James Norton-Brown takes a look at the Indian captain’s innings.
Virat Kohli’s wait for his 71st International century has now lasted 780 days. Today was the day, in Test cricket at least, we got the closest to seeing that run end. But this wasn’t the flamboyant stroke maker have become accustomed to seeing; this was a batsman wrestling with his technique and game but battling to survive regardless. In particular, Kohli’s 79 (201) can be summarised by patience in the face of an extremely good and disciplined bowling performance.
To understand the battle at the heart of the innings today we need to understand the struggles that have plagued Kohli’s game for the past 2 years. In that time, he is averaging under 30 with that figure even worse against pace bowling. While his underlying numbers suggest a portion of those issues are due to luck, there is now a lot of evidence to suggest that something has gone wrong for Kohli against pace bowling.
The heart of the issue lies wide outside off stump – since 2020 he has been out six times against these deliveries. In that period no one else has been dismissed more than four times. His average of 15 against these deliveries is also the worst of any batter to face more than 50 balls, and his strike rate is more comparable to Cheteshwar Pujara than any of the rest of the Fab Four.
Essentially the plan for opponents can be quite simple, hide the ball outside off stump and trust that Kohli’s want to feel bat on ball and be the aggressor will be his undoing. That is exactly what happened in the first match of this series, with Kohli edging twice against wide deliveries.
This is what South Africa tried again today. Only twice have teams hid the ball outside off stump to Kohli more in the first 50 balls of his innings than South Africa did today. This time however, whether due to a change in trigger movement or just a new temperament, Kohli was not tempted, leaving 66% of those 50 balls. Never before had he shouldered arms this much to start his innings. There were shades of 2012 in Perth, his second most patient start where he played one of his best non-century innings of his career, in that innings he also ended up running out of partners and falling in the 70s.
As well as being disciplined with how he played line, Kohli was also incredibly restrained when balls were on a good length. South Africa bowled 58 good length deliveries at him before he scored his first run, ending with just 7 runs from 85 good length balls. To counter this he was ruthless against full pitched deliveries, driving with impunity scoring over a run a ball anytime the bowler stayed a touch too full.
It is worth noting that this was a long way from Kohli back to his best, although his overall control numbers were good most of this is due to his high number of leaves. When he was forced to play he did still look troubled, it would be hard to expect anything else with the quality of the bowling he was facing. In Rabada’s third spell of the day he bowled 25 balls to Kohli with an Expected Average of 10, on average those 25 balls would take 0.8 wickets.
In the end with the rest of the order failing around him and at risk of being stranded, Kohli had to come out of his bubble and play the one shot he had been avoiding all day. All evidence would suggest it is a ball he would have left if he didn’t feel the need to up his intent. The only ball of that kind he played at in his whole innings, both dooming the innings to fall short of the century and also proving what made the knock so brilliant in the first place.
This was an innings not defined by glorious drives when the ball was pitched full, but by stoic determination to not get drawn into his problem areas. Kohli today was not a player who has solved his issues, just one that was trying to avoid them. Make no mistake that does not make the innings less brilliant, just as when Sachin Tendulkar famously stopped playing cover drives at the SCG, this innings showed that deciding to stop playing your bad shots can be just as good as fixing them.
James Norton-Brown is a Data Scientist at CricViz.