December 1, 2014

Kohli's England failures technical, not mental

The batsman needs to make a minor adjustment in getting his upper body to move in the direction of the ball, especially if it swings away

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It's worth looking at these ODI numbers:

Kumar Sangakkara: 19 centuries in 384 games. Virender Sehwag 15 in 251. Virat Kohli, 21 in 146.

Needless to say, those figures haven't been presented to undermine the quality of the first two guys in the list. Both are among the best cricket has seen. The numbers have been drawn up to establish the phenomenon that is Virat Kohli.

His penchant for scoring centuries in limited-overs cricket has put him among the elite cricketers of all time. While his ODI numbers are sensational, his Test figures are not in the same league yet, but that's not an issue for me yet, for he's 26 and only 29 Test matches old. It takes a lot longer to dominate Test cricket, where every aspect of your game gets tested time and again.

Kohli failed in one such test earlier this year, when James Anderson got on top of him. This scene played out every time Kohli took strike and Anderson ran in to bowl: outswinger around the off stump, full but not full enough to be driven, a short stride forward by the batsman, the bat down at an angle, edge found and catch taken in the slip cordon.

Everyone goes through bad patches. Sometimes so bad that they find strange ways to get dismissed. But it seldom happens that a top-quality batsman gets out in identical fashion repeatedly on a five-Test tour. Yes, Anderson is a quality bowler and was on top of his game during that series, but Kohli wasn't a novice either.

The fact is, Kohli didn't score all his ODI and Test hundreds on Indian featherbeds; his staggering numbers were accumulated around the world, in different conditions, against all kinds of bowlers. So what went wrong in England? Was it strictly technical or mental or both?

The straight front-foot stride that had allowed Kohli to score many ODI centuries became his enemy because it became a little too straight

I'm not sure it was mental, for he looked strong mentally in spite of all the failures. He came out playing shots at Lord's. He did not turn down singles to avoid facing Anderson; in fact, I remember him stealing a tight second run once while he was facing Anderson. Once a player has mentally thrown in the towel, he will invariably avoid direct battles as much as he can, and that happens with a lot of good players too. I remember Graeme Smith, a top Test batsman, declining easy second runs against Zaheer Khan to ensure that he wasn't on strike against him.

The other sign of being mentally off the mark is if the player radically changes his game to get out of a rut. There have been defensive players, including myself, who have tried to hit expansive shots off almost every delivery while going through a bad patch, and there have been naturally attacking players who won't even hit a half-volley when the going gets tough. Nothing of that sort happened with Kohli in England. He was still doing everything that he would have done if he were in prime form. Of course, the feet weren't moving as well as he would have liked but he wasn't looking to change his game radically to get out of jail. It's a sign of supreme confidence, and that's a positive.

So yes, it was technical, strictly that the outswinger became his nemesis. In the beginning, Kohli had a short front-foot stride that went reasonably far across, which made him susceptible to full balls that came in sharply. There was a tendency to fall over a little bit, and that made him susceptible to lbws. But Kohli proved to be a quick learner, managing to convert the shortcoming into a strength. He started playing the ball really late to ensure that he did not lose balance and rarely missed the line. The fact that his stride was short and across lured most bowlers into bowling too straight to him to get lbws, and that played straight into Kohli's hands.

Later he made the short front-foot stride straighter and opened up his front foot a little bit to keep the ball on the inside of the front leg. Now there wasn't a glaring weakness in his batting to be exploited. His technique was good enough to score centuries in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

Virat Kohli was dismissed by James Anderson four times in five Tests in England © Getty Images

Whenever you're on top of your game and feel in complete control, something creeps in, catches you unaware, triggering a bad patch. It has happened with everyone who has played cricket and Kohli is no different. The straight front-foot stride that had allowed him to score many ODI centuries became his enemy, because it became a little too straight. A batsman should lead with his front shoulder and upper body and move in the direction from where the ball is coming. This movement ensures that you're reasonably side-on and the bat is coming from about first slip. It also ensures that the foot lands in the appropriate place. If you open up too much, you are no longer moving towards the ball side-on, the bat will come down at an angle, and if the ball moves away after pitching, you have no option but to reach for it with your hands.

That's what happened with Kohli in England. To compensate for reaching for the ball, he began to move a little more in the crease, and that complicated things further. Once the head starts going outside the line of the stumps before the ball has arrived, you lose sight of where your off stump is, play at the ones that are to be left alone, and possibly leave a few that ought to be played.

When Kohli started playing international cricket, he had some serious issues with the short ball. So much so that in an Irani Trophy game played on a dead Baroda pitch, and afterwards in the IPL, almost every fast bowler around tried bowling bouncers to him, and many were rewarded. His first Test tour, to the West Indies, highlighted the same weakness. But that's a thing of the past. Now he's not only comfortable against the short-pitched stuff, he is among the best at handling it. This improvement indicates not just his honesty to admit that there was a problem but also an ability to conquer weakness. That assures me that he will have worked on the problem that plagued him in England. If that's the case, an upgraded Virat Kohli is in the offing.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here. @cricketaakash