The solution to Virat Kohli’s current batting problems is, perhaps, as simple as it is frustrating.
India’s captain does not feel like he’s in a rut. He’s timing the ball beautifully in the nets and on the pitch. He’s doing whatever he has been doing for years to get him over 7600 runs and 27 hundreds in Tests. Yes, as pointed out by commentators and statistical gurus and eagle-eyed scribes, there is an element of luck involved in Kohli’s pattern of dismissals on the current tour of England. Yes, he has had to face Test cricket’s most successful fast bowler bowl wonderful spell after wonderful spell, and has been kept quiet on occasion by England’s other pacers.
Beyond these factors, though, is the fact that Kohli is dangling an angled bat out to deliveries that he should be ignoring. In this series, and overall tour of England including the inaugural ICC World Test Championship final versus New Zealand in Southampton, Kohli has tallied 181 runs in seven innings for an average of 25.85. In those seven innings, six times he has been out caught behind the wicket. He has, for a lack of a better term, lost track of where his off stump is.
Now, full disclosure: I am a big fan of Kohli, the batsman. When he bats, I am compelled to watch. I find him a fascinating study, because of how he has constantly evolved and dispelled doubts. Whatever criticism has been levelled at him as a batsman, he has dispelled. Too brash and plays too many shots, it was said of him when he was taking his first steps at international level. Struggles on the pull, it was surmised years ago. Flat-track bully, India’s Graeme Hick, some murmured. But today here stands Kohli, with bloody good Test runs around the world.
When I began my career in sports journalism in 2005, having switched fields and countries, I was advised my editor at Cricinfo, Sambit Bal, to detach myself from the emotions of being an Indian cricket fan. Be objective, be neutral, Sambit urged me and my fellow new recruits, each of whom had ditched financially secure jobs in different fields to chase a common passion for cricket.
I have been successful, largely, at doing this. But with Kohli, despite the irritating and over-the-top celebrations on the field and the sketchy captaincy calls, I find myself making time to watch him bat. And when he does so, I find myself urging him on, to do well, to dominate. There is a certain buzz that comes from watching Kohli bat, which few cricketers have provided me. And so, to watch Kohli repeatedly poke and hang his head as he walks off during the England series has been frustrating.
In 2014, during his first tour of England, Kohli had a horror time. His scores read 1, 8, 25, 0, 39, 28, 0, 7, 6 and 20 across five Tests at an average of 13.50. It was, in his own words, a personal low. But Kohli, the fighter that he is, worked out his technique and resurrected himself. Later that year, he went to Australia and scored 692 runs in four Tests. The technical adjustments, chiefly batting outside his crease and becoming more side-on, saw him average 92 from 2015 to 2019.
In between, he returned to England as captain of India and reeled off 593 runs at 59.30 in five Tests. But even in that series, Kohli began with shades of the 2014 Kohli hanging around him. At Edgbaston, where England won the first Test by 31 runs but Kohli shone with 149 and 51, he began with two edges that didn’t carry to catchers. The flashy drives were on view, and that inherent appetite to dominate – which came after three seasons of heavy, confidence-coated Test runs – indicated that perhaps Kohli was again in line for a tough English summer. But he kept it together, overcame the shaky start and scored supreme runs in that series. It was one of the best performances by a visiting batsman in a losing cause.
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Currently, whatever Kohli is doing, isn’t yielding the desired results. It is not that he has looked bad this series. Far from it. He’s timed sumptuous drives and played his unique checked-drive, defensive shot plenty of times with authority. But his manner of dismissals, repeatedly edging to catchers, is what stands out.
England’s latest pace bowling hero Ollie Robinson, who was Player of the Match in the Headingley Test for taking seven wickets, was asked after the match about bowling to Kohli. “It’s a simple plan to Virat, fourth and fifth stump, get it to angle away, and hope he nicks it and he did,” he replied.
Is it really that simple? Have pace bowlers figures out how to get India’s captain?
The stats reveal something. In 19 innings since the start of 2020, Kohli has been out 14 times to pace. Of these dismissals, 12 have been to right-arm quicks. On this tour of England, including the WTC final against New Zealand, Kohli has fallen to pace six times, either pushing or driving at deliveries that could have been left alone. Clearly his judgement outside off stump is where the problem lies, because he come undone while caught between attacking and leaving and has edged to the wicketkeeper or slip cordon. The technical deficiencies of 2014 are back, and James Anderson has had his number twice in four innings this series.
Has Kohli been found out? It is tempting to say yes, given the commonality to his dismissals, but knowing the champion batsman that he is, Kohli will work hard to rectify these frailties with the series on the line. India need him badly, because he is their talisman. Key to the resurrection is Kohli figuring out where his off stump is, just like he did after Anderson and his pace mates tormented him in 2014.
If he needs a method to seek inspiration from, it lies in Sachin Tendulkar’s approach during a lean patch back in 2004. In Australia, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Tendulkar responded to a series of outside-the-off-stump dismissals by putting away his cover drive because he felt it was too risky a shot to play in that form, and the result was an innings of 241. That double-century from Tendulkar was a masterclass in self restraint, something Kohli can do well to emulate.
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Kohli’s team is not blessed with as much talent as Tendulkar’s 2004 side did. Cheteshwar Pujara has returned to some semblance of form, Ajinkya Rahane remains a paradoxical player and Rishabh Pant is reaching that stage where he looks torn between “Damn this” and “Oh hell, not again”. With the series eerily resembling the 2014 tour (draw at Trent Bridge, victory at Lord’s and then three losses) India cannot afford to carry on with their best batsman not firing as per the high standards set by himself.
Which leads us to believe that Kohli, if he chooses to, can temper his game and swap exuberance for experience and cover-drives for self-restraint. Watching Tendulkar at the SCG in 2004 was a distinctly unusual experience, and yet wholly tingling and sublime. Here was a master batsman choosing to ignore the ball leaving him, even when it begged to be punched or slapped.
Like Tendulkar 17 years ago, the current Kohli would do well to cut out his favourite shot and reassert his quality on this series. It can be done, provided Kohli figures out that he needs to.