“Intent doesn’t really mean that you have to go out there and start playing shots from ball one. Intent is there in a leave. Intent is there in defending as well. Intent is about being vocal out there in calling. All those things count as intent. […] There will be tough moments but I think even the tough moments one needs to overcome through intent,” said Virat Kohli just before the start of the second Test against South Africa.
Yes, sounds about right.
Coming as this blog does so soon after Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Wriddhiman Saha were left out of the XI for the Centurion Test, I was starting to wonder about ‘intent’ in team selection too, but let’s leave that for the moment. I just wanted to pick on what Kohli had to say and revive an old argument. Call it the Dravid v Tendulkar debate if you will: The question of intent, aggression, positivity and, not to forget, natural ability, or the lack of it.
Too often, in cricket commentary, on TV and in writing, an aggressive batsman or bowler, someone who throws his bat around or bowls bouncers, borders on the unorthodox, is called ‘positive’. He (I’ll keep it to the men here) is the one that is out there making things happen, attacking the opposition, trying to change the script. There’s ‘intent’ in his actions, there’s ‘positivity’. No backward step. Aggro.
A batsman who leaves or dead bats the ball for minutes and hours on end is not positive enough. He doesn’t have intent – a short-sighted, even bizarre, view in my opinion.
That opinion does real damage too, because someone who doesn’t try to score off every ball is perceived as lacking natural talent. The ones that grind it out, work hard to score their runs, they are seen as having no flair.
I think that mindset does disservice to both sets of players, the stroke players and the non-stroke players.
A very recent example as illustration: In the Newlands Test, Cheteshwar Pujara faced 92 balls over 154 minutes and scored 26 runs. Hardik Pandya faced 95 balls for 93 in 153 minutes. The former didn’t move the game forward, the latter did. I accept that. But is it fair to say Pujara didn’t have intent and Pandya did, only because of the difference in runs scored? India lost, so neither of them changed the game. Had India won, in my book, the contribution of both the men would have been significant. Like, I’d argue, Bhuvneshwar’s stay towards the end of the first innings, which was as important as Pandya’s calculated stroke making. Yes, neither Pujara nor Bhuvneshwar got the pulses racing, Pandya did. That’s the only difference.
Was Tendulkar brimming over with intent because he scored his runs quicker than Dravid? Did Tendulkar have more natural ability than Dravid? And, crucially, was Dravid more about hard work than Tendulkar, who just got by with talent?
Virat, you answered it. “Intent is there in a leave. Intent is there in defending as well.”
Why is it that a cover-drive or a hook, or a hoick over midwicket, is thought of as a better cricket shot than a forward defensive or a well-judged leave outside off or a smart sway-away from a bouncer? I’d argue that it takes natural ability to do all those things well. I’d also argue that you need as much practice and training and minute analysis to perfect the pull as you do the duck. On the one hand, you had Dravid’s drenched-shirt, gritted-teeth, grimace-and-frown stonewalling, and on the other, Tendulkar’s little-bigness, his big willow, his desire to dominate the bowling. The protector and the destroyer. Both personalities developed over days and months and years of hard work and grind, of chasing perfection. And numbers suggest Dravid did more to save and win India Test matches than Tendulkar did. Without intent or natural ability?
No strategy, whether for battle or for cricket, for corporate and political manoeuvres or for public and personal relations, can be built on all-out aggression or complete reticence, in the absence of a mix of both – defence and attack. They go together, always. There’s method in both, and there’s skill and ability in both.
Sanjay Manjrekar, in his far-from-Imperfect autobiography, has interesting thoughts on the subject. In some ways Dravid’s predecessor in the Indian team, Manjrekar writes, “I just enjoyed batting defensively. It didn’t bother me much what my score was after an hour, as long as I was playing flawlessly. I focussed so much on playing correctly that sometimes I lost sight of what my real purpose at the crease was: to get runs.”
Talking about correcting mistakes, he writes about Tendulkar, “Tendulkar, to an extent, was the same, but because of his prodigious talent he could not help but hit a good ball for a four every now and then.”
Manjrekar also writes about Dravid agonising over the chinks in his armour endlessly but that he “later told me that he developed a mental antenna of sorts, to warn him of the danger of overthinking”.
When we put cricketers into boxes, we do them and everyone else disservice. Back to the Centurion Test, and Bhuvneshwar was left out for Ishant Sharma and Saha for Parthiv Patel. Because Bhuvneshwar is a ‘type’, not one for Centurion. And Saha is also a ‘type’, more behind the stumps than in front of them. Their achievements in the recent past point to the contrary. Yes, all in the subcontinent, all against weaker opposition. Exactly in circumstances where Kohli, Ashwin and everyone else did stellar work. Both of them did little wrong – and a lot right – at Newlands but were sacrificed at the altar of the horses-for-courses god. Baffling, to say the least.
The Dravid v Tendulkar perception was always there, and has only gained in traction as we moved to T20-influenced thinking and three- and four-day Tests. Now, more than ever, in an era where the integrity of Test cricket is under threat, we need to appreciate the power of the prod and duck and leave. It would be, shall we say, a show of intent.