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Uninventing Virat Kohli

Ben Jones takes a look at the changing technique of the Indian captain.

Virat Kohli the captain will have been on a high this last week. His Indian side claimed victory at Lord’s on a dramatic and chaotic final day, with tailend swiping giving way to pace sniping, England relenting only a few overs short of saving face. It was a win which drew twin responses, almost contradictory in nature. It was a dramatic come from behind win, a triumph for the situational underdogs; it was also one of the most dominant, snarlingly superior Test performances on English soil in many a year. Joe Root’s Test team lose quite a lot of matches, but they don’t lose many like that.

However, there is a broader question to ask here, one with relevance beyond the last seven days, and the legacy of a single Test win. Kohli the captain may be strutting his way to another landmark overseas win – but what’s happened to Kohli the batsman?

The tonless run is much discussed, a period of 17 innings, a few months shy of two years. Yet that stat almost disguises the deeper nature of his malaise, hiding the true nature of Kohli’s poor form. Joe Root has often gone series without making centuries while notching in an average of just below 40. For Kohli, this isn’t the case, and this isn’t an issue of conversion, given that he’s passed 50 just three times in this run. He’s averaging 23.94 since the start of last year. Virat Kohli – Virat Kohli – is averaging less than 25 runs per visit to the crease, across almost two years. That’s not normal.

As with so many things in sport, the seeds of Kohli’s most recent struggles are found in the aftermath of his earliest. You have to understand the invention of Kohli, to understand the uninventing.

We all know the story of those early days. In 2014, Kohli toured England as a young man averaging 47 from 24 Tests, the next great on the conveyor belt of batting talent that is Indian Test cricket – and he sunk like a stone, averaging 13 across five Tests. James Anderson terrorised him, India lost. MS Dhoni resigned three months later, Kohli took the reigns, and on his return to England four years later, he was a very different figure. Captain of the world No.1 Test side, boy-turned-to-man and with the clear stated ambitions of dominating the global game, Kohli was in the middle of a year of landmark series: South Africa, England, Australia. While only the last of those ended in success, on a personal level the England series could not have gone better. Two centuries, three fifties, and an average of 59 across five Tests. A radical change in fortune, brought about by a radical change in approach.

The most pronounced of those changes to Kohli’s technique, specifically in the 2018 series, was the decision to bat out of his crease. Almost 50cm further down the track than before, Kohli set-up with the intention of negating the dangerous ‘late’ swing that plagued him in 2014. It worked – he dominated the series in a personal sense, and despite his team struggling to match those standards, Kohli’s point was proved.

As we turn to 2021, and the ongoing series, that element of Kohli’s 2018 set-up has remained. While he’s spent significantly less time at the crease so far this summer compared to three years ago, his average interception point when there is almost completely identical.

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The other change post-2014, which was just as significant. Early Kohli, while by no means using an extreme technique, maintained a relatively narrow, quite open stance at the crease. His back shoulder and back hip were generally visible, as was plenty of bat, and while it opened up the legside for those glorious clips through midwicket, it also brought the ‘nick off’ into play, and left him vulnerable outside the off stump. For the first four years of his Test career, culminating in that 2014 tour of England, Kohli averaged just 28 in the channel outside off stump. James Anderson et al had spotted a gap in his armour, and exploited it ruthlessly.

And so after that series, Kohli adjusted his stance. He turned more side on, closing himself off a touch and getting his back hip in line, backing his hand speed and ability to pick up length early, to compensate. In conversation with Nasser Hussain for a Sky Sports Cricket Masterclass, Kohli spoke of how he needed his toe pointing at point, rather than cover, a marker of this new stance. For the next five years Kohli’s game was transformed, that average in the channel soaring to a quite astonishing 92 between 2015 and 2019. The nick off was gone. This was the invention of Kohli’s dominant method, the foundation of his success.

It influenced his scoring zones, his strength. In 2014, 54% of Kohli’s runs against pace came through leg. In each of the five years that followed it, less than half of his runs came through the legside, the effects of that more side-on technique taking hold. It also influenced the way in which he was making errors. In 2014, Kohli outside edged the ball 18 times, and inside edged it seven times. That open stance made the likelihood of being beaten on the inside edge less likely, and nicking off more likely, a fact Anderson was keen to exploit. Every year from 2015 to 2019 (inclusive), Kohli went the other way, inside edging more than outside edging.

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However, cricket does tend to find a way to succeed. Recently, Kohli’s started to struggle against inswing, those same deliveries about which he was overly concerned back in 2014. His average against them was a dominant 98 in 2016-2018, but has fallen to just 31 since then. From a bowling perspective, the natural counter to a closed off stance is to bring the ball back in, letting the batsmen confuse themselves around the front pad and target the stumps. In an understandable move, to counter this collective action against his set-up, Kohli’s opened his stance – but it’s had a significant effect on his game.

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In the last 18 months, Kohli’s legside percentage has ticked back up above 50%, a clear consequence of this new altered stance. In 2020, he outside edged exactly as often as he inside edged; in 2021, he’s back to the outside edge being the busier of the two. He’s all but removed the straight V from his scoring zones, with just 5% of his runs now coming in that area, a figure which is usually a quarter. The changes adopted after 2014 have been undone, and the effect is plain to see. In 2021, Kohli has arrived in England with one element of his reinvention still intact – batting out of his crease – but with the other conspicuously absent. Elements of that 2014 technique have returned, and with them, the issues outside off stump.

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Like plenty of great players before him, Kohli is still in conversation with his technique. For technicians, batting is a series of compromises, of pragmatic changes and choices made in response to particular problems. The very idea of technique is a sort of unattainable ideal, with contradictory elements woven in from the outset. Dominate through one zone, neglect another; starve against one delivery, feast on the next. Most players appear to make these tweaks in a bid to cover a weakness, rather than emphasise a strength – less choose your weapon, more pick your poison.

This is often lost in analysis that follows the trawler, hankering after the scraps of diminished runs of form. Almost every technical change brings pros and cons, and far too often we focus on the latter alone. The discussion in England this summer regarding off stump guards has not given enough attention to the fact they almost always lead to an increase in effectiveness outside off; instead, we zoom in on the stumps, much like the bowlers faced with such a technique. Twitter flashes up change, apportions blame, and scrolls along.

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It’s also important to remember that for all the agency that the best players have over their game, that agency is never total. Bad luck is generally close by when a good player is struggling to put runs on the board. A top order batsman usually averages around 10 false shots per dismissal in Test cricket, and Kohli himself averages 9.2. In 2018, he was averaging 15 – in other words, making errors, getting some good fortune – while in the last 18 months that figure has fallen. The last time his mistakes were being punished to this degree was 2014.

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Kohli is a player of such character and skill that the recovery of his form is all but inevitable. He will not be ‘proving doubters wrong’, or ‘silencing his critics’, because frankly there are no reasonable critics of Kohli. Beyond the odd blot or blip, he is a generational player, but one who attracts a number of critics due to his prominence, power, and personality. And yet, it would be a great irony if Kohli won in England by creating a team so good that he needn’t contribute. The uninvention of Virat Kohli – a man more than himself, a captain growing a team and a cricketing culture in his own image – is coinciding with the rise of India from just being a brilliant team, to a defining one: in short, the invention of Team India.

By dragging his team up to his own towering level, Kohli has built something special. Now, he needs to drag himself back up, to stand alongside them, to get a clear view of their brilliance.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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