Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
For a batter whose troubles centre on the outside edge of the bat, it is instructive that it is all underlined by the ball coming in. Virat Kohli has now nicked off in six successive innings in England, but the battle he is fighting is perhaps on the inside edge.
Take the fourth morning of the Headingley Test. Resuming on 45 overnight, Kohli began the day beautifully, leaving alone all outswingers from James Anderson. He left 11 of the first 14 deliveries he faced on the fourth morning. Enough for there to be packages on the broadcast on how well he is leaving the same line that has been getting him out.
Here is the difference: all these balls were bowled with the outswing release, and he picked them early and then let them go. The 15th ball Kohli faced was different. It was the wobble-seam ball from Anderson, which shaped in late, a repeat of the ball that got him out in the first innings. Kohli went to cover for the inward movement, and the ball seamed away to miss the edge this time. Only when the threat of the incoming delivery materialised did the indecisive period begin.
Kohli's horrible 2014 really began when he left one alone from Liam Plunkett in the second innings at Lord's only for it seam back up the slope and bowl him for a golden duck. This current extended lean patch began in New Zealand with Tim Southee and Colin de Grandhomme trapping him lbw beating the inside edge. These were all balls that looked like they would go away but changed direction upon pitching.
About the 2014 rut, Kohli himself told Nasser Hussain in 2016-17 that his problem then was that he was expecting the incoming ball too much. He was worried about the stumps and kept pushing at balls he could have left alone. England's job this summer was half done by New Zealand: Kyle Jamieson got Kohli lbw again in the World Test Championship final, and by the second innings he was ended up in the same shape as in 2014: pushing away at the ball and his right shoulder showing.
That is a peculiar shot that Kohli plays. Those defensive pushes have an adverse risk-to-reward ratio. If you middle them, you get no runs. On the face of it, it is a lose-lose shot. But it is a precursor to the cover-drive, a shot Kohli has mastered. The defensive push gets him into positions to play the drive. Kohli's reaction in 2014 was to not shelve the drive, but to start playing it better.
There is a tendency to, post-facto, assign noble reasons to his great 2018 series in England. The popular memory of Edgbaston is a monk who eschewed the drive or the push away from the body. Now he has become the indulgent billionaire who can't help but drive away. It is a narrative Kohli himself propagated by saying you have to leave your ego at home when you bat in England.
In actual fact, Kohli flashed at the sixth ball he faced in 2018. It fell short of gully. He chased the next ball. The 13th ball he drove on the up, but the edge fell safe. The 15th he looked to work to leg and got a leading edge.
By the time Kohli was dropped for the first time, off the 55th ball he faced, pushing away from the body, he had made 14 mistakes at an alarming rate of one every four balls. In this series, he has made 43 mistakes in 277 balls but that has been enough to get him out five times.
Also the rate of leaves could be higher this time because they are not having to bowl straight at him, which they had to in 2018 once he got away with his early errors outside off. It is possible that nicking off the first ball of the series as opposed to, say, getting beaten by it as he might have had in 2018 has created just that bit of indiscernible, intangible doubt in Kohli when he is going for the push or the drive. He is himself a big proponent of absolute clarity at what you are doing in a game of fine margins.
In the 2018 series Kohli left alone 211 balls of pace out of 818; this series he has not offered a shot 70 times out of 207. He is actually leaving alone much more frequently this series; make allowance for the rate to come down as innings go longer, and you will have him leaving at a similar rate as in 2018. He is defending more and driving less, but that too will change as innings get longer.
In 2018, Kohli made 173 false responses to 818 deliveries of pace bowling, a control percentage of under 79, which is worse than the 2021 series where he has made 36 mistakes in 207 balls.
Playing with more control and yet getting out five times to 36 mistakes as against seven dismissals in 173 false responses does point to a significant role of luck. And with Kohli, good luck and bad luck tend to arrive in droves: while he made 54 mistakes for 10 dismissals in the 2014 series, in the one Edgbaston innings alone in 2018, he survived 55 false responses. Neither of these events makes him any better or worse batter than he is.
However, as it was observed by @flighted_leggie on Twitter, Kohli seems to have undone a technical change he made. Kohli had told Hussain that to better react to the ball that moved away from in front of him, he made sure his back foot stayed parallel to the crease when he first moved it, thus making sure his hip didn't open up. His back foot is not, according to some footage seen from side-on this series, parallel to the crease, but in this string of dismissals, only once has his hip opened up: against Jamieson in Southampton. So it is possible he is happy with his alignment as opposed to being unaware that his back foot is not parallel.
Kohli is just up against a highly skilful bowler surrounded by a highly accurate attack. It is not like he is going chasing every other outswinger, they are earning the mistakes he is making by creating the doubt that his inside edge is in play. His response to this bowling has been more or less similar to how he has played across a career of 7671 runs at an average of 51.14 in an incredibly tough era for batting.
Batting technique can have an impact on how often you survive false responses. To a defensive batter, technique is something that saves you when you make a mistake. You misjudge the length, for example, but because you are playing under the head, the ball moves past your edge. To an attacking batter, technique is what gets you in positions to score runs. That is why they are able to score off balls some others dare not mess with.
Cheteshwar Pujara gets out once every 13.71 mistakes, Kohli 11.3. Pujara is a defensive batter, Kohli aggressive, and these are choices they make. Pujara survives more mistakes, Kohli scores more by the time he makes those mistakes. Steven Smith is the rare genius who makes as many mistakes as Pujara to get out once but scores as quickly as Kohli. Both Kohli and Pujara are highly successful at what they do.
If Kohli wants to make that change and wait for the bowlers to bowl at him, play a higher-percentage game in other words, he will have to give up some of the runs he scores through the covers. He was not willing to do that in 2014, he is unlikely to do so now. The only reason for doing that will be when the hand-eye coordination starts to become weaker, but that is not likely at the age of 32.
How long then does Kohli keep faith in his methods and his technique despite the number of Tests without a century growing? Bat like results don't matter while knowing that on that cold scoresheet, they are the only thing that do matter. If anything, this phase tells you how freakishly difficult what peak Kohli made look easy was.