The yin and yang of Kohli's cover drive
Batting coach Vikram Rathour says Kohli "needs to pick maybe better balls, at times"
In the space of four days, Virat Kohli has been dismissed twice while attempting cover drives a long way from his body. How far from his body? A helpful guide began doing the rounds on Twitter soon after his first-innings dismissal to Lungi Ngidi.
No way pic.twitter.com/yfQmGfnWcG-- PRASH (@Prash023) December 26, 2021
Yup. That gentle Ngidi outswinger was roughly on an 11th-stump line when Kohli's flailing diagonal bat met it.
On Wednesday, he was out in similar manner, though this ball from Marco Jansen - the first after lunch - wasn't quite as far outside off stump. It still wasn't a ball to drive safely, though - too wide, not full enough, and delivered by a 6'8" left-armer on a pitch with inconsistent bounce.
The cover drive has always been a yin-and-yang shot for Kohli. He plays it often, sometimes against good-length balls, and when things are going well he middles it far more often than he misses or edges it. And it's a vital part of his game: according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, it's been his second-most productive shot against fast bowlers since the start of 2018, bringing him 378 runs at an average of 54 with the seven dismissals.
The flick has brought him more runs (408), but at a lower average (45.33) because of nine dismissals. No one, however, has ever said he should play the flick less often or with more care.
But then again, the cover drive has lately been getting Kohli in a lot more trouble than it used to. Since the start of 2020, Kohli has averaged 18.40 away from home while playing the cover drive or off drive against fast bowlers, according to ESPNcricinfo's data. The corresponding figure in 2018 and 2019 combined - when India went on tours of South Africa, England, Australia and the West Indies - was 64.25.
Clearly, something has changed.
When asked about the two Centurion dismissals at the end of day four, Vikram Rathour, India's batting coach, seemed to suggest that Kohli needs to be more selective about what balls to attack.
"This is a shot that brings him lots of runs," Rathour said. "I think this is his scoring shot, so he needs to play that shot, and I think it's always your strength that turns out to be your weakness as well. If you don't play a certain shot, you'll never get out playing that shot, isn't it? But you'll never score runs on that shot as well.
"When to play that shot? That's the part [about which] there are constant discussions - was it the right ball, was it the right stage to play that shot, and if we can just tighten up our gameplans a little more, that will be better. But that's the shot he plays well, and that's the shot he scores loads of runs [with], so he has to carry on playing that shot, but he needs to pick maybe better balls, at times."
Much like in Centurion, other recent Kohli dismissals have come off seemingly avoidable drives. There was the much-dissected scrambled-seam ball from James Anderson at Headingley, a terrific delivery, but one Kohli probably didn't need to drive at. There was the slice to gully off Pat Cummins when India were bowled out for 36 in Adelaide. And before that, in Wellington, Kohli made Kyle Jamieson's first day in Test cricket extra-special by nicking a loose drive to first slip.
It could be that Kohli's driving has grown looser. But as with anything else, there's also the role of luck.
As mentioned earlier, Kohli's average while playing the cover drive and off drive has dropped significantly over the last two years. His control percentage while playing those shots, however, has actually improved, and significantly - from 72.73 to 82.72.
In 2018 and 2019, he was out once for every 13.5 mis-controlled cover or off drives. That is, he played and missed or safely edged 13.5 times for each time he was out playing these shots. That number, in 2020 and 2021, has come down to 2.8. One in three miscontrolled cover and off drives, that is, has gotten Kohli out.
Luck, quite simply, may have deserted Kohli's pet shot.
There could be more to it, of course. Technical issues creeping into his driving, perhaps, or bowling plans designed to better exploit them. And sometimes, like in Centurion, he has probably simply played the wrong shot to the wrong ball. But if there's a broader truth at all, it's complicated.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo