About two years ago I regarded Virat Kohli as the best batsman I had seen since Sachin Tendulkar and was beginning to think of him and Tendulkar as batting equals.
Since Tendulkar is regarded by some as second only to Donald Bradman, Kohli was reaching serious heights, even if only in my view – I include style in my very subjective batting evaluation system, so Steve Smith does not make my list.
But Kohli’s recent poor output – by his standards – has prompted me to pause my assessment of where he sits on my table of all-time greats. Since the series against the West Indies in 2019 he has shown an uncommon inconsistency at Test level. In the two Tests against the now lowly West Indies, Kohli made only 123 runs in his four trips to the crease in a series India’s bat dominated.
Then, after plundering WI in five ODIs, he went to South Africa and led India to a record 3-0 series win. Kohli made a great 254* but in his other three innings was dismissed for 12 and 20 and scored 31*.
Now, against New Zealand in the current series his four completed innings produced a total of 38 runs – ouch!
But it is not only the numbers that would be of concern to the Indian cricket fans. The way he is batting and in particular the way he’s getting out has more than a few fans hopefully looking at the tea leaves for a brighter future.
Kohli appears to have turned his positivity to something more aggressive and the good ball is now getting him out more regularly, as opposed to the more circumspect Kohli getting an inside edge or missing on the inside of the line with less forcing hands.
The prevalence of the Kohli cover drive has now become a talking point. I am not sure when Kohli started playing the cover drive more frequently, but he is certainly looking to play the shot as often as possible. A recent article by Karthik Krishnaswamy on ESPNcricinfo discussed this matter in amazing detail, and yet despite it being his downfall, it has also brought him many runs, so much so that he thinks he’s well in front of the cost-benefit curve.
This may well be a reasonable method for white-ball cricket, but many would question this approach in the Test arena. Mindset is an extremely important aspect of batting, and when you feel confident, have an aggressive mindset and a favourite run-scoring shot it’s very easy to start seeing that shot, even when it’s not quite there.
Kohli ‘drives’ at the wide ball, normally regarded as not full enough to drive. He has a big stride for a man of his height, combined with great wrists and bat face control, which enables him to hit a drive that is really a half cut shot, making impact well away from his front leg. The blade is necessarily closed at impact and is closing further to ensure the ball is kept down. I think there is no dispute about this being a high-risk shot.
The problem I see is that he is playing two different shots to balls that are not much different in line and length: the conventional cover drive with near-vertical bat and the blade facing the cover area, and then the ‘slap’ cover drive, described above, usually played to the wider, sometimes shorter pitched ball.
More importantly, perhaps, is that it appears to be Kohli’s ego driving his preparedness to play this shot. He has talked about being proactive, and this certainly matches his batting style, but I am beginning to think he may be guilty of overreach. Perhaps the high risk ‘slap’ cover drive is also influencing his general shot-making.
Wanting to dominate a bowler with this type of shot is all well and good, but wanting all bowlers to capitulate to your aggression may lead to poor shot selection. Bowlers love a batsman who plays on ego, because it is a potential weakness, critical for dismissing someone of Kohli’s ability, and he hasn’t shown too many weaknesses in his career.
Batting in some sense is a matter of a few millimetres here or there. How often does a batsman play and miss many times early on and then makes a big score? Everyone forgets what might have been. Next innings the same batsman to pretty much the same ball and the same shot played with the bat only a few millimetres wider results in a tickle and an early dismissal.
With such fine lines always in play it may not be wise to bat such that those few millimetres are far more often in play. Fine lines for sure, but that can be the difference between pleasure and pain. Think of Greg Chappell’s 1981-82 horror run of seven ducks when it seemed like he outside edged everything and got caught behind or missed the inside edge and was out LBW.
Kohli’s risk-taking seems to be shaking his batting fist at the god of outside and thin edges (GOTE) and daring him to strike. All cricketers know that GOTE (pronounced got’ya) is a nasty piece of work and will demand the skyward pointing index finger for anyone who bats with their ego showing.
Perhaps GOTE finally managed to get inside Kohli’s head and quietly suggested that he challenge the LBW decision against him in the second Test against New Zealand a few days ago. Kohli had made three runs off 15 balls in the first innings when he was given out LBW to Kiwi paceman Tim Southee. The challenge was roundly criticised when the technology – one of GOTE’s many success stories – saw the ball hitting a large piece of middle stump, well down from the bails.
This was regarded as a Kohli ego-driven call and not in the best interest of the team, as that was the final review with seven batsmen still to come. It was also another challenge lost, adding to Kohli’s less than flattering record of two successes from 13 challenges in Test cricket.
It’s time for Virat Kohli to recognise he is dealing with a higher power, to leave his ego in the shed and to fully respect the ball coming his way.