Timing. It’s one of those wonderfully charming words, particularly from a cricketing standpoint. ‘Wow, what timing!’ trips off our tongue with almost monotonous regularity these days when Virat Kohli is at the middle. Often, ‘timing’ comes into play when a cricket ball is magically, effortlessly dismissed from the batsman’s presence with a wink and a nod. Timing as it has come to be used is the anti-power. It is the opposite of brutal. It is the essence of the aesthetic, a wowing fusion of grace and elegance, of ease and élan.
It is also one of those unquantifiables. When you say a bowler is seriously quick, the speed gun gives you an idea of how much so – give or take a few clicks here and there. If you identify somebody as a massive turner of the ball, then there is technology that will educate you on degrees and angles. A massive six can be measured, again up to within a few feet, the speed of the ball off the bat judged scientifically. All of these are cricketing traits that can be developed, harnessed and incorporated. Timing, the experts tell us, is the gift of the cricketing gods. You either have it, or you don’t. And hey, don’t bother trying to understand what it really is, because no one actually knows.
So we talk of Kohli and timing in much the same breath as we did the ‘T’ word and VVS Laxman. And Carl Hooper, say. David Gower. Even Virender Sehwag, beautifully brutal as he could be. A few years back, during a nice late-evening chat that revolved around cricket and only cricket, one of the topics we dwelled on at length was timing. Each of us had his own take, but could convince none of the others for obvious reasons. The closest we came to being impressed, more than anything else, was when a domestic stalwart who plied his wares for several years in the western part of the country said, “Timing relates to the time lag between seeing the ball and playing it. Those with the best timing see the ball very early, and play it very late.”
The more I thought about it, the less sure I was of that assertion, because it suggests that timing can be an acquired gift. The master-timers have a different tale to tell.
There are, though, different kinds of timings, including the most literal one — a particular point or period of time when something happens, as the good dictionary tells us.
You have runs of form that are referred to as purple patches. Occasionally – very, very occasionally — you will have a Kohli whose extraordinary consistency will convert the patches to vast expanses of undivided, unbroken purple. And then you will have a Mayank Agarwal, in the middle of what for want of imagination has to be called a ‘dream run’ that started in November and that, thankfully for him and his team, shows no signs of abating.
Apart from a brief run in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy 20-over tournament when the law of averages caught up with the right-hander, Agarwal has been dominating bowling attacks across formats. Having turned 27 a week back, the man from Karnataka is fast approaching his best years as a batsman. As far as timing goes, this is perfect. But timing only goes thus far in this instance, perhaps.
By 27, those aspiring and cut out for higher honours have already made their statements. Earned their spurs at the highest level. And either set themselves up, fallen on hard times and bounced back, or realised that the gulf between domestic and international cricket is a budge too far.
Agarwal is still waiting for his chance. After 2917 first-class runs – 1160 of those came this Ranji Trophy season alone – in 37 games at 51.17. After 2431 List A runs in 52 matches, at an average of 46.75 and a strike-rate of 98.94. And after 2220 runs in all 20-over cricket when average (24.66) and strike-rate (130.97) combine to make him a fearsome, feared proposition. In the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy currently underway, Agarwal’s group-stage scores read 89, 102, 28, 84 and 109, one of the main reasons for Karnataka’s entry into the knockouts. Once there, he sunk high-flying Hyderabad in the quarters the other day with a subliminal 140, keeping Karnataka on course for their third title in five years in this format.
And yet, Agarwal’s timing sucks, if you will. Not on the field, where he has been stacking up the kind of numbers we dream up in our backyards. But the timing in the broader, truest, purest sense. He has made these runs when India seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the top of the order, both in red-ball cricket and white. Kohli and Ravi Shastri and the selectors are still grappling to figure out which is the best Indian opening combine in Tests as they play Russian Roulette with M Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan. In 50-over and 20-over cricket, Dhawan and Rohit Sharma are the obvious choices for now, but if there are to be back-ups, will Rahul figure in that list? `Or will Ajinkya Rahane, who for now appears to be the flavour at No. 4 in the 50-over game, especially with the World Cup in England looming over the horizon?
What about Agarwal? In less than a fortnight, India start their final international assignment of the season, a triangular Twenty20 International series in Colombo against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. On paper, it would appear the ideal chance to test Agarwal out against ‘better’ opposition. He can get a taste of international cricket while at the same time priming himself for the Indian Premier League, where he is one of a host of Karnataka batsmen that will turn out for Kings XI Punjab.
But in real terms, even assuming that Dhawan and/or Rohit are rested (what will they both not give to slip into T20 mode by playing a tournament ahead of the IPL?), what will Agarwal really gain? Apart from the India cap, that is? A fantastic outing will be buried under the inevitable IPL hype that will succeed the tri-series; the next World T20 isn’t until 2020 and that really is a long time off. A poor run in Sri Lanka could relegate him to the ‘brilliant at domestic level but not so good on the international stage’ category. And if he has a middling run, well… he has a middling run.
Agarwal has time on his side, of that there is little doubt. Few Indian batsmen who have not flirted with international cricket have had such tremendous success in both red-ball and white-ball cricket in the same season. He isn’t a one-dimensional, hit-or-miss ball-basher any more – you can’t be if you are to amass 2000 runs in four months. Vijay and Dhawan are not getting any younger. And India have demanding Test assignments lined up over the next 12 months. The pecking order is certain to change after the last ball is bowled in Australia in the next southern hemisphere summer. Whether Agarwal is still relevant at that stage will entirely be up to him, though that will necessitate him having a second successive ‘breakthrough’ year. As ‘on’ as his timing has been, it couldn’t have been more ‘off’ too. But I doubt if young Agarwal would have it any other way.