It seems Virat Kohli‘s past mistakes may have caught up with him, a bit too literally, accounting for the skipper’s woeful Test average of 26.41 since December 27, 2019.
A reprise of the consistently wrong choices he used to make in the channel outside off-stump in his early years seem to have crept back in, accounting for the greatest Indian modern batter’s barren, century-less run stretching back to Nov 23, 2019. This was when he last scored a hundred, in any format, in the pink-ball Test against Bangladesh.
Coupled with that have been two other bad habits: impatience, as Sunil Gavaskar has pointed out, and a tendency to not work on his backfoot play when required, as former India batting coach Sanjay Bangar has said.
Kohli’s poor form has been hard to pinpoint. He has looked busy, assured and confident at the crease, and the runs have flowed till he has tended to, well, fish outside off, more often than not.
The first day of the first Test against South Africa was a case in point. Having worked hard for 86 balls and 35 runs, Kohli found himself playing out a maiden over from Lungi Ngidi in the 67th over. The third ball, shaping outside off, Kohli left alone. The fourth, he tapped to the point region. The fifth, again good length and shaping away, he again left alone. The sixth, a similar length delivery, was patted to cover. So far, so good, so patient.
Rahul played out the 68th over from Marco Jansen for another maiden. Ngidi was back for another crack at Kohli, who must have spent the time thinking about the two back-to-back maidens, and how the Indian batsmen were being tied in knots.
The first ball of the 69th was again good length and shaping away from Kohli, who shuffled restlessly but nevertheless played to point for another dot. The second one was a tempter, on good length but miles outside off, swinging away. Kohli‘s eyes lit up. He took a lunge and a huge swipe, offering only catching practice to first slip.
Sunil Gavaskar said Ngidi had played on Kohli’s patience and suckered him with a “wide half-volley”. The problem isn’t new. According to Cricviz stats, this year in England he averaged only 11.66 in the channel outside off. In 2014, on the disastrous England tour on which Jimmy Anderson had his number, Kohli had averaged 6.71 outside off. After that he worked on his game, adopted a more side-on stance, and in 2018 in England, batting way out of his crease and intercepting the ball early, he averaged 159 in that region.
But the change was dependent on his ability to pick length early and quicken his bat speed, qualities which seem to have declined. Maybe it is time for a rethink on this approach? A dominating batsman like Kohli is likely to resist the very thought of the need to play ugly at times, or play out time at certain stages of his innings now.
“Kohli’s body language was very impressive at the crease,” former SA pacer Morne Morkel said on Star Sports. “(But) it is a patience game. That will be the game plan from South Africa in the series. They will put that point fielder out in the boundary and hang the ball out there for Virat. There will be bounce outside the off stump so good luck.”
Bangar said, “It will be worth (it) for Virat to give a thought to also developing some sort of a response on the backfoot. He now only seems to be preoccupied in scoring off the front foot. It could be a mental error, going after that wide ball.
“He relies a lot on driving the ball and against quicker attacks and in seaming conditions, you require one more game. You can’t only rely on front-foot shots. Because if he continues to do that, bowlers will continue to drag him wider and wider and hope that they find the outside edge.”
Maybe this is where coach Rahul Dravid, who Mayank Agarwal said had stressed on the need to bat with discipline and focus in away conditions, can come in. The South Africans know Kohli was looking dangerous. They got lucky he took the bait again.