Chance for Virat Kohli to find a second wind in South Africa

Indian Test captain Virat Kohli (left) can seek help from coach Rahul Dravid. — BCCI Twitter
Indian Test captain Virat Kohli (left) can seek help from coach Rahul Dravid. — BCCI Twitter

Bengaluru - In India’s new coach Rahul Dravid, who was one of the best exponents of Test batting technique in all conditions, Kohli has the perfect sounding board to help him get out of his slump



By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Thu 23 Dec 2021, 4:15 PM

Virat Kohli has fallen a long way from his Bradmanesque Test batting average of 75 in 2016 and 2017. He has averaged less than 30 in 13 Tests in the last two years, which puts him in the same bracket as Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, whose positions in the middle order have become untenable, given the wealth of batting resources now available.

So, even though the loss of the limited-overs captaincy appears to have shaken his hubris, it may be a blessing in disguise for Kohli who has dropped to No.7 in the world Test batting ranking. Teammate Rohit Sharma has not only taken over white-ball captaincy from Kohli, but also overtaken him in Test batting honours with a ranking of No.5, on the back of sterling performances as an opener this year.

Long breaks from the game in the Covid year of 2020 seem to have affected Kohli’s batting technique. It takes only a slight change in stance or reflexes at this level for run-making to fall off a cliff. Conversely, a great batsman like him needs only a slight correction to get back into supreme form.

In India’s new coach Rahul Dravid, who was one of the best exponents of Test batting technique in all conditions, Kohli has the perfect sounding board to help him get out of his slump. This would also be vital for the Indian team in its quest to record a maiden Test series win in South Africa as the first Test gets under way in Centurion on Sunday.

Kohli has a good record on the hard, bouncy wickets of Australia and South Africa. He was the player of the match in his very first Test in South Africa, scoring 119 and 96 in a thrilling draw in Johannesburg where the home team fell eight runs short of an all-time record chase of 458, while the MS Dhoni-led India came to within three tailend wickets of a rare victory.

The chink in Kohli’s technique, with his trigger movement back and across getting exaggerated of late, is exposed more on the grassy wickets of England and New Zealand where the ball deviates off the seam. Edging balls wide outside off-stump or getting trapped LBW have become familiar modes of dismissal for him. But he has seldom looked vulnerable to sharply rising deliveries that will be the main recourse of the South African quicks.

His average of nearly 56 in five Tests in South Africa will bolster Kohli’s confidence in his batting as well as the captaincy and leadership that have come under scrutiny. Even though South Africa have dropped to No.6 in Test ranking, it will require bold moves by the new Kohli-Dravid combine to pull off a historic win in the Protean backyard.

The absence of the injured Rohit Sharma will be felt at the top of the order. His replacement, Mayank Agarwal, plundered 212 runs against New Zealand in the Mumbai Test earlier this month. But the Wankhede is a far cry from the Centurion where the Proteas have dominated all comers except for one loss to England in 2000 and another one to Australia in 2014.

Even more worrisome is the middle order where all three of India’s stalwarts — Pujara, Kohli, and Rahane — have been struggling for runs. The obvious move will be to replace Rahane, who has the worst record of the three musketeers. Newcomer Shreyas Iyer, who made a century and a fifty on Test debut against New Zealand last month, looks ready to fill his boots.

But Iyer has appeared dodgy against short pitch bowling on bouncy wickets in the past. This would tempt the team management to add a sixth specialist batsman, in addition to wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant, for insurance against a collapse. The sixth man could be the doughty Hanuma Vihari, who had a good outing with India A in South Africa right before the Test series. Or it could be Rahane, who is rewarded for top-scoring in the second innings of the Test that India won in Johannesburg on the last tour.

A sixth specialist batsman would be a conservative step, however, abandoning the bold five-bowler strategy Kohli used to go 2-1 up in the series in England three months back. India fought fire with fire, matching England’s four-pronged pace attack man-to-man, with Ravindra Jadeja playing as the sole spinner. And Jadeja did make important contributions with the bat, justifying his inclusion as an all-rounder.

The Kohli-Shastri leadership caught flak for benching the world’s top-ranked spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin. But they stuck to their guns in playing a combination of four pacers and a spin bowling all-rounder. Too often in the past, India have come up short by playing only three specialist pacers on tours where the opposition could mount a relentless attack by rotating four fast bowlers.

For example, in the first Test of the last tour of South Africa, India rocked the home team with three early wickets, including that of mainstay Hashim Amla. But the tired Indian fast bowlers couldn’t finish the job. The South African tail wagged and India lost. It was the same story in the second Test. Only in the final Test in Johannesburg did India match the fast bowling resources of South Africa, with four specialist pacers, and emerged victorious.

Kohli who was the Test skipper then as he is now clearly remembers the lesson, judging by the team selection in England earlier this year. The catch is that Jadeja is now missing due to injury. That leaves the question whether Ashwin’s batting can be considered good enough for the all-rounder slot at No.7. With five Test centuries under his belt, it seems a cinch on paper, but he’s not as agile as Jadeja and will be hammered mercilessly by bouncers. Nevertheless, the grit that Ashwin showed in the Sydney Test this year, where he ground out 43 overs with Hanuma Vihari for a back-to-the-wall draw, should encourage the bolder option of playing five bowlers. That will also signal a mindset of going for a win.

If, on the other hand, Kohli and Dravid opt for only three pacers and Ashwin, to accommodate a sixth specialist batsman, it would betray a dent in confidence. It would also give an edge to South Africa who have included as many as seven pace bowlers in their Test squad. Their main striker, Anrich Nortje, is out with injury, but in Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Duanne Olivier, and the six-foot-eight-inch tall left-armer Marco Jansen, they still have an impressive pace battery.

India can counter that line-up with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami, Mohammad Siraj, and Umesh Yadav, all of whom can crank it up well past 140 kmph. They would be the best four to pick, given the lack of penetration and drop in pace of the experienced Ishant Sharma. Along with the intelligent off-spin, top-spin, and carrom-ball variations of Ashwin, India have the bowling to take 20 South African wickets, provided Kohli revives his batting form to help the side put enough runs on the board.

He preempted his sacking as captain of the Royal Challengers Bangalore and Indian T20 teams by quitting. He wanted to carry on as ODI captain till the World Cup at home in 2023 but was sacked by administrators no longer willing to keep waiting for him to win a title. But Kohli still has a chance to redeem his reputation by making bold selections and aggressive field settings to win a historic Test series in South Africa. A failure to do so against a weakened South African side, given the abundance of talent in India, would call into question his continuance as a Test captain too.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com


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