India vs England 2018: Virat Kohli’s corridor of uncertainty

India skipper Virat Kohli will have to find a way to deal with James Anderson’s swing, especially outside the off-stump.

Virat Kohli’s hyperactive feet have seemingly been on a leash in Birmingham. They don’t stride out. They don’t cross across. They don’t press forward with abandonment as before. All this at the training nets, of course. There seems to be an effort to ensure he doesn’t stretch too forward across to seamers and leave himself vulnerable against the swinging ball. And it’s difficult not to think of James Anderson when one sees all this rewiring.

Usually, it’s two batsmen or bowlers from the same team who are hyphenated: Lillee-Thommo, Imran-Javed, McGrath-Warne, Akram-Younis. But the 2014 tour, where he averaged 13.4 in 10 innings, has conjoined Kohli with Anderson. It’s the battle that will be most keenly watched, and not just by Kohli critics and fan. It can potentially be a series decider.

If Kohli breaks free, he is also likely to drag his team along with him. If Anderson can stir his tiring wrists to reprise the magic, England will hurtle along with him.

A template seems to be developing in the head space of Kohli. Monday saw Ravi Shastri in constant chat with Kohli at the nets. A small word in the ear, a minor adjustment made, and the sweating continued. He might not play this fashion in the Test, for all you know, but it was utterly fascinating to watch his preparation.

Before we dwell further on what he did, it’s time for a rewind. To 2014. To his horror visits to the 22 yards.

The Anderson plan was simple: curve the ball away from the off pole, make Kohli stretch across to drive with an open bat face, and wait for the ball to be cusped in palms in the slips. As a surprise, slip in the odd one straight or get it to nip back.

A familiar old technique, a strength of sorts, had led to Kohli’s undoing. What worked in most parts around the world proved the slippery banana peel in England. That immense forward stride, almost devoid of self-doubt, and the punch of the arm that would send the ball plummeting through the gap in the covers, wasn’t working here.

Seed of doubt
English conditions demand a bit of doubt in a batsman. Not the nagging wary self-doubt of belief or confidence, but a bit of prudence, patience, respect. It necessitates a need not to over-commit.

A patience to wait for the ball to show its card – how it’s going to bend, how late it will do its trick, and how much. In ensuring years, Kohli has already made minor tweaks: of not opening up his hips too much, staying more side-on, shortening the width of his feet in the stance. Now, it seems, the time has come for some tinkering with the front-foot movement.

In the way it played out in the nets, you could see the rationale behind the attempt. It was easier to see what this short step forward can potentially offer him. It delays his response. It almost forces him to delay it, in fact. He sees the ball for a little while longer in its trajectory. It allows him to see and cover for the away movement. It ensures his hands aren’t already flowing into the on-the-up punchy position even before the ball dips away. It also helps him in staying side-on for that bit longer.

But batting, as we know, isn’t designed on paper. There are also a few potential hurdles that this can throw up. A batsman used to a longer stride can get his balance altered when he cuts short that foot movement. It’s like going from being Rahul Dravid, who would inexorably lean forward and dare himself towards the battle zone of the swinging ball, to suddenly Virender Sehwag, whose minimal forward movement gave him greater balance and freedom for his loose limbs to come through the line. Both approaches worked, but can one switch from one to the other? Kohli wasn’t exactly doing that kind of extreme switch, of course, in the nets. He can’t afford to.

There were already a few problems that a more minimalistic approach threw up in the nets. When the ball wasn’t that full and skidded on, Kohli would seemingly freeze. And try letting his hands come through for a defensive poke.

He edged a few times, and dabbed the ball away on a few occasions. When the ball was fuller, and even swinging, there were fewer problems. Not that they would be seen as problems in Kohli’s mind. And they shouldn’t be. These are just training exercises, designed to tighten up his game. An ambitious batsman trying to extinguish any vulnerabilities.

How much of this will be carried on to the Test? How differently he would play Broad and the others? How would he adapt to Anderson’s tricks? How will he manage to maintain his balance and cut out the temptation to commit himself early? How will Anderson adapt to his ageing body? Can he cajole his wrists to produce one last memorable encore?

Answers aren’t known as yet, and that unpredictability is the reason why we watch sports.


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