Ben Jones analyses how teams can approach the challenge of bowling to Kohli.
Virat Kohli is the best ODI batsman in the world. You know that, already. You know it from every shot he plays, from every authoritative drive, every whip off his hip. You know it from the way he walks out to bat. You know it from every time he opens his mouth in a press conference. For some, it’s a cause of celebration, and for some it’s a frustration. Many question whether he wears the crown with enough dignity to be truly admired beyond his batting, but nobody disputes that he wears it. In ODIs, Kohli is king.
This isn’t meant to be a hagiography for the sainted Virat. The reason for re-affirming Kohli’s greatness is to re-affirm that he is different, and should thus be treated differently. Not afforded more respect, or given more leeway – quite the opposite. More attention, effort and care should be spent trying to bring him down. Hours and hours should, and will, be spent trying to find a silver bullet solution, one Big Answer to the Big Question.
That answer doesn’t exist. There is nothing simple and straightforward that can be done to stop Kohli. In order to stop him, you have to acknowledge that he does not have a straightforward weakness as a batsman. Some players struggle against pace, some players struggle against spin; some against swing, some against a particular player. This version of Kohli does not have a weakness, in the conventional sense of the word.
There is no bowling type or bowler that he struggles against. An average of above 100 against spin, and a scoring rate of 5.96rpo, is astonishing for a man who plays as much cricket as Kohli. At some point, you’d expect him to regress to something like the average. Turns out, there’s nothing average about Kohli. Who’d have thought it.
Even when we look closer at the breakdown of bowling types, it scarcely gives you more hope. Off-spinners are fodder, left-arm spinners little more. Everyone goes at an average of more than 65. Kohli is king.
But if you’re a captain, formulating a plan, then you have to stay optimistic, because you can’t not face him. So, faced with a selection of bad options, look for the least worst option. Try and find the hope; if you’re stuck in the gutter, look for the stars.
Through that lens – Kohli is worse against pace than he is against spin. Even then, he still dominates left-arm pace; he is, again considerably worse against right-arm pace. Quite considerably worse, as well. It is, in the most literal sense, his weakness.
This low average against right-arm seamers also correlates with the bowlers that dismiss Kohli early on in an innings. Since the 2015 World Cup, Kohli’s been dismissed inside his first 20 balls on 15 occasions. On 11 of those occasions, he was dismissed by right-arm pace.
Captains shouldn’t bowl spin to Kohli early. Ever. Since the last World Cup, he has been dismissed by spin in the first 20 balls of an innings on two occasions. If you’re going to try and get Kohli early, you have to go hard, early, with your best seamers.
So how do you that?
BOWLING PACE TO KOHLI
There is a very specific template you have to follow when bowling pace to Kohli. Firstly, however fast and nasty you consider your pace attack, you shouldn’t go short at him early. In the first 20 balls of his innings, since the World Cup, Kohli averages 337 against the short ball.
As you can see, he averages 40.42 against full balls in that early period. At the start, no matter how many times he elegantly leans forward and drives you to the fence, you have to pitch it up early. Because you can’t pitch it up after that.
Once he’s faced 20 balls, Kohli averages 114.40 against full bowling. That door is closed – but the short ball becomes a better option. It goes from being the worst thing you could possibly do, to the best. Weird old world, bowling to Virat.
As the graphic below shows, you have to aim for Kohli’s head. If you’re going to bowl short, bowl aggressively, bowl on a line which encourages him to hook. In the first 20 balls of his innings, Kohli averages 107 when hooking or pulling; after then, he averages 34.
So that’s the broad pattern of play. What about the issue of movement, of the extra level of detail added by bowlers, above and beyond simply line and length?
After James Anderson deconstructed Kohli’s technique and his aura on the 2014 tour of England, some changes were made. In Test cricket, Kohli improved beyond recognition against swing, and it’s fed into is ODI form. He doesn’t struggle against the moving ball, particularly. However, he struggles against away-swing more than he does against in-swing; it’s clear what is the least worst option.
So, ideally, as a right-arm seamer, you want to be taking the ball away from Kohli. Again, it’s not that doing so guarantees you success – an average of 40 is still very good – but it’s better than bringing the ball back in, time and time again, watching him steer the ball away to the mid-wicket boundary. Save yourself the bother.
The pattern we see with swing movement continues if you look at movement off the seam. Kohli averages substantially more against the ball that nips back, than the ball that nips away. His technique is completely set-up to deal with straighter deliveries, to remove the threat of anything coming back into him, regardless of whether that movement is coming through swing or off the pitch.
As a seamer, there is a game-plan you can follow. It may work, it may not, but it is built on logic and at the very least gives a bit of hope. However, as much as skippers may not want to, sometimes you have to bowl spin to Kohli. Situations are chaotic and volatile, and India have a stack of other brilliant batsmen you need to deal with. Sometimes, remarkably, Virat isn’t the focus. So, when the spinners are on, how do you bowl?
BOWLING SPIN TO VIRAT KOHLI
Given the rather daunting figures that are in play here, it’s better to start with the basics. How exactly does Kohli play spin?
The majority of his runs come in front of square on the legside. This suggests, on the face of it, that he sweeps a lot.
Except of course, he doesn’t sweep. Since the 2015 World Cup, Kohli has swept just 28 deliveries from spin; that equates roughly to one sweep shot for around every three matches he’s played. 1.7% of his shots against spin since the World Cup have been sweeps. The average for all players is 6.1%. The sight of Kohli rocking back to the spinner, deep in his crease, and flicking the ball into the legside, has been a familiar one for years now. That’s how he makes all those legside runs – nearly 2,000 across his career, just against spin.
In other words, the way he makes his legside runs is by exploiting mistakes in a bowler’s length (by getting on the back foot), rather than by exploiting mistakes in their line (sweeping when they drift too straight).
Consequently, bowling the right length is the most important thing a spinner can do when faced with Kohli. At the risk of drifting into the territory of “executing your skills”, you need to nail the basics . If you hit a good length, you’re working from a stronger position regardless of the spin or drift you’re imparting on the ball, than you from anywhere else. If a spinner pitches the ball between 4 and 5 metres from his stumps, Kohli’s average plummets.
It feels obvious, but it’s not been the case for some time. Just under a third (31%) of the deliveries Kohli has faced from spin since the World Cup have been on that length. That isn’t unusual. The average for all spinners in that period is 32% deliveries pitching on a good length, illustrating that it clearly isn’t easy – but it’s the best thing you can do.
It’s better than anything more gimmicky. A change of angle isn’t a great option for anyone – no off-spinner or leg-spinner has dismissed Kohli going round the wicket since the last World Cup, and no left-arm orthodox bowler has dismissed him going over the wicket. He averages 80 against leg-spinners’ googlies in that time. There is no silver bullet.
All of these plans are put forward with the firm caveat that they won’t last long. If Kohli has proven anything, throughout his career, it’s that he is more capable of adapting to negate new risks than almost any other batsman in the world. Closing his stance, or opening it; coming at the ball, or playing later; going hard, or leaving everything – he’s shown an ability to do everything when he senses a threat developing.
But, as with everything, there will be a window where you can catch him cold. It could be tomorrow, when India start their campaign against South Africa after a curiously long break. It could be the following game, when he faces the quickest attack in the competition, as Australia rock up at The Oval; it could be the game after against Trent Boult and co. It could come at any moment, that teams click, gamble, and get it right. It’s a tiny window, but one thing stands out. You come for the king, you better not miss.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.