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Kohli's drops in slips may cost India dearly

Virat Kohli missed a chance at leg slip AFP

Between the comprehensive win in Galle and the Colombo Test, India's captain and coach have been talking about not being complacent and identifying areas of improvement despite that result. Virat Kohli has said India need to wrap up sides swiftly after getting their specialist batsmen out, alternatively he has said they need to stay composed and disciplined when the opposition puts together a partnership. Ravi Shastri has spoken of the need to stay consistent, to watch out against bad habits that might creep in.

However, one elephant remains unaddressed: India at slips, specifically Kohli at slips. The most violent act during the Galle Test was when Kohli slapped the helpless turf after dropping Upul Tharanga at second slip. Tharanga duly obliged by getting bowled two balls later, and once again India got away with it. It is different when conditions and oppositions let your bowlers keep creating enough opportunities, but Kohli will remember how dearly he and India have paid for drops earlier: he himself dropped Brendon McCullum when his triple-hundred denied India a Test win in 2014, and Alastair Cook's 95 turned a whole series around after he was let off a few months later.

India's ground fielding keeps improving every day, but it is quite possible that catching, especially at slip and more specifically for quicks, has regressed if not stagnated. Numbers will tell you that the captain himself is the centre of the problem. As captain, at slip for the quicks, he has taken six catches and has dropped at least an equal number. Two of those drops have been really difficult chances, but a thread runs through his drops: he gets up too early, he is anxious to get to the ball as opposed to letting it come to him, and he struggles to take them low to his left.

Kohli has a better record against spin, but there is still a significant number of misses there. Standing at first slip for spin, he has taken three and dropped at least two, three and two when fielding at gully for spin, and four and one when at backward short leg or leg slip. His record in the outfield - especially at catching cover and midwicket - is far better: he has taken 11 and dropped one, although at least on two occasions his enthusiasm has meant he has ruined the chance for the fielder running in - and thus better placed to judge the catch - while failing to get to the ball himself.


*Half chances - 3

In a seminal study on dropped catches over at TCM, Charles Davis found out that a 29% of slips catches went down between 2008 and 2016. Kohli's rate as captain has been 47%, and an even 50 when slipping for quick bowlers. He is a proud performer, and he will be aware of it. His reaction in Galle said as much.

Experts usually point to a relaxed temperament as a prerequisite for a slip fielder. All good slips fielders have traditionally been patient persons who let the ball come to them. Kohli is forever anxious to make an immediate impact on the game; slips fielding is the exact opposite. His getting up early - as seen in the Bangalore Test earlier this year when he dropped two catches - is a technical aspect R Sridhar, the fielding coach, will need to keep working on.

The bigger question, though, is, if he has such a poor record at slip, must Kohli field there? He has not always been a natural slips fielder. He didn't do it extensively when MS Dhoni was captain, and himself started at gully in his first Test as captain. That was the time when R Ashwin still used to field at slip. Ashwin perhaps remains India's most natural slips fielder, but it is understandable if they have decided to not risk a finger injury to their biggest match-winner in Tests in the last five years. It doesn't help that all other slips fielders that India have tried have faltered too: KL Rahul has dropped at least three, and M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan at least two each. Ravindra Jadeja was the man that let Cook off in Southampton after which India squandered the series lead to lose 3-1. He dropped Cook again in India, but this time India created more opportunities.

All this should also turn the focus to the fielding coach. During the home series against England last year, Sridhar said that the catching had improved under him, but frequent injuries and the changing cordon presented them with challenges. His preferred cordon, given all in-form players were fit at that time, was Vijay at first slip, Karun Nair at second, Kohli at third and Ajinkya Rahane at gully. Since then, Nair has been dropped, and Vijay has been injured.

India began the Sri Lanka tour with a new plan. Cheteshwar Pujara, who used to be a slips fielder but had perhaps moved out because of his dodgy knees, was back at first slip. Dhawan was at second, and Jadeja third. Dhawan took two catches at second slip, there was no mishap in the cordon, but for some reason Kohli found himself at second slip again when he dropped Tharanga in the second innings.

That is where you suspect if it is DRS that keeps taking him back to slip, and that too at second slip and not third, which might be ideal for him, according to the fielding coach. On a few occasions, when fielding at catching midwicket or catching cover, Kohli has been seen a little frustrated with his wicketkeeper and bowler in DRS scenarios. It is not clear, though, if standing at mid-off for a quick bowler - where he can be in the bowler's ear too - is much worse than second slip, which is equally disadvantaged when it comes to judging the trajectory of the ball vis-à-vis the stumps.

However, most other Test captains spend a fair bit of time behind the stumps. Steven Smith fields at slip for both the quicks and the spinners. Joe Root does it for fast bowlers. Two other captains are wicketkeepers. Faf du Plessis does his share of slip fielding, as do Jason Holder and Dinesh Chamdimal. Kane Williamson is the odd one out: he does gully for quicks, and for spin, New Zealand almost always have Ross Taylor at first slip.

Whatever be the reason, numbers tell you India are not good at slip, and the captain is the worst of them all. When they start travelling to play better opposition, these drops might start hurting them badly again. That is something India can work on between what might seem perfect Test results.