MELBOURNE: Out of shape. Out of luck. Out of favor The past three years in Virat Kohli’s life have been anything but rosy. The crown slipped away from the king, inch by inch, until the fiery batter finally got the monkey off his back by ending a long-standing century drought in a T20I against Afghanistan. Heading into the World Cup, it was a timely comeback for Kohli. He was also supported by the team management through difficult times.
This familiar background is of course of no concern to the Kohli fans in Australia, who thronged India’s practice session at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Friday hoping for a glimpse of their star cricketer.
Australian, Indian or Pakistani, there was only one question on everyone’s lips at the MCG: where is Kohli in the nets? Of course, this was only an optional training session, and Kohli simply chose not to train. Surely he should train at some indoor facility instead? Or catch up on some field practice at the main ground? Or are you simply sitting in the team bus planning his next Insta dance move? How could he not even show up? Tell us, what does he do instead? In Australia, Kohli retains his franchise. He is still the master of everything he measures.
Even when he is not physically present, his celebrity continues to sway. He remains the team’s batting point and its best all-weather batsman, which could come in handy in this World Cup, given the sheer geographical extent of the Australian continent and its varied early summer conditions. In such an unknown area, Kohli‘s conventional brilliance, as opposed to modern T20’s pursuit of flashier top-order batsmen, can be invaluable.
After an initial struggle, Kohli held his own amid demands from the new Rohit Sharma-Rahul Dravid combination for more combative starts, a lack of which haunted the team in the last World Cup. Not only do the top-order now need to reach stratospheric heights in the Powerplay, they also need to leave some headroom for their middle-order talisman, Suryakumar Yadav, to raise the pace further.
A strike rate of 139.64 from India’s top three in the three years before the failed 2021 T20 WC campaign in the UAE has now risen to 142.25 in the annual period between World Cups in 2022. For someone who has hit 273 runs in 5 matches at a strike rate of 146.77 in the 2016 WC, Kohli’s meager return of 68 runs from 5 matches (SR 100) in 2021 was a hole in India’s plans. Since the UAE WC, even as he struggles with indifferent form, Kohli appears to have made a conscious effort to meet the team’s demanding parameters, with 139.36 (485 runs in 14 matches; avg. 44.09).
He achieved this not by turning into a distance hitter overnight, but by cleverly capitalizing on his strengths. After the Asia Cup century against Afghanistan, a blow that followed a six-week introspective break, Kohli admitted he was “desperate to do something that wasn’t in my game”. “Sixes are not a big strength of mine. I can hit (them) when the situation calls for it, but I’m better at finding gaps and hitting boundaries.”
Apart from a spectacular ability to cut through gaps in the field, Kohli is still extremely good at running between the wickets, which will come in handy at some big Australian grounds like the MCG. It will also help in another way: almost 50% of matches are won by batting first at the MCG, 64% at the SCG and 59% in Adelaide. There will be times when Kohli, the ‘chasing master’, who averages an astonishing 436 in 9 successful chases in the T20 World Cup (SR 137.10), has to become the ‘target setter’ in Australia. This is an area where India has struggled in the recent past.
What this means is that there is no respite for Kohli here. India will rely on his proven abilities to adapt quickly and keep an end steady even while scoring at a brisk pace. If Kohli can pull this off over four-five crucial matches, he will be India’s game changer. If not, it is better for the team to let others down.