The aura is fading, the halo clearly dimming. The king now without a kingdom, Virat Kohli’s batting empire is starting to crumble too, and that’s concerning on various counts.
It might appear strange to say thus of a man who, in the latest ICC ratings released on Wednesday (February 9), is the No. 2-ranked batsman in One-Day Internationals. And yet, once you look beyond the obvious, it is clear that Kohli is in the middle of a massive internal struggle whose outcome will influence what course Indian cricket charts over the next couple of years.
The former skipper’s travails in Test cricket since the start of 2020 have been well documented, as has been his inability to add to his impressive tally of 70 international centuries since November 2019. In 15 Tests from the beginning of 2020, Kohli has managed a modest 760 runs in 27 innings at an unflattering 28.14. His white-ball international numbers don’t suffer by comparison and will be hailed as excellent if they sat alongside most others, but this is Kohli we are speaking about. Kohli, the multi-format behemoth who rattled off centuries for fun. Kohli, the effortless destroyer of bowling attacks and reputations with scything, pleasing, stunning arcs of the scimitar that doubled up as his bat.
In the corresponding period where Kohli’s Test average has spiralled dramatically, he boasts 49.50 (career average 52.04) in 20 T20Is and 41.29 (career average 58.34) in 17 ODIs. So, why are we perilously close to setting off the alarm bells, if not pressing the panic button?
Let’s set T20s aside for the time being because Kohli hasn’t played in that format since the T20 World Cup in the UAE, his last outing as India’s white-ball captain. And cast our eyes on the 50-over format where Kohli has played five matches this year alone.
Kohli’s returns read 51, 0, 65 (in South Africa), 8 and 18 (in the ongoing series against West Indies). Certainly not earth-shattering, but he does have two half-centuries in five hits. But when has Kohli been about half-centuries? More importantly, when has Kohli been about not finishing off chases? And about poor decision-making?
Take the two fifties in South Africa, for instance. Both came when India were chasing – 297 in the first instance, 288 in the second. At his peak, which lasted a remarkable four years, a set Kohli meant only one winner. A Kohli with 50 under his belt in a run-chase meant the opponents might as well throw in the towel. And yet, in both these games, India ended up on the losing side.
Before we get too heated up, one’s not laying the blame for India’s losses at the doorsteps of Kohli’s hot-and-cold willow. Champions are victims of their own standards, and few have set loftier ones than Kohli, who has elevated classical batsmanship to the highest level. Kohli spoke not too long back about an early advice from Mahendra Singh Dhoni – maximising the gap between repeating mistakes. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what he hasn’t been able to achieve of late.
South Africa could be passed off as an aberration. After all, Kohli was just coming to terms with being ‘just another’ batsman, no longer the skipper in any format, after giving up the Test captaincy too. He had inner demons to battle, he needed time to catch his breath, regather focus, regain poise and composure. That’s the least Kohli deserved.
The worrying signs have come in the last four days, actually. In Ahmedabad, against West Indies.
One of the most conspicuous traits to Kohli’s approach when at his absolute best is a supreme awareness of what not to do, not just what to do. There is an unwavering single-mindedness to his batting that’s mind-boggling. Kohli takes everything else out of the equation – the expectations of those around him, the white noise (as he is fond of pointing out). He only has time and attention for the task at hand. His intensity is frightening, his concentration envious, his emphasis on the process more than the outcome pronounced and sustained.
Today, that same Kohli is fidgety when he first arrives at the crease. Not so much physically (though quirks are threatening to surface) as mentally. He seems on edge, determined to put bat to ball, keen to stamp his authority, desperate to show who the boss is. Psychologists, expert and self-styled, often talk about ‘trying too hard’. Kohli is dangerously close to treading that line.
In the past, Kohli exuded such command and presence at the crease that it was scarcely believable that one could put it all together under such tremendous pressure. He’d quietly play himself in, work the ball into gaps, stack up the ones and often convert them into twos, not go looking for boundaries and consciously refrain from defying the percentages for the first several dozen deliveries. Even when he decided it was time to up the ante, he did so through correctness and orthodoxy, not the frenzied aerial ball-striking that comes with attendant risks.
In the two matches in Ahmedabad, Kohli has been restless, the onus more on the outcome. Hence, abortive attempts at frenzied stroke-making, a little bit of the ego taking over and, perhaps therefore, hesitancy, indecision and lack of smarts in decision-making, words one never thought would be used in that sequence in the same sentence when it came to Kohli. In both matches, he was dismissed in the same over where India had already lost a wicket. Both times, he got himself out – first suckered by a short-ball tactic West Indies have employed successfully against him and then playing an ambitious waft to a ball he could have left well alone. Clearly, this is not a man at peace with himself.
Many challenges await head coach Rahul Dravid over the next couple of years, but none needs more immediate redressal than getting Kohli to near his best. Whether it is through mollycoddling or tough love is a choice for Dravid to make. No matter how, India need Kohli firing on all cylinders at the earliest if they entertain hopes of ending their drought in global white-ball competitions.
(The writer is a senior sports writer based in Bengaluru).
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