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Virat Kohli and the concerning cautiousness against spin

Last updated on 24 Sep 2021 | 09:22 PM
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Virat Kohli and the concerning cautiousness against spin

For the RCB skipper, the days he ate spinners for breakfast seem like a distant memory

Those wrists, they were certainly working like the year was 2016. The sheer majesty of the pair of them was on display on just the second ball of the match. Deepak Chahar, after straying on line on the first ball, made a mini-correction and angled his second delivery into the right-hander, pitching the ball on middle and leg. One flick of the wrist from Kohli was enough to send the ball to the boundary ropes at twice the speed it arrived.  

More delightful sights arrived in the overs that followed. In over number three, Kohli danced down the wicket and, with the power and magic of his bottom hand, thumped a Chahar knuckle-ball wide of mid-on. 

Two overs after that, he arguably played the best shot of the second half of IPL 2021 as he shuffled across and absolutely clobbered a good-length delivery from Shardul Thakur onto the roof of Sharjah. The crowd enjoyed it but so did he. So sweet was the connection that Kohli did not even bother looking up.

By the end of the powerplay Kohli had dashed to 33* off just 21 balls, and he was looking as focused, fluent and expressive as he had all year. A very, very special knock from his willow looked imminent and inevitable.

But then something happened. The RCB skipper emerged from the other side of the powerplay a completely different man.

The rhythm disappeared, his timing was off and he went from being able to access all parts of the ground at will to struggling to hit the ball out of the 30-yard circle. His last 20 balls yielded just two boundaries, one of which was a fine tickle off Ravindra Jadeja where the bowler erred. He went at less than run-a-ball in this period and eventually perished in the 14th over trying to force the issue.

And just like that, it felt like another one of his knocks had failed to live up to the hype after promising so much.

Now, it is worth noting that CSK took a time-out right after the seventh over - that could potentially have stalled Kohli’s momentum. It is also natural for batters to slow down once the field spreads out. 

But something else peculiar happened right after the powerplay that disrupted the rhythm of the RCB skipper, against his will: MS Dhoni introduced spin for the first time in the game. And the introduction of Jadeja into the attack turned out to be the beginning of Kohli’s end.

In 10 balls against the left-arm spinner, Kohli managed just 10 runs, four of which, as mentioned above, came through a fine-leg tickle. Despite the pitch occasionally turning sharply and holding-up for the slower bowlers, no batter in the match who faced at least 8 balls of spin batted as slowly as the RCB skipper. 

Kohli’s battle versus Jadeja eventually ended up having a domino effect: it proved to be the catalyst for his dismissal as in conscious search of quick runs against the pacers, the RCB skipper ended up losing his shape, set-up and ultimately his way.

This passage of play today could have been passed as a ‘one-off’ or an aberration had it been a rare occurrence. But the concern for RCB and Kohli is that, it is not. Kohli struggling to put away the slower bowlers has, in many ways, now become the norm.

So far in IPL 2021, 9 batters have faced 75 or more balls of spin. Among the nine, no one has batted as slowly as Kohli, who has had a SR of 107.5. To put his scoring rate into perspective, the second-slowest player in the list, KL Rahul, has a strike rate of 120, which is 13 more than his RCB counterpart.

The even bigger concern for RCB and Kohli is that it is an issue that has been plaguing him since last season. After having struck at a rate of 134.5 against spinners in IPL 2019, Kohli’s SR against the slower bowlers dropped to 108.9 in IPL 2020. This season it has gone from bad to worse, with him striking at an even lower rate. 

It is no surprise that, then, Kohli has been one of the slowest batters in the middle-overs in the IPL since last season; after all, it is the phase in which spinners operate predominantly. Curiously enough, however, this is not something that has only bothered him in the IPL. 

Evidently, Kohli has been much better for India in T20 cricket since last year than he has been for RCB, having averaged 52.60 and struck at 144.10, but as it turns out, he has struggled to put spinners away at the international level too. 

Between Jan 1, 2012 and Dec 31, 2018 - his peak days as a T20I batter - Kohli struck at nearly 133 against the spinners in 46 innings. In 23 innings since 2019, this number has seen a drastic drop, with him striking at 110.5. In the five-match series against England earlier this year, Kohli’s SR against spin was 72.5, with the right-hander managing just 23 runs off 32 balls. 

There is, however, a very weird catch to all this - despite evidently struggling to put the spinners away, Kohli has seldom been dismissed by them. Since the start of 2020, a total of 34 batters have scored 400 or more runs against spinners in all T20 cricket (international and domestic). Among them, only Babar Azam and Devon Conway have managed to average more against the slower bowlers than Kohli, who sits at third with an average of 62.71.

Essentially, what these numbers tell us is that Kohli has consciously adopted an ultra-conservative approach against spin bowling. Whether it is simply because he fancies his chances better against the quicker bowlers (against whom is striking at nearly 150 in T20s this year) is unclear. What is evident, though, is that he is no longer the same force of nature against spin bowling that he once was. 

An issue that could have immediate ramifications for RCB

In many ways, Kohli and RCB were lucky today, for CSK opted to utilize just the one spinner in the form of Jadeja. But with his struggles against the slower bowlers mounting, and becoming evident by the day, teams coud, henceforth, intentionally bombard the RCB skipper with spin up-front. 

Indeed, that is what KKR did in RCB’s first game of the second leg, opening with Varun Chakravarthy. But expect more sides to ask serious questions on this front in the games to come.

Unless and until Kohli breaks the shackles, both he and RCB will continue to find themselves in troubled waters. 

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