Virat Kohli revival: Less on the front, more on the back foot
Minutes after Virat Kohli chased to nick Marco Jansen’s loose delivery outside off-stump in the second innings of the Centurion Test last week emerged an interesting data—the average line of Kohli’s dismissals was middle-stump in 2019, 9cm outside off-stump in 2020 and 26cm outside off-stump in 2021. The immediate and most obvious inference was that Kohli has been increasingly susceptible to the delivery pitched wide outside off-stump, either holding its line or moving further away. The data also highlights the constant jousting between Kohli and opposing fast bowlers to wrest an advantage.
England were able to exploit Kohli’s vulnerability outside off-stump in every Test during the summer of 2014, but in 2018 Kohli returned with a corrected technique, and didn’t chase wide deliveries. Cut to the 2021 tour of England, Kohli nicked the incoming delivery in seven out of eight dismissals. New Zealand’s Kyle Jamieson too used that chink and bowled Kohli in similar fashion in the first innings of the World Test Championship final that preceded the series—making the ball seam in to strike his pad flush in front of the stumps.
Now against South Africa, it’s back to square one for Kohli—chasing wider, fuller balls in his propensity to find the cover drive.
Where does the India captain go from here? A two-year hundred-less string of scores can be straining, but more dominating must be the thought that the best stroke in his arsenal could also trigger his dismissal. A lot of this boils down to Kohli being reactive and proactive to certain deliveries. As told to Nasser Hussain in 2016-17, Kohli was concerned about the incoming ball so much in 2014 that he kept pushing at deliveries that could be left alone, resulting in those edges outside off-stump. In 2021, Kohli seemed more confident to out-swingers but was done in by the nip-backers. The best way to get set early is to score some quick runs. With Kohli, that is best possible with the drive through cover and point that fetched 36% of his runs before January 2020, and 43% since then.
But the dismissals, especially behind the bat, have also gone through the roof. Since January 2020, Kohli has been caught 13 times off fast bowlers, eight of them by the wicketkeeper. Of the 17 dismissals effected by pacers in this time, 14 have come against right-arm fast bowlers. And it has come at different junctures in Kohli’s innings—15 times from 0-29 runs, five times between 30-49 and five between 50-89—making it all the more difficult to pinpoint exactly where Kohli is going off track. Former India opener and manager, Lalchand Rajput, who worked on Kohli’s batting for two weeks after the 2014 England tour, feels the tendency to fall back on his old ways is resulting in these dismissals.
“From what I have seen, his hands and elbows go a little bit wider. We always talk about playing close to the body. Initially he did well to play close to the body (in the first innings), then suddenly he gets on to the old habit of his—he is getting his hands away from the body. What happens is once your hands go away from the body automatically your head also goes out. And once your head goes out, you feel “this ball is closer to me” and you play a ball which is on the fifth and sixth stump,” Rajput told HT. “That is what he did in the first innings (Lungisani Ngidi got Kohli to chase a good length ball wide outside off to first slip)—it was a very cleverly delivered ball, full but wide. If his feet had gone a little bit across he could have reached that ball, but his feet were going straight because he was very cautious, playing close to the body, going straighter and straighter (till that point).”
Rajput believes two things are attributing to this error. “I think there is a lot of pressure to get a hundred, because he has not got one for some time now. He is a busy player and (earlier) you couldn’t keep him quiet for long, so runs were coming and he was not worried. But now people have started bowling to him a little wider.
“Earlier, they would bowl on to his stumps and he is very strong there; nowadays they have blocked those shots and reduced his scoring areas. If you see, the leg side is blocked and they are bowling on the fourth stump. Again, with his initial movement, he wants to come on the front foot a lot. If you come on the front foot and the bowler bowls short of a length outside off-stump, there is less chance of getting scoring shots.”
Kohli has, throughout his career, been dominant on the front foot, playing ground shots within the ‘V’. That approach is being comprehensively challenged. “Virat is not scoring (fluently) so he has to then play the balls outside off-stump,” said Rajput. “He has to develop the back foot shots as well. I had told him earlier as well that he plays the pull shot but he will be more dangerous if he adds more back foot shots—cut off the back foot or punch off the back foot.
“Earlier also he wouldn’t cut, but would get a single by guiding towards point or extra cover.”
Patience too is a factor here. “As he is unable to play his shots initially, bowlers can frustrate him. Hence over a period of time he gets into the mode of playing those (wider) balls. Sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you nick it,” said Rajput.
As clichéd as it may sound that Kohli is an innings away from hitting form, fact is there is no way around it. Till then, it’s all about doing the basics right and showing restraint. “Virat has to go in with a clear mind, watch the ball closely till the last moment, play close to the body and not drive till he gets to a hundred, unless it is a half-volley,” said Rajput.
“He has to have discipline.”