The Insider

The evolution of Virat Kohli into a complete batsman

He worked to improve as a batsman, mastering his weakness against the short ball, and learning new strokes even though he was successful without them

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
When Kohli found himself dropped from the Test side because of his failures against bouncers, he worked hard to eliminate the problem  •  Getty Images

When Kohli found himself dropped from the Test side because of his failures against bouncers, he worked hard to eliminate the problem  •  Getty Images

One evening in the summer of 2011, Rahul Dravid and I got talking about the careers of two promising Indian batsmen - Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. We chatted about their batting styles, their prospects in international cricket, and who was likely to be the bigger success.
Though the numbers were stacked in Kohli's favour, we agreed that Rohit's ability to strike the ball was superior. He seemed to have more time, and when he was on song, he made batting look ridiculously easy.
Kohli, on the other hand, was slightly unorthodox - with his dominating bottom hand even while playing shots off the front foot through the off side, and his short-and-across forward stride - but he was meticulous in his approach to every innings. It seemed that he had a set template in mind and had the discipline to stick to it.
Rahul brought up an important point that can be used as an indicator to judge an evolving career: is the player improving?
Every player starts his international journey with a few apparent flaws. While some work diligently to remove them, others work around them. Then there are those who become victims of their own flaws before they can eliminate them.
In this case, Kohli was ahead of his peers, we thought.
Kohli started as an aggressive young batsman who liked to take on short balls. Even in his early days in Ranji Trophy cricket, he would take pride in pulling medium-fast bowlers for boundaries. We shared a few big partnerships for Delhi, and in each of them, I could see the satisfaction on his face whenever he pulled a short ball perfectly.
But the gulf between first-class cricket and international cricket is huge. Kohli realised that on his first Test tour, in the West Indies. He had had a few issues against short deliveries in the IPL, which had preceded the tour, but the problem was highlighted in the Tests. As a result, he was dropped from India's next Test series, to England.
We have seen many international careers flounder because of the inability to handle bouncers, and Kohli's could easily have become one such - a batsman who was brilliant in limited-overs cricket but couldn't make the cut in the longer format.
While I'm not privy to details of how much time he spent working on his technique, the way Kohli mastered his weakness clearly shows he worked very hard. He still takes on bouncers but never gets himself in a tangle. He has got the time to open his arms while pulling and the courage to take on the fastest bowlers in the world when they dig one in short. It's not that he hasn't got out to a bouncer after that forgettable tour to West Indies, but it's evident that his opponents do not view the short ball as an effective way to dismiss him anymore.
I remember in an IPL game between Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kohli walked in to face R Ashwin. Chennai captain MS Dhoni knew what stroke Kohli was unlikely to play, so he brought both fine leg and square leg inside the 30-yard circle. When an offspinner is bowling, having these two fielders inside the circle amounts to an invitation to play the sweep shot. As a batsman, the only choice you have to make is whether to go along the ground or go aerial. But Kohli didn't sweep even once. He hadn't started sweeping at that stage of his career.
While he had made centuries in both Tests and ODIs on spinner-friendly Indian pitches, he had managed it without playing the sweep shot -which in itself is an accomplishment. He was thriving without playing the sweep, so there wasn't an apparent need to master the stroke.
But he did just that later in his career, and the way he swept Nathan Lyon in Adelaide during his twin centuries there in 2014-15, it didn't look like it was a shot he had not possessed at the start of his career.
Though he still gets it wrong once in a while, like in the Galle Test last year, Kohli no longer allow bowlers to bowl full onto his pads with the square-leg fielder inside the circle. His having added the sweep to his repertoire highlights his intent to keep moving forward.
Square cut
In 2014, Kohli had a nightmarish tour of England, where he kept nicking everything outside off. To deal with that shortcoming, he widened his stance (perhaps, at the coach Duncan Fletcher's behest) and started standing on middle-and-off stump and outside the crease.
With this new approach, he scored four Test centuries in the four-Test match series against Australia down under. With the new wide stance and a further forward press as a trigger movement, he started getting closer to balls pitching full and outside off. But like it is with every adjustment, there were merits and demerits. Once you have committed yourself to the front foot so much, it's difficult to have the same number of forcing shots off the back foot.
While he kept swivelling to pull the short balls (a habit deeply ingrained into his batting), he didn't look to square-cut such deliveries. In fact, for the first seven to eight years of his career, Kohli rarely targeted the area around point off the back foot against fast bowlers. But though he had made over 30 international centuries without needing this shot, he showed his determination to upgrade his skills.
Now his stance is slightly narrower and he has started playing the square cut with reasonable control. If there was an area - slightly short and outside off - where the bowlers could target him, it's no longer available.
Certain improvements happen on their own, like it was with Dravid, who started as a predominantly on-side player. Soon bowlers stopped bowling to him on the pads, which forced him to work on his off-side game as well.
Similarly, for Kohli to survive at the highest level, he had to come up with a solid response to bouncers. The rest was just about adding more arrows to the quiver. That's what makes him the player he is today.

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