A tumultuous week for cricket, in cricket. On the field, but off it too.
Contracts. Charges of domestic abuse and attempt to murder. Code of Conduct breaches, fines, suspensions, appeals. Suspect actions. The CoA’s crackdown on BCCI babudom, draconian or much-needed, depending on which side of the fence you are looking in from.
The emergence from the shadows of an unheralded teenaged offspinner from Chennai. The increasing affirmation of ability by a young but excitable paceman from South Africa. Australia Women’s unsaid statement that their Indian counterparts caught them on a bad day and a Harmanpreet Kaur-inspired heist at the World Cup. Nepal’s remarkable climb to One-Day International status.
And Wasim Jaffer’s inexorable march towards a third first-class triple-century, 21 seasons after he announced his arrival on the domestic scene with an unbeaten 314 in just his second game, for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy against Saurashtra.
There is a simplicity to Jaffer’s batting that is mind-boggling. A picture of poised composure at the batting crease, tall and upright and elegant, his willow-wielding is characterised by an economy of movement with more than commensurate returns. As he eases that long left foot to the pitch of the ball and caresses it through the covers, or gets his feet together to wrist the ball through mid-wicket, he cuts a pretty, pretty delectable picture. He is the consummate professional who has transferred his experience and expertise from his beloved Mumbai to his adopted home in Nagpur. His influence in Vidarbha’s surge to their maiden Ranji Trophy title this season has been acknowledged by all and sundry.
Jaffer goes about his business without fuss. On the field, he is almost anonymous unless the ball hovers aerially anywhere close to his massive mitts. There is little indication that this man is the top run-getter in Ranji history, that he has upwards of 18,000 first-class runs, that he played 31 Test matches over an eight-year stretch, or that he has two Test double-hundreds – one in the Caribbean, the other against Pakistan in November 2007 in what remains the penultimate Test between the two nations.
Jaffer is of a vintage increasingly rare in Indian cricket. He was born in the 1970s and, recently, slipped into his 41st year on this planet. That’s an age where people leading even sedentary lifestyles start to contemplate retirement from full-time occupations if they have the security of a reasonable bank-balance to fall back on. That’s an age where a majority of the cricketers slip into the ‘former’ category, targeting commentary gigs and media deals and perhaps a dabble in IPL backroom activities, as mentor or this fancy coach or that fashionable consultant or whatever title catches the imagination of the powers that be. Not for our Wasim, it would appear.
To hear him talk about passion and commitment, you might imagine a platitude to the clichés and a practiced, rehearsed rendition, but how could you be a cynic when, at 40, he can bat for 12 hours, negotiate 425 deliveries and ballet to 285 not out? Admittedly on an absolute shirt-front, but against an attack that is far from toothless. Siddarth Kaul, Navdeep Saini, Jayant Yadav and Shahbaz Nadeem make for a reasonably handy quartet. Throw R Ashwin, the quickest to 300 Test wickets, in the mix, and it is a bowling group that is capable of holding its own even on batting beauties. Not, it would seem however, if Jaffer is the batting beauty.
Apart from drive and determination, hunger and fire, and perhaps even the escape that cricket/batting provides, the key to Jaffer’s longevity lies in his fitness. He may not be obsessively in-your-face with multiple videos showing him pumping iron or eating up the miles on the treadmill, but unless he sticks to a fitness regimen that is both demanding and fruitful, he would have found it impossible to keep pace with lads biologically young enough to be his kids. It is unlikely that Jaffer is Olympics-fit, but he doesn’t need to be, does he? So long as he is cricket-fit, 285-not-out-and-counting-fit, who cares?
When it comes to fitness, though, there are no prizes for guessing who sets the benchmark in Indian cricket. There are some who only look fit. And then there is Virat Kohli, every bit as fit as he looks, near-fanatical in his routines, near-obsessed with his attention to detail.
The one constant in Kohli’s eye-popping journey up the cricketing charts has been his intensity. It was his calling card when he was a chubby, unapologetic teenager leading his country to the Under-19 World Cup. It is still his calling card when he has graduated from captain of boys to leader of men, setting himself up as the unmistakable face of new India, of young India, of aggressive India, of ignore-me-at-your-own-peril India.
Looking from the outer, it’s an intensity that is almost frightening. You sometimes fear that the fire in Kohli might end up consuming him. That he might become a victim of his own extraordinarily high standards. That, in giving his all each second, each minute, each hour and each session and each day, he might end up not having anything at all in the tank – detrimental to the cricket world and Indian cricket, yes, but more importantly, to Virat Kohli himself.
Clearly, those fears are unfounded. Virat Kohli seems to know exactly what he is doing. He is alive to the load he is putting on his body, the demands he is making of his mind, the limits he is pushing himself to. His recent remarks on workload management indicate that he is – perhaps finally – taking note of his body’s protestations at what he is putting it through. No matter what grade of cricket, no matter the quality of the opposition, no matter whether the stately pace of Test cricket or the hustle-and-bustle of the 20-over game, Kohli has left nothing behind in the changing-room.
His unparalleled fitness allows him to be nearly as fresh at the end of a frenetic 20-over innings as its start, as charged-up and looking for the extra run in the last over of a Test-match day as, say, the first hour of play. He hunts down balls in the infield and outfield like his very existence depends on it, setting an example that his less gifted teammates struggle to match. Throw in the cares/pressures/burdens of captaincy, and it is not hard to think ‘burnout’ in the same breath.
For Kohli to speak publicly about managing his cricketing commitments, on voluntarily finding gaps in the crowded calendar to recharge mentally and regroup physically, is perhaps the most encouraging development in recent times in Indian cricket. While his legion of fans would love to see him in relentless action day in and day out, it is humanly impossible even for Kohli to keep up this manic pace. Already, there are enough indications that he is choosing carefully; the advertisers might not be thrilled to see an Indian team without Kohli, but the Indian captain’s responsibility is not towards them, needless to say.
The Kohli template is unique in almost every way imaginable. It is unlikely that he will sit out every other series – or even every third one or the occasional IPL season – because that is not in his DNA, but as and when he does feel the need, he will do so, he has told the world. Not only has he earned that right, it is also in the long-term best interest of Indian cricket.