Hindi or Punjabi, Hinglish or English. Whether it is served at that West Dilli ka Dhaba or your Peruvian restaurant.
In a few days, you will turn 33. India will take on Scotland that day. You’ll probably make some Scotch jokes with the boys.
Before that though, there’s Afghanistan and New Zealand.
Happy cricket, and Happy Birthday. Prove the naysayers wrong. Whichever way you want to spell that.
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