While everyone’s gaze is on MS Dhoni for everything that has gone wrong so far in the series, vice-captain Virat Kohli has escaped scrutiny despite his failure playing a role in India’s misfortune of late. And this low phase has run close to a year.
Kohli had been in raging form since 2012, but has hit an all-time low in ODIs this year. Since he hit a match-winning century in the World Cup opener against Pakistan at Adelaide, he hasn’t scored a half-century. This year has seen his lowest annual career average — 29.92. Even his debut year, 2008, was a touch better — 31.80.
In an eight-year career, 389 runs in 16 innings is a record Kohli would not like. Known to play error-free cricket early on by hitting along the ground, Kohli has often cashed in once he got into the 70s and 80s. But since the start of the year, his impetuosity to play big shots has left him unsettled.
There is no doubt Kohli has been the single biggest reason for India’s strong ODI performances in the last three years. Capable of soaking the pressure, keeping the chase on, and hunting down targets with masterful calculation---when to attack and when to see off the strike bowlers --- Kohli most significantly also has the great knack of seizing the moments when rivals lose the plot a bit.
However, a different plot could develop if the experiment with Ajinkya Rahane at No 3 is pursued with seriousness. Kohli then will have a different role to play. Moved to No 4, he will have lesser time to settle down and will have to get scoring straightaway. Though the Rahane experiment appears temporary, it has come at a time when Kohli is not in great nick in limited overs cricket. And Dhoni can’t make Rahane bat down the order as he is not known to attack immediately.
There is scepticism over the Kohli-Rahane situation. “We need to look carefully at what we do with our players as for the batting order,” Rohit Sharma said. “It depends on what MS thinks. Virat has scored most of his runs at No 3, and Ajinkya just played at No 3 and got some runs. I don’t know if it’s a permanent solution, but time will tell what will be the ideal batting line-up for us. Numbers 3, 4 and 5 are very crucial positions as we saw in the last game.
“At the moment we’re trying to find out what will be the best combination going forward, but in the next few games, we’ll have a proper batting line-up. We need to get this going. It’s an important game, so we have to get the combination and batting order right.”
Most would go with Sharma’s observation on Kohli’s best coming at No 3, but his record at two-drop too is equally excellent. But outside this statistical perimeter lies the larger question of the batsman’s preference and his success rate at a particular slot. With Sachin Tendulkar, it was an unwritten clause in the team that his best has come as opener, and he liked the position the most. Now, it’s up to Kohli to embrace the change, for the team, and as a leader.
Kohli would also like to focus on improving his batting average against South Africa — which is a modest 33.41.