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Virat Kohli embraces playing second fiddle in a World Cup of learnings

It's been a new role in the middle overs, says Indian captain, and a challenge that he has enjoyed

We all know it, but there's no harm repeating it - Virat Kohli has not scored a century in the World Cup. In fact, Kohli has not reached three figures in his last ten ODI innings. The last time he experienced such a barren stretch was in the five-month period between January and July in 2017, when he went without an ODI century for 11 innings.
It is a strange feeling not just for Kohli, but to people around the game in general, as we've all come to expect special things from the man who is just eight short of matching his idol Sachin Tendulkar for the most number of ODI centuries (49) at just 30-years-old.
For now, though, Kohli is grappling with the changed nature of his role in the Indian batting order. Although Kohli continues to be the No. 3, the Indian captain has been batting more with a mindset suited to a No. 4. That change is mainly a consequence of the unsettled middle order. Just under two years ago, MS Dhoni would marshal the middle and lower order, while Kohli went about dominating the opposition in the top order.
But with Dhoni's inconsistency and his domination thinning, Kohli has assumed a role this tournament of directing traffic while going run-a-ball. In fact, the average number of balls Kohli has faced in the tournament - 58 - are the same as in the eight ODIs before the World Cup. However, the time in the middle has shortened.
Another significant factor that has forced Kohli to adopt a different role is the success of the Indian openers, especially Rohit Sharma, who has scored five centuries this World Cup. At the start of the World Cup, the Indian think tank had decided that one batsman among the top three would play as long as possible and drop anchor once he got the start. Rohit has managed to do that a handful of occasions. In fact, in the last two matches, Rohit and KL Rahul have registered 150-plus stands which has given Kohli barely an hour or so at the crease.
Has this made him restless?
"No, not at all. It's been a different kind of role that I've played this World Cup," Kohli said on Monday. The difference, Kohli pointed out, was in helping explosive batsmen like Hardik Pandya and Rishabh Pant gain their footing quickly and allow them the freedom to go after the bowling knowing he was manning one end.
"Coming in the latter half of the innings, you have to play a different role, which is controlling the middle overs and letting guys like Hardik and Kedar, and MS - and in the past few games, Rishabh - come out and express themselves. I have been very happy with holding one end and letting guys express themselves, striking at 150, 160 or 200 if the team needs. And I know I can accelerate in the end."
One has to adapt, Kohli said.
"I have learnt so much in this World Cup, along with spending time in the middle, that, okay, this is also a role that you are supposed to play. It's been nice, it's been a different kind of a challenge to me and I have really enjoyed it - rotating strike and understanding how to play in those middle overs, and allowing the others guys to come out and express."
Kohli reiterated that flexibility is something India have accepted in a long tournament and that has served them well - they lost only one of eight matches in the group stage. And for that reason Kohli said he would not be shy to forsake his No. 3 in case the situation presented itself - where the opening partnership has been a solid one and there is a need for an aggressive batsman like Pandya, who can clear boundaries with ease.
"We have gone along with the pace of the game and that is why we have won the number of games that we have, and we intend to do [keep doing] the same," he said.
"If the situation presents itself where the opening partnership is outstanding and someone needs to go at No 3 and strike the ball, I am absolutely open to do that. To win a tournament like this you need to be very flexible and think on your feet and I think we have done that well so far and hopefully we can do the same thing in two more games."
At every ground this World Cup, Kohli has strode onto the turf so quickly that he is halfway down the pitch even before the outgoing batsman has crossed the ropes. But he has turned that restlessness into intent - one of his favourite words. With that intent, Kohli has managed to calibrate the pace of play nicely in the middle overs.
In the process, he has gladly embraced a role he is unaccustomed to playing: being the second fiddle.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo