The Insider

How Kohli rules T20

He cannot match the big hitters for power, but his numbers are as good as theirs - if not better

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
Virat Kohli averages just under 100 in T20s this year  •  BCCI

Virat Kohli averages just under 100 in T20s this year  •  BCCI

Virat Kohli has scored 11 fifties and a hundred in his last 19 T20 innings at an average of 96.18 and a strike rate of 138.48. He has scored 40 or more in 14 of the 19 innings that he has batted in in 2016. These are Bradmanesque numbers, particularly in a format that allows only 120 balls to be distributed among the top five or six batsmen.
T20 cricket forced us to adjust our statistical benchmarks: 30 has become the new 50 when it comes to batting averages. No longer is it about digging in and playing a long innings, for T20 doesn't allow you the luxury of time. When you start biding your time, you fall so far behind in the game that it is almost impossible to recover.
In fact, the essence of T20 cricket is to keep going regardless of how many came off the previous over or the previous ball, and that means inconsistency. I remember chatting to Rahul Dravid during the first year of the IPL and he voiced his reservations about the fact that it was being considered okay to get out after scoring a quick 30. (And 30 is still considered a decent score in T20, unless your name is Virat Kohli.)
When ODI cricket came along, everyone treated it like a shortened Test match and went about their business as they would in a Test match innings - save for the last ten overs. It took some time and some rule changes to force teams to start viewing ODI cricket as a different sport, and that changed the momentum of the format forever. Nowadays batsmen go on the offensive from the first ball and don't take their foot off the accelerator till the end. Earlier, scoring a run a ball was limited to only the death overs, but now 300-plus scores are achieved as a matter of course.
Similarly, when T20 started, everyone treated it as a 120-ball slogfest. But as the approach to ODI cricket changed, so is it changing with T20, as players approach T20 innings with a slightly different method.
While they still go hard at most stages of the game, they no longer see the need to slog every ball to score 12 an over. And that is where Kohli leads the pack. T20 cricket is fast becoming synonymous with power-hitting and innovative stroke-making, but Kohli is still doing his stuff the old-fashioned way. He doesn't go aerial all the time, he doesn't hit sixes as often as some of the top T20 batsmen do, and he doesn't play the lap or the reverse lap shot. So how does he manage to not just stay relevant but also rule the shortest format?
The importance of the basics
AB de Villiers spoke about (and demonstrated) his method of playing, where he referred to an imaginary box around him that he ensures to stay within. In short, he talks about how keeping arms and legs close to each other allows him to maintain better shape.
While Kohli hasn't spoken similarly about his method, he's quite like de Villiers in his approach. The key to his consistency is his ability to play almost everything close to his body and right under his eyes, especially while playing defensive strokes early in his innings. While most T20 batting stars hit the ground running, Kohli tends to take a bit more time and looks to play only orthodox cricket shots in the beginning.
Strike rate in the first 15 balls of T20 innings (2016)
Batsman Strike rate
Martin Guptill 187.39
Brendon McCullum 166.67
Chris Gayle 165.22
AB de Villiers 159.24
David Warner 158.39
Quinton de Kock 146.90
Joe Root 140.91
Jos Buttler 137.56
Aaron Finch 135.44
Kevin Pietersen 127.43
Virat Kohli 121.03
Rohit Sharma 113.57
His innings almost always show a steady upward curve till the end, which takes his overall strike rate to a very acceptable 138. Kohli's commitment to this method makes him consistent.
Not getting too far ahead of oneself is the key to succeeding regularly. How does a batsman move from being in top form to being out of form? Well, when you're in form, you try to do things that you wouldn't do otherwise, and those lead to your dismissal a time or two. An ordinary umpiring decision, a bad call from your partner, and a couple of terrific deliveries follow (not necessarily in that order), and before you realise it, you're in the middle of a dry spell.
Kohli has managed to keep this tendency at bay. For him, a red flag goes up when he strays from his brief. He played an out-of-character shot against Mashrafe Mortaza in the first Asia Cup game earlier this year and acknowledged his mistake straightaway. In the next game he went back to his method, got runs, and in the post-match interview said how he had learned from the error in the previous match. No great batsman worth his salt is bereft of ego, but most manage to keep it in check, and that's the case with Kohli too.
Finesse over muscle
Kohli by his own admission doesn't possess the ability to regularly clear the fence. Not only do players like Chris Gayle, de Villiers and David Warner take the aerial route often, they also hit sixes at almost every stage of a T20 innings.
Those players have the ability to hit sixes without stepping out. While Kohli can also hit sixes, he needs to use body momentum to generate the power required more often than not. But good players don't fret over what they don't have; they find a way around it to be successful. Kohli has managed to score 12 an over without hitting sixes. Most great players have two shots to the same ball; Kohli has two variations of the same shot - one where he gives it a proper whip to hit the boundary and one in which he just pushes the ball to steal a couple.
Kohli has run 83 twos in his 19 innings this year. The next highest, at close to half that, is Hamilton Masakadza, with 45. Among 26 batsmen who have faced 300 or more balls in T20s this year, only Steven Smith has a higher percentage of twos (11.35% to Kohli's 10.86).
Kohli's ability to know how hard the ball has to be hit to take two runs makes him a master of chases, for it allows him to put immense pressure on the opposition captain and fielders. We saw him do it against Australia in the World T20 and wondered if it had something to do with the size of the ground, for Mohali is a lot bigger than most Indian grounds. But he did the same against West Indies at the Wankhede, and that takes some doing because you either get singles or fours on a smaller outfield like the one at the Wankhede.
A lot of credit for Kohli's phenomenal speed between the stumps must go to his supreme fitness. That also comes in handy when he needs to step out. In T20 you don't often see batsmen step out and successfully execute the shot they're looking to play, for not only do spinners in T20 cricket bowl faster, they also bowl flatter, so it's difficult to leave the crease after the ball has left the bowler's hand and gather yourself before hitting the ball. If you step out before the ball is released, the bowler will drag it short, and if you step out too late, you tend to be on the move when the ball reaches you. In Kohli's case, he seems to be able to time his stepping out better than the rest, and so he manages to hit the ball to the fence more often too.
Batsmen stepping out in T20
Batsman Balls stepped out to Balls faced % balls stepped out to
Steven Smith 90 563 16.0
Virat Kohli 177 1258 14.1
Faf du Plessis 150 1121 13.4
Ambati Rayudu 66 512 12.9
MS Dhoni 94 750 12.5
Kane Williamson 92 757 12.2
Suresh Raina 131 1098 11.9
Brendon McCullum 102 908 11.2
Andre Fletcher 62 717 8.6
David Miller 97 1148 8.4
Only Smith steps out more than Kohli does, but Kohli's strike rate is 202 for the balls he steps out to, while Smith's is around 154. Also, when he steps out, Kohli hits one in every 3.3 balls to the fence, as compared to Smith, who hits one in 5.6.
Kohli's trainer claims that his current fitness standards are comparable with those of Novak Djokovic. While we will never see those two play each other in the same sport, and so won't know how true that statement is, nobody will deny that Kohli is one of the fittest cricketers going around.
In every era, we get cricketers who redefine the rules and Kohli is doing just that, redefining batting in T20.

Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash