India captain Virat Kohli has spoken a couple times during this series as to how tough he views batting in England. He feels it is the toughest country to bat in, when it comes to Test cricket. After the horrors of the 2014 tour, when he made meagre scores of 1, 8, 25, 0, 39, 28, 0, 7, 6 and 20 in five Tests at an average of 13.50, Kohli went to Australia a few months later and amassed 692 runs in four Tests.
When India toured England again in 2018, Kohli was coming off a bumper 2016 and 2017 seasons and made crucial technical adjustments to his game that allowed him to flourish in five Tests, chief among them to bat outside his crease in a bid to counter James Anderson’s late swing which tormented him four years before. Post the low of 2014, he had already changed his stance to become more side on, with the idea being to align his hip in line with the ball, and his batting average soared. The results in 2018 were immediate. Kohli started with 149 and 51 at Edgbaston, starred in the Trent Bridge win with 97 and 103 and ended the series with 593 runs at 59.30.
In this current series, Kohli averages 17.25 in four innings with a best of 40. Including the World Test Championship final versus New Zealand in Southampton, where he scored 42 and 20, and that average in England this summer improves to 21. For a batsman of Kohli’s pedigree, this is alarmingly low.
In 2018, Kohli appeared content to give England’s pacers a bit of respect and settle in. In 2021, the deliveries he would generally leave alone early in an innings, Kohli is chasing or feeling for. In six innings on this England tour, five times he has been out pushing or driving at deliveries that could have been left alone. That is to say, he has come undone while caught between attacking and leaving. His judgement outside off stump is where the problem lies.
The question has to be asked: is Kohli’s pre-series talk of India needing to be aggressive and fearless in every situation affecting his batting?
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Kohli the captain and Kohli the batsman are two different men. When leading in the field, whooping and yelling and being in the opponents’ faces is one thing. He can afford to be aggressive with his actions when he has at his disposal the best fast-bowling attack in Test cricket today. Kohli’s ballsy swagger at Lord’s, where England were beaten by 151 runs, divided opinions but that is the mould he has cast this team in. Yes, it gets ugly and draws Kohli flak, but damned if he cares. He has helped instil in this Indian cricket team the belief that no situation is to overpowering and that every team can be beaten, anywhere.
Walking the talk, to use that old sports cliche, is not something Kohli is doing at the crease, however.
On the first morning at Headingley, Kohli started confidently. His stride forward looked good and the areas he was driving the ball into, towards mid-off, indicated that he might be onto something. In that brief period, it looked as if his foot was not heading far outside of off stump, thereby changing the trajectory of his drives from left of cover towards the mid-off region. He wasn’t chasing as much, and all signs were that it could be Kohli’s day.
But then, on 7, Kohli chose to drive a full-length delivery from Anderson but it snaked away enough to find the edge through to Jos Buttler. Having beaten Kohli for pace and bounce first ball of the over, Anderson strayed straight for balls two and three, but as soon as re-adjusted his radar with a full delivery, Kohli was removed.
Kohli’s dismissal to Anderson during the first session of the Headingley Test continued his worst period as a Test batsman. Since the start of 2020, he averages 23 in 11 Tests and these 11 matches are the longest he’s gone without getting to three figures. In those 18 innings, the problem has been to pace. In particular, the deliveries pitching full and on a good length.
Just in this series with England, we’ve seen Kohli falling to pace four times, each time nicking to the wicketkeeper or the slip cordon. The technical deficiencies of 2014 are back, and Anderson has had his number twice in four innings. Those deficiencies, you can be certain of, Kohli will work his rear end off in the nets to rectify. But how much of what Kohli is going through is mental?
Rohit Sharma’s approach indicates that the answer lies with the batsmen’s mindsets. This series, opening for the first time in England, Rohit has faced 437 deliveries and scored 171 runs. Only his new opening partner, KL Rahul, has faced more (536) and score more (244). Twice he has been out hooking the ball to well-stationed fielder in the deep, and his latest vigil ended when he made a mess of an attempted pull and found a slightly close-in mid-on, but around these trademark dismissals we have seen a different Rohit. One willing to bat out sessions.
What has been the most visible adjustment made is that Rohit has resolved to leave a lot of deliveries. For a natural shot-maker of world-class pedigree in white-ball cricket, this cannot be easy. It can also play on the ego. But Rohit’s approach is yielding personal and team success. In each of his innings on tour, Rohit has made an attempt to get across the stumps and get his head in line with the ball.
His 83 one day one at Lord’s was indeed his best overseas Test innings. It came under a grey sky and against Anderson, Test cricket’s most successful captain, on the day that Kohli termed as the toughest for batting. Rohit succeeded because he trusted his approach and judgement. That same approach and judgement that saw him look good during the WTC final, where he made 34 and 30, and at Trent Bridge in the series opener. All series, Rohit has not minded being tied down. He has trusted his game, in entirety, and been ready to bat out periods.
Yes, you cannot ignore the three dismissals to horizontal bat shots. The hook and pull are shots that bowlers fear to bowl to Rohit in white-ball cricket, because he plays these tremendously. On day one in Leeds, Rohit did superbly to face over 100 deliveries while India slipped to 58/5. But in the moments leading upto his sloppy dismissal, Rohit appeared as if he wanted to get out of his shell. He missed a full toss, of all shots, and then got out trying to pull a rising ball outside off stump. That wicket sparked a dramatic collapse of four wickets without a run added.
But in Rohit’s overall approach to opening the batting in England – and indeed that of Rahul, who was thrust back into the opening role – there is much to admire and much that his team-mates can learn from. From the technical and mental deficiencies that let him down in Australia this past winter, he has transformed himself in the matter of eight months into a serious Test cricketer. The one India and countless Rohit fans have believed is possible from a batsman with three ODI double-centuries. In this time, both he and Virat have put in a lot of long and hard hours in the nets, perhaps equally so, but whereas Rohit has emerged with a sharper mental approach to Test batting, his captain has slipped further into a funk. Kohli could do worse than to take a leaf out of Rohit’s approach this series as he bids to get back into runs and help India stay alive in the Leeds Test after being bowled out for 78 on day one.
Certainly Rishabh Pant, a maverick who has won and saved India matches with his cavalier approach, is another of Rohit’s team-mates who needs to adapt his approach based on situations like day one in Leeds. His daft dismissal amid the collapse at Headingley, having a flash at a wider delivery from Ollie Robinson that just bounced a tad more to claim the edge, will rankle. Similarly, while you won’t hear anyone inside the Indian team management go up to Cheteshwar Pujara and ask him to start his next innings with a flurry of fours, there is merit in figuring out how he can get more singles earlier on and rotate the strike.
India are playing catch-up at Headingley after a terrible first innings. Batting has become easier at this venue over the past few Tests played there, and India will hope that if they can keep England to under 200, their batsmen can keep them in the game with a far better second innings. Key to that, more than technical adjustments, is how well their batsmen approach their difficult task mentally.