It was a humid March night in Mumbai. The Marine Drive promenade was drenched. Most of it was ocean salt: the Arabian sea crashing into the concrete barriers of the city. But some of it was human salt: the sweat of leisure walkers, evening joggers, tea-vendors…and Virat Kohli. A few feet from the promenade, Virat Kohli was working. Inside the Wankhede stadium, his sweat watered the turf and glistened for the cameras. It was the semi-final of the 2016 World T20 Championship. And Kohli was busy heralding in a new age of T20 batsmanship.
Virat Kohli was running hard, finding the gaps, teasing the fielders. His shots hugged the ground. He was playing ‘smart’ in a format that didn’t have time for acumen. Kohli’s lung-busting innings lulled the capacity crowd into a frenzy of momentum. His sprinted twos evoked a noise – a sense of triumph – otherwise reserved for flat sixes.
India’s 192 felt deeper than it was, and the commentators concluded that Kohli had proven that modern T20 batting isn’t about ballistic brutality. There is space for the cerebral hustle. For milking, rotating, pacing. Fours can be just as productive as sixes: His 89 featured 11 fours and just 1 six. The commentators were right till the 15th over of the West Indian innings.
With 73 needed off 36 balls, Andre Russell and Lendl Simmons knocked the future out of T20 cricket. 42 of the 73 runs came in sixes. Nobody ran: the batsman teed off, the fielders watched the sky, the water swelled into waves. Rare singles felt like punchlines to unwritten jokes. Just like that, the revolution had been reversed. Three nights later, Carlos Brathwaite’s four sixes off Ben Stokes made a mockery of a scratchy chase in a low-scoring final. Kohli’s sweat had barely dried, but the traditionalists had triumphed. Match-ups, strategies, field placings: squashed.
A specific movie image popped into my head: A slick, agile warrior engages in shrill air-combat to intimidate his bulky opponent only to be wiped out by a simple punch. Somehow, it felt right. No cricket fan, young or old, begrudged them their spoils. The West Indies winning two World T20 titles felt impossibly romantic: A last-gasp reclamation of the sport from the clutches of intellectualisation. The dark ages, for once, felt like the brighter side – power over pain, strength over sweat. Russell’s forearms became the biceps of history.
It was a hot and dry October night in Sharjah when a 41-year-old Chris Gayle batted for the first time in IPL 2020. It was his team’s seventh game. The Kings XI Punjab were on a five-match losing streak. At the crease was Orange Cap holder KL Rahul, a modern T20 batsman who smashed sixes as a last resort. Times had changed. The Universe Boss was no more an opener: He strutted in at the dismissal of Mayank Agarwal, another modern hustler who cleared the field only if he couldn’t work it.
It felt strange – yet oddly poetic – to watch an old-school T20 legend sandwiched between two young Indians: Two hard-working, technical, and prolific scorers. It felt like the end of a dynasty when Gayle ambled to 8 off 15 deliveries. Rahul, a tense finisher, cleared the ropes twice in a desperate attempt to poke the sleeping giant at the other end.
And then it happened. Sharjah morphed into the Mumbai of 2016. A bulky West Indian warrior tired of sparring simply landed a knockout punch. Indian bowlers saw stars. The target felt incidental. A Gayle six is a thing of primal beauty: The wide stance widens further, the knees stretch, the chest bloats, the seemingly stiff body cranks into gear as if it were defying gravity and peace. You can almost hear the anatomical process. You can almost smell the creaky violence. Gayle lifted the ball into the empty stands five times over the next five overs. That doesn’t sound extraordinary on its own, but it’s the way he did it that punctured the studied finesse of the new-age T20 safari.
Four of Gayle’s five sixes came off 21-year-old off-spinner Washington Sundar. Sundar had conceded just one six – in his first over of the tournament – until he bowled to Gayle in his seventh game. He was not only one of the most economical bowlers of IPL 2020, but also a ploy – a calculated, cerebral move – by the hyperactive RCB captain to snuff out a lethargic Gayle.
That RCB captain had huffed and puffed his way to a six-less 48 earlier in the evening; he ran 36 of them in the stifling desert heat. That RCB captain had also demoted his own star hitter to number 6 to keep a right-left combination going at the crease. That RCB captain, not for the first time, watched a Caribbean butcher demolish his noisy, analytical grit in minutes. Virat Kohli feels futile when he isn’t sweating. But he is also made to feel futile – by the towering T20 purists – when they refuse to break a sweat.
Two days later, after sprinting 27 off his 43 runs against the Rajasthan Royals, Virat Kohli watched from the Dubai dugout as AB de Villiers turned his hi-tech struggle into a footnote. AB finished the game with six sixes off the last three overs, making an unlikely chase – and the colleagues who left him 47 to get off the last 18 balls – look like a pointless prank. A few matches ago, when Kohli could barely time the ball beyond the 30-yard circle – his unbeaten 33 contained one boundary – AB finished with a scarcely believable 73 against KKR. 56 of them were sixes and fours. While the others batted on a pitch, de Villiers batted just because he could.
Another day later, KL Rahul watched from the Dubai dugout as Gayle – who was inexplicably excluded from the ‘first’ Super Over between the Kings XI Punjab and the Mumbai Indians – coolly deposited a Boult full-toss over the ropes in an unprecedented second Super Over. Gayle’s was the only six across the four eliminator overs. His blow virtually sealed his team’s historic victory.
Players like Gayle and de Villiers represent the fast-fading soul of T20 cricket – the flashes of genius, the parody of patience, the ripping of rulebooks, the measured mayhem. They might never be as functional as the Kohlis and Rahuls, but their batting is born from the intoxicating marriage of dominance and dysfunction. The bowlers, the charts, the traps, the think-tanks cease to exist.
The conditions don’t matter anymore. The IPL captains playing them out of position don’t matter. The grass on the outfield does not matter as much as the atmosphere above it. The weather doesn’t matter. Their sweat evaporates and becomes the humidity that makes the grafters sweat. On torrid summer nights, their salts merge with the ocean that drenches promenades – by soaring high above those concrete boundary ropes.