Kohli and Rohit both know the formula to earn one final hurrah

The T20 format evolves so rapidly that it is possible a batter’s experience might actually work against him. In the debate over whether to choose both stalwarts Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma for the World T20 in June, this is the philosophical conundrum India’s selectors grapple with.

In sport, the more you play the better you get at what you are doing. A spinner like Ravichandran Ashwin, who turns 38 this year, has more tricks up his sleeve than he had a decade ago. Kohli and Rohit understand their batting better than they did a decade ago.

In the five-day game, a batter has to necessarily find the balance between attack and defence, and a lot of elements go into finding that balance. Experience, instinct, the ability to see a situation develop, the skill to read a bowler and get into his head over a long period are only some of these.

Remember and forget

In Test cricket, memory is important. This enables pattern-recognition and the honing of the skill to react to different situations in a practised, trained manner. A coach in the old days would say: “If you have only one stroke, the square cut, play it every time the bowler pitches short.”

In T20, the batter is expected to have the gift of forgetfulness. If you square cut the bowler the last time he pitched short, forget that the next time he does and swing him over mid-on. Let each ball be a new experience. The past isn’t as important as the present. Experience can sometimes be a weight around the neck of the batter (not so much the bowler, but that’s another story).

Watching young batters come through the system over the years in the IPL, untroubled by what was, unconcerned by what will be has been one of the features of the tournament. Unexpectedness is key. Flexibility is vital. Those who have been around for a few years — even the ones with the best records like Shikhar Dhawan or David Warner — know that the motto is adapt or perish, and adapt quickly.

When Brendon McCullum startlingly exposed the possibilities of the tournament in its very first match with a ground-breaking 158 off 73 balls for KKR against RCB, it was the “spark that set the IPL’s inaugural season alight,” in the words of Lalit Modi, now in the doghouse but once the czar of the IPL.

It was also an innings that gave the tournament a false tenet. It quickly came to be known as a batter’s game, and it was sometime before it was recognised that winning teams actually had good bowling attacks. RCB, who soon invested in three of the best T20 batters of the time — Chris Gayle, A.B. de Villiers and Virat Kohli — didn’t win the tournament then, or indeed in any of its 16 years.

Sometimes too much knowledge can be a handicap, as experienced batters are aware of the many ways of getting out. And not always amenable to change. Younger players unburdened by such knowledge, don’t know enough to be worried. They are more comfortable at the other end of the scale, striking with the confidence that comes naturally to youth. They know no other way to bat.

In his 49-ball 77 in Bengaluru, Kohli attacked the Punjab Kings bowlers with a mixture of sound shots and innovative ones. Over the years he has showed he can score at 140 without straining himself excessively, and without having to invent shots. He uses the ones available in the textbook well enough.

He opened the batting, which is something he has done nine times for India (strike rate 161), and where he might fit in best with Rohit Sharma. These are early days yet, and the selectors will need more data before deciding.

Rohit Sharma, who is set to lead, turns 37 next month, Kohli is 36 in November. When India won the World T20 in 2007, they went without their top international batters. But things have changed a lot since then, and no one can be automatically eliminated now. Everyone adapts.

Rishabh Pant apart, the progress made by India’s two best batters will be followed even more keenly as the IPL unfolds.

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