Sunday, 5 August 2018

First Test Notes: Virat Breaks Bad; Root-mathing Rooty's Fifties; Worst Shot Award

In Breaking Bad Season Three, Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin of New Mexico, is almost exactly halfway through his transformation "from Mr Chips to Scarface". Walt has already, with varying degrees of willingness, killed several people, but now he is dealing with the genuine article, his dead-eyed boss in the crystal business, Gustavo Fring. Fring has manipulated the near fatal shooting of Walt's brother in law, the swaggering DEA agent Hank Schrader, and in doing so, steered the assassins away from Walt himself.

For Walter it's a revelatory moment. Not only does he puzzle out the "much deeper game" that Fring has designed, he admits - both to Fring and, implicitly, to himself - that "I would have done the same..." Less than a year later, he organises Gus Fring's murder.

Walter loves chemistry because chemistry is "the study of change". It's the metaphor for the show's five seasons, as Walt, in the words of his partner Jesse Pinkman, "breaks bad". Yet it becomes apparent, as Walt meets his fate, that change is also about accepting your true nature. Walt did what he did, he confesses at the end, "because I liked it..."

Okay, it's a writerly leap from Breaking Bad to Test match cricket, from Walter White to Virat Kohli. But what is Kohli if not a man who has embraced his true nature as India's alpha-dog player and the game's latest supernova, a man for whom batting is absolutely the study of change.

Sam Curran many have been the man of the match at Edgbaston, but the award fooled no-one. This Test match revolved around the powerful gravity of Kohli's star. By the game's third evening, England's players were openly admitting the obvious: that the result was intimately bound up with Virat's fate. Graham Gooch's 154 of England's 252 at Headingley in 1991 has been called Test cricket's greatest innings. Kohli's 149 of India's 274 walked in the foothills of such mastery. At Headingley the next best score was Mark Ramprakash's 27; at Edgbaston, it was Dhawan's 26.

Much has changed since 2014, and you can read about Kohli's transformation anywhere. He will talk happily about the small technical changes, tiny shifts of back foot and hip position, that have allowed him to do his thing. What is more impressive and more important is the act of will that has accompanied it. Kohli changed because he wanted to, because it is his nature, because he likes it.

He has evolved a preternatural, majestically orthodox style of batting that works in every format: all he does as he swaps between them is alter the tempo, retune himself to different frequencies. It is pure and beautiful. He is 29 years old and has 57 international hundreds. Only Kallis, Sangakkara, Ponting and Tendulkar have more, and all of them played over 500 games. Kohli has played 340.

More than this, Kohli's desire to fulfil himself and to leave his mark on history is important politically. India and the BCCI's commitment to Test cricket must match his - Kohli demands it, and the whole game benefits. He lifts us up.

Root-mathing Rooty's fifties

After Joe Root's first-innings run out, Jonathan Liew tweeted: 'You hear lots about Root's (very poor) conversion rate from 50 to 100, but very little about his conversion rate from 0 to 50, which is insane. It's 43%, which is the highest of any batsman since Bradman'.

It kicked off the old debate about whether it's better to have a champion player who scores fifty all the time, or one who scores 100 and then nought but averages fifty.

Since his last century, against West Indies in August 2017, Root has played twelve Tests, batted 21 times and made eleven scores of fifty-plus. Of those twelve Tests, England have lost seven and drawn two. All three victories have been at home, against West Indies (in a series win), Pakistan (draw) and India.

England players have made hundreds in some of those games: Stokes against West Indies at Leeds (lost); Malan and Bairstow against Australia in Perth (lost); Cook against Australia in Melbourne (drawn) and Bairstow against New Zealand in Christchurch (drawn), so the argument, when refined, is not just about one batsman making fifties.

The significance of course is that England came up against players that did convert, notably other members of the current Big Four, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Kohli. Steve Smith batted seven times, making three hundreds and two fifties; Williamson batted three times and made one hundred; Kohli has batted twice and made a hundred and a fifty.

It's a (too) small sample size, but it suggests a ruthlessness that shows up in their overall stats. Smith has batted 117 times in Test cricket for 23 hundreds and 22 fifties; Williamson 116 times for 18 and 26; Kohli 114 times for 22 and 17. Root stands at 128 innings, 13 hundreds and 41 fifties.

England are below India, Australia and New Zealand in the Test rankings. The question of which is better, consistency or big scores from players with similar averages and overall output, seems to have an answer - not that Bradman would have been in any doubt...

And the Worst Shot Award goes to...

Has there been a Test match in recent times in which so many good players have got out to such truly terrible shots? Not just the usual nick-offs, hole-outs and brain-fades, the workaday lapses of concentration and moments of fear and panic (of which there were plenty on both sides), but the kind of shots that you would be deeply embarrassed to play yourself.

There was KL Rahul determinedly dragging on a wide half volley second ball having edged his first through the slips. There was Ajinkya Rahane playing the weirdest of half-bat wafts to Ben Stokes - if he was trying to edge it to slip, he couldn't have done so any better; and then there was Stokes himself, essaying a magnificently atrocious, almost indescribable caught and bowled to Ashwin. He looked like an indulgent dad on the beach, contorting his arms to make sure that he directed a wayward tennis ball back at his three-year-old to catch.

Almost as culpable was Joe Root, who lollied Ashwin to leg gully off the face of the bat having just stared at the two (count 'em) fielders placed there, and Johnny Bairstow, following him in, playing the same shot to his first ball...

It was a wonderful Test match, made in part by its participants' fallability.


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