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Analysis

Kohli an uneasy fit at slip as India search for Rahane's replacement

Kohli has missed seven catches off spinners at slip, and taken three, since Rahane's last Test in January 2022

Virat Kohli reprieved David Warner, Steven Smith and Peter Handscomb in Nagpur  •  BCCI

Virat Kohli reprieved David Warner, Steven Smith and Peter Handscomb in Nagpur  •  BCCI

It has been over a year since Ajinkya Rahane last played a Test match. While India seem to have moved on from his batting, they probably miss him acutely when they take the field.
Rahane has taken 99 catches in Test cricket. Of them, 68 have come off spin bowling, the bulk of them at slip. For years, "c Rahane" was a regular prefix to "b Ashwin" or "b Jadeja" on scorecards, particularly in subcontinental conditions. In highlights packages, he would always be in the right place at the right time, stealthy like a pickpocket, and when the job was done, he would invariably roll the ball to the square-leg umpire, relentless repetition turning this non-celebration into something of a trademark.
Three times during the Nagpur Test last week, India's spinners might have wondered if they could fly Rahane in as a specialist slip-catching sub. All three times, Virat Kohli was at slip, reprieving Steven Smith and Peter Handscomb on day one, off Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja respectively, and David Warner on day three, off R Ashwin.
The first two chances happened to coincide with TV commentary stints involving Mark Waugh, one of the greatest and most effortless slip catchers to have graced the game. Over the course of that first day, Waugh had plenty of technical advice for Kohli: to stay low for longer on low-bounce pitches such as Nagpur; stand with his feet less far apart to enable him to move quicker to the ball; and expect the ball to come to him every time.
"You've got to read the play," Waugh said at one point. "You've got to pretend you are actually batting when you are fielding at first slip to the spinners."
It was all sound advice from a master of the art, but neither chance on day one was straightforward. The first was a sharp one-hander to Kohli's right. The second was a deflection off the wicketkeeper's thigh that flew to his left - so quickly that he didn't even move, forget getting a hand to the ball.
The chance on day three, off Warner, was a sitter, but anyone can drop the odd sitter. Likewise, even the best slippers have the odd bad Test.
But it wasn't just one bad Test for Kohli. He had also missed three chances at slip off the spinners in India's last Test before Nagpur, against Bangladesh in Dhaka. It wasn't just the fact that he missed them, but how he missed them, finding himself wrongfooted on two occasions. Litton Das, whom Kohli had reprieved twice in Bangladesh's second innings, went on to score 73 and set India a target of 145. India got there, but only after slumping to 74 for 7.
In all, Kohli has been involved in India's last seven missed catching chances against spin in Tests - five clear-cut chances and two, including the one off Handscomb, either deflecting off the keeper or flying between the wicketkeeper and slip. Counting those two half-chances, Kohli has missed seven catches off spinners at slip, and taken three, since Rahane's last Test match. It could be a bad run, or perhaps a sign that he may not be fielding in his best position.
Kohli has always looked an uneasy fit in the slips. He has always looked more at home in the covers or at short midwicket, where he can put his athleticism and acceleration out of the blocks to full use, and where he is constantly involved in the game. Both with the bat and in the field, Kohli is usually happier going towards the ball rather than letting it come to him.
It is natural for teams to go through uneasy transitions when great catchers retire or get dropped. It happened in the early part of Kohli's career too. Rahane took over fairly quickly from Rahul Dravid as the designated slip catcher against spin, but India struggled for years to figure out their best slip combination against pace after Dravid and VVS Laxman retired.
Given time, Kohli could grow more attuned to the demands of standing at slip to spinners. But there is also a chance that he is only filling in until India find a more natural fit for the role. On Thursday in Delhi, Shreyas Iyer spent time both at slip and short leg while practising close-in catches. Perhaps he might emerge as Rahane's long-term successor. Shubman Gill, who has great hands and seems temperamentally attuned to the role, is another candidate.
India will hope they find their man soon. Facing their spinners in their own conditions is perhaps the hardest task in Test cricket. A champion slipper will make it even harder.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo