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The many versions of batting genius Virat Kohli

He is a rare breed who kept making changes to the very soul of his batting

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
From being a bottom-hand dominant batter, Virat Kohli became a cover-drive specialist  •  AFP/Getty Images

From being a bottom-hand dominant batter, Virat Kohli became a cover-drive specialist  •  AFP/Getty Images

VVS Laxman was awed by a stunning quality of Sachin Tendulkar's batting. In 1996-97, on a particularly quick Newlands surface, Tendulkar widened and also slightly opened his stance, tapping his bat between his feet instead of the usual behind the back toe. And he scored a breathtaking century. All he did to prepare for this change was take a few throwdowns with that stance.
"I have told him many times that for the rest of us mortals, if we want to change something, we have to first do it in the throwdowns, then in the nets, and then carry it into a match," Laxman wrote on ESPNcricinfo. "Here he was, against the best bowling attack of the time, trying something new in the throwdowns and directly using it to get a brilliant Test hundred."
Batting is such a fickle pursuit it drives its practitioners to obsession. Everything from their technique to routines must be just so. Accordingly, they are loathe to change. Coaches have to walk on eggshells when suggesting a change. If they manage to convince a batter, they go through the process sensitively and painstakingly in the nets. Well with most of them at any rate.
Then there is the rare breed that can change things on the fly and be comfortable with it. That is perhaps the most important quality Tendulkar's spiritual heir Virat Kohli shares with him.
Change has been the biggest hallmark of Kohli's career, which now stands 100 Tests old. It has practically happened in public eye with hardly any breaks from any format. By the time batters reach first-class cricket, their game is more or less set. Not many change the soul of their batting as much as Kohli has done. From a bottom-handed batter who favoured the on side, he has fashioned himself into a cover-drive-reliant batter who has all but sacrificed back-foot off-side runs to counter the movement that hampered his cover drive. Normal stance, extra wide stance, slightly wide stance, bat twirl (although not really a part of technique), bat tap, no tap, big front press, then fine-tuning it, he has done it all.
Most incredibly, like Tendulkar, he could make changes seemingly on a whim. At Edgbaston in 2018, Sriram Veera observed for Indian Express how Kohli constantly fought with his own game: changing his guard two-three times during the innings, standing outside the crease one ball, deep inside the next. The first half of that epic innings was scratchy, but Kohli kept changing to fight for a different result to the one four years prior. Earlier that year, in South Africa, he would tap his bat down to certain bowlers and not to certain others, almost a different batter to different bowlers.
This is more than just the fierce will to compete and improve, which shows in how he turned around his fitness. This is complete knowledge of his game, and detachment with what is not the bottom line, runs. And the utter confidence to pull off those changes, not fearing he might lose some of his original attributes.
Sample what Sanjay Bangar, then the batting coach, said after Edgbaston: "I would say that this innings showed different facets of Virat's batting. The main thing is that Virat is flexible about his batting approach. Most of the batters are not flexible when it comes to changing technique or approach. But Virat in this respect is different."
It is clear how seamers tried to get him out for a majority of his career. Drag him across, play with the edge, and then try to sneak in the lbw. Kartikeya Date used extensive ball-tracking data to see how some of the prominent batters react to different zones on the beehive. Kohli had turned the top-of-off delivery, a weakness for other batters, into a strength, averaging 156, by shifting his guard and moving forward to cut down the movement. Wide length balls and short balls in the channel outside off became less productive zones. The top-of-leg delivery tended to get him lbw. He backed himself to do enough damage by then.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Kohli didn't shelve the cover drive. It is not stubbornness or lack of self-denial. When facing spin, against which he has been proficient, Kohli cut out the lofted shot to the extent that he once went 805 balls in 2016 without hitting one in the air. Rarely in a bad position to play spin - even though he didn't sweep or leave the crease much - he knew he had other scoring avenues. Some of his best knocks against spin have not been hundreds but forties and fifties in the third innings when all bets are off, looking at ease against the misbehaving ball when others are struggling.
Against seam, on the constantly difficult tracks of today, and facing deeper and fitter attacks, he felt he wouldn't get runs if he didn't cover drive. So he just tried to keep getting better and better at it even if it meant sacrificing back-foot runs. He wasn't unmindful, he was practical.
At the same time Kohli kept meeting the demands of higher scoring rates in the limited-overs game by expanding the same base. Reaching 100 Tests is a staggering achievement for Kohli because he has excelled in two other formats at the same time and has led all the sides he played in when at his prime.
In an interview with Nasser Hussain in 2016, when he spoke so eloquently of the changes he made, he answered a Tendulkar comparison saying he won't be able to play as long as Tendulkar did. He knew back then itself he was playing an intense game that took a lot out of him. Any batter who plays Test cricket for India is an expert at what he does, but it is fair to say his is not as natural and gifted a game as Tendulkar's.
It is showing in how Kohli has had to take a sudden and big step back from leadership in the last six months or so. He goes into the 100th Test having not scored a century in two years even though he has not looked as out-of-sorts as those numbers suggest. Yet you wonder if he draws comfort from them. If he doubts himself now. If there is going to be a resurgence not matter how brief or long. One thing you do know, though: if he feels a change is required, he will make it. You'd better be watching out for that, even at 100 Tests old.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo