From the time I started watching cricket, maybe a quarter of a century ago, the game has evolved much - the skill-sets, the strategies and even the rules have changed with the passage of time. But what has remained constant is the spirit in which the game is played. The idea of "beautiful cricket" has not evolved despite the metamorphosis that the game has gone through.
Beautiful, technically correct batsmanship is quite simply a phenomenon, wherein a batsman is able to match the viewer's imagination of how a stroke should be ideally played and how the batsman should aesthetically look while playing the stroke. Over time, the sum collective of this imagination has come together to form the word "textbook".
A textbook cover drive, therefore, means that when the batsman completes the shot, his front foot should be well extended while his backfoot must have stayed rooted to the crease, thus bending his back knee; the bat must have "flowed" rather than been thrust forward from the backlift, to meet the ball just as it began to rise after pitching.
Such benchmarks exist for most shots in the modern day batsman's arsenal. And if a player is able to meet this expectation, more often than not, cricket pundits and the common fan would label him a "beautiful" batsman.
But beautiful batting should not limit itself just to the execution of the shot. The selection of the shot itself has equal importance to how it is played in the end. Leaving a short, rising delivery well is as much of an art as pulling it for six.
To get this selection correct, a batsman needs what few possess naturally - time. That extra second which comes from a quicker than normal judgement of the ball's trajectory - and that which allows consideration of a wider range of strokes before one is finally chosen.
Often, the shot picked would be one which would maximise return and minimise risk, but most importantly one that can be played with the least amount of effort. If all goes well, we get to see the intended result - a sweetly struck shot that sees the ball race across the turf to the boundary; in other words, "timing".
In summary, if you have succeeded in playing a textbook stroke with the correct timing, for that shot, you are a "beautiful" batsman.
Throughout cricket history, there have been some players who have played particular shots better than others - Sachin Tendulkar was the master of the straight drive, Ricky Ponting had his perfect pull shot and Rahul Dravid had the most potent defensive arsenal in the world.
But if you were to put all the beauty of their batting together to create the most complete "beautiful" batsman, three players come to my mind - Mark Waugh of the mid-90s, VVS Laxman of the early 2000s and Virat Kohli of today (and not because he is rated the world's best batsman).
First, a little context here - batting beauty is independent of result, meaning it does not matter to me if a "beautiful" batsman wins matches for his team. I am only measuring his artistic calibre with the willow.
Similarly, innovation does not play a part in this measurement, so AB de Villiers is not there in my list.
Interestingly, the weight of the Little Master’s bat precluded him from this list too; if you have followed Tendulkar's career minutely, you would know that he always wielded (except when the tennis elbow hampered him) one of the heaviest bats in one day cricket. This forced him to employ an ultra-bottom handed grip and he held the bat almost at the blade, unlike other batsmen who usually hold the bat halfway up the handle. Hence, his bat automatically became more "club" than "rapier", thereby keeping him out of my list.
What Tendulkar had was the best balance in the world while playing his strokes. But to my mind he was not the complete "beautiful" batsman that I am trying to identify in this piece.
So, back to the three gentlemen I have identified, and what sets them apart from their peers.
First and foremost, the stance at the wicket. A "beautiful" batsman, while waiting for the bowler to arrive at his delivery stride, needs to be poised and relaxed yet free enough to access the entire ground with his strokes, without any exaggerated movement.
Think about Steve Smith; despite being a great batsman, he looks ungainly at the crease and definitely has to shuffle towards off to play leg side shots. Same with Shikhar Dhawan; while his stance is designed for the cover drive and the cut, the leg side shots seem unattractive at the beginning of his innings.
Mark Waugh stood at the crease as if he was waiting for a pizza. The bat was held as lightly as possible, the body never moved until it had to, and when it did, the economy of motion, both of human and willow, was breath taking.
VVS Laxman would give the impression of being a little restless as he tapped his bat more; given his height, this created the illusion of movement. But so comfortable was his stance that in the famous Kolkata Test where he outscored Dravid by about a 100 runs, he looked much the fresher batsman in the iconic photograph at the end of the 4th day.
Kohli stands rigid with an air of solidity, but his stance allows a comfortable swing of the arms through the line of the ball - in a manner that is not so easy for other top-class batsmen.
Next comes the initial movement at the crease when the ball has reached the point of "no return". I subscribe to the school of thought that the first movement should be an extension of the front foot with the bat following close behind. If the batsman moves back and across, he has to complete two movements and then swing his bat, rather than the one flowing motion.
Yes, there have been extremely skilled players who have scored heavily off this trigger movement. But by the time you can actually swing the bat to meet a 150 kmph delivery, the ball might have already passed you.
Two cases in point would be Marvan Atapattu and Michael Slater, gifted batsmen who had a penchant for getting bowled or LBW against quality pacers.
Actually, if you can do without this “trigger” movement and still play your intended stroke with the required freedom and finesse, that is batting nirvana. But that is rather difficult, so a "beautiful" batsman should settle for a smooth, short movement and keep his bat, head and body balanced.
Hence, by extension, the trigger movement should be directed by playing conditions. If the ball is bouncing, one should move back and across; if the ball is seaming, one should move forward to cover the seam as soon as possible.
Ricky Ponting had the most pronounced forward stride among modern day batting greats, which in his day obviously cut down the chances of being given LBW. Sehwag meanwhile let his hand eye coordination literally "stand and deliver". Both reaped rich rewards, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Waugh and Laxman stayed rooted at first and then got in a short stride, whereas Kohli nowadays gets beautifully forward from the moment the bowler’s arm turns over. Yet the end result is the same - the bat at the top of the backlift, the body crouched and balanced and most importantly, the weight not yet committed on either foot.
The third phase is the shot selection and weight transfer. The correct shot selection and following weight transfer (in accordance to the batsman’s physical stature) can convert a yorker into a full toss or a grille-seeking bouncer into a chest high gift that can be swivelled over the mid-wicket fence.
There is no better example of this in today’s generation of cricketers than Rohit Sharma, once he has crossed 80. Mark Waugh had this penchant for selecting the most glorious looking shots on the on-side while Laxman's Test batting in Australia showed us what a genius he was on the off side when it came to beautiful stroke making.
Kohli in my view can combine the talents of both – he has the weight coming forward as he prepares to face up and also wrists of steel – which is what allowed him to lift Mitchell Starc’s full 145 kph thunderbolt nonchalantly over the long-on boundary a couple of days ago.
Finally, we come to the last phase when the bat actually meets the ball and then continues on its trajectory. Mark Waugh would always move at the last possible second but his hand speed was tremendous and the bat would simply caress the ball rather than strike it.
When on song, Laxman’s blade would also seemingly just need to touch the cherry to send it racing to the ropes – so much so that during the Sydney Test of 2004, he famously made Sachin Tendulkar feel conscious with the ease of his batting.
Kohli brings a sense of power to this finesse. When he meets that ball you get that feeling of solidity that you got with Dravid, but the art is perhaps a little more pleasing to the eye.
So all in all I would rate Kohli as the most “beautiful” batsman I have seen wield the willow. And that opinion would have remained the same even if he did not have the run of success that he is currently having.
But then again, his success is a function of doing the small things the right - no, the ideal - way, which in totality sums up into a “beautiful” batsman.
Also read - World cup winners list