Can Virat’s grounded batting genius attain lift-off again?
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Kohli has struggled in recent times, especially judged against the rarefied heights he frequented. But if he can pause, introspect and refocus, there is no reason why he can’t catch a second wind

July 23, 2022 12:13 am | Updated July 25, 2022 08:26 am IST

Need of the hour: The Kohli who handled Anderson with aplomb in 2018 was a man willing to reflect and improve. That Kohli has to surface, not the one talking to stump microphones or getting caught in needless chats with rivals.

Need of the hour: The Kohli who handled Anderson with aplomb in 2018 was a man willing to reflect and improve. That Kohli has to surface, not the one talking to stump microphones or getting caught in needless chats with rivals.

Batters have this fatalistic acceptance of one delivery having their name written on it. “All it takes to dismiss us is one ball,” is an oft-heard statement when a willow-wielder gets philosophical about batting. This is akin to gangsters believing that one bullet will have their name on it. For them their story ends, while for the batter, it is time for introspection.

Defining feature

There is truth in these assumptions and yet what defines a batter’s legacy is what he or she does before that one fatal delivery scatters the stumps or draws an edge or ruffles the pads in line or the legs falter and a run-out ensues. In his last Test innings at the Oval in 1948, Don Bradman was dismissed for a duck by England leg-spinner Eric Hollies. Bradman’s average was stranded at a mind-boggling but pathos-dripping 99.94 and yet more than that sporting goodbye, what lingers are the statistical mountains he built.

Runs are a batter’s passport to glory or infamy. And those classy ones, essaying languid cover drives and muscular pulls, giving us the illusion of permanence at the crease, are judged on a higher plane. Vivian Richards and his teammate Gus Logie would be assessed on different yardsticks even if their primary vocation is batsmanship. Richards has to dominate, Logie is granted his failures, and that’s how it has always been and will be.

It is a lesson that Virat Kohli has been learning the hard way over the last few years while a pandemic raged and his runs, by his rarefied heights, dried. Even on the latest England tour, he mustered 76 from six innings. His last international ton, a 136 against Bangladesh in the day-and-night Test at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, happened in November 2019, when social-distancing and bio-bubbles were not part of our lexicon. Subsequently, COVID-19 leapt across continents and grief became an overwhelming shroud.

Batter’s life: Runs are a batter’s passport to glory or infamy. And those classy ones are judged on a higher plane.

Batter’s life: Runs are a batter’s passport to glory or infamy. And those classy ones are judged on a higher plane.

When sport flickered back, Kohli, batter-supreme, acrobatic fielder and mood-influencer, discovered the law of averages. The confident stride towards the pitch, the adrenaline-throbbing running between the wickets and the feline reflexes while watching the field being set: these remain intact, but it’s just that compared with the highs of yet-another hundred, he now seems a wee-bit tired, like a fatigued official pushing files in a stuffy office. 

The captaincy was relinquished and in one instance, specifically ODIs, it was taken away from him. A grounded batting genius was left wondering about cricketing mortality. This was a man who once could even get the then coach Anil Kumble removed. The latter resigned after reading the tea-leaves and Kohli remained the batting Moses parting the fielding seas.

That phase looks distant even if Kohli, the batter, may get a second wind. He is 33, remarkably fit and if his bat could talk, we will all be happy to lean on the phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes trope. There is respect for him, among players, fans and critics. Despite the latest drought, Kohli has earned reverence through his incredible numbers — 8,074 Test runs laced with 27 hundreds; an ODI yield of 12,344 adorned with 43 tons; and a T20I tally of 3,308. Except in Tests, where his average has slipped below 50 (49.53), he has maintained the 50-plus yardstick in ODIs and T20Is. This is an all-format star.

Recently, Pakistani stylist Babar Azam tweeted: “This too shall pass. Stay strong. Virat Kohli #”. Like the bowlers’ clubs, batters too have their solidarity corners. When a struggling David Gower scored a Test hundred against India at the Oval in 1990, one of the first to congratulate him was Dilip Vengsarkar. A supreme batter back in his element is a story to celebrate and it cuts across continents or, closer home, even the Wagah border with its emotional quagmires.

Kohli has gone 79 innings without an international hundred. It has also coincided with a phase during which his middle-order colleagues in Tests came under increasing pressure. Cheteshwar Pujara made a comeback recently but Ajinkya Rahane is still in the domestic wilderness. The trio’s combined returns didn’t offer enough ballast in Tests, adding to the microscopic scrutiny.

Evolution

Kohli, the man, has had his phases. When he was appointed as India’s under-19 captain and all set for the junior World Cup in Malaysia, he spoke briefly at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. This was 2008, and at an age when he should have been dealing with adolescent stress, Kohli spoke well. The words were precise and confidence shimmered in his voice.

Later, there was a moment in a swanky hotel. He was turning out for Royal Challengers Bangalore and in an informal chat with the media, he opened up about being distracted after winning the junior World Cup and about the realisation that if he did not watch his fitness and skills, he may be forgotten. It was a candid admission from a lad refusing the frills of limelight.

Years later, when Sachin Tendulkar’s baton was officially passed to Kohli, he had this forgettable tour of England in 2014. James Anderson was having him for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kohli, in denial about his tentativeness around the off-stump, preferred to sharpen his slog-sweeps against spin in the nets. Moeen Ali may have been in his sights but Anderson never allowed him to get close to the spin-buffet.

Cut to the 2018 tour of the Old Blighty, Kohli handled Anderson with aplomb. This was a man willing to reflect and improve. That Kohli has to surface, not the one talking to stump microphones or getting caught in needless chats with rivals. Like Pakistani great Javed Miandad, Kohli may prefer a scrap to gain competitive energy but it can boomerang.

Tough choices

There will be whispers about his strike-rate in T20Is, again a relative facet propped up by the arrival of kinetic youngsters. Once upon a time, a young Kohli was seen as more potent than the veteran Tendulkar. This is evolution and Kohli has to accept that. At some point he has to pick his formats. At 31, Ben Stokes has quit ODIs. Kohli has to make such calls too. To be stretched thin across formats while also turning out in the Indian Premier League is always tough.

Tendulkar, Kohli’s current India coach Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly had their second winds and there are lessons to be imbibed. Having given up his leadership hats, Kohli has to do what comes naturally to him, holding a willow and mastering the bowlers. The itch to dominate has always been his trait and in his early years a tendency to slice the lofted drive meant that spinners could induce a miscued hit.

Cut to the present, the same desire to mark territory means that caution outside the off-stump is shed. A bit of patience in his batting DNA, especially in Tests, could help Kohli. Joe Root may have progressed but Kohli’s legacy cuts across formats. He needs to pause, catch his breath and get back to the grind.

True grit

This is a man who lost his father during a Ranji Trophy match, did the last rites and batted. Seen through that prism, the current predicament may seem trivial. Kohli, the batter, may trigger debates but the answers to those questions reside within him. He knows that.

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