Why Virat Kohli should be India’s next Test match No.5


Virat Kohli will continue to deny it, give expected responses to the press about this prolonged drought of a century, but somewhere deep down in his heart and mind, it is surely troubling him. It wouldn’t be a sportsperson if it didn’t. This phase has been frustrating for the Indian skipper, who has now gone more than two years without raising his bat to the crowd for the three-figure mark.

The period includes an eight-month gap due to the pandemic and a three-Test paternity leave. But not before did the great batter go 12 Tests without making a century. From time to time, Kohli has produced some gems – in Adelaide, Chennai, partly Southampton, Lord’s, The Oval – but that big hundred, which was once a regular feature, has continued to elude him.

It’s not that Kohli is the first player of such calibre and undoubted class and greatness to have spent two years without a Test century – there is historic precedence to this, and thus the sense of optimism about that imminent second wing to his rich career. But at the same time, it is understandable why fans would be feeling worried, for this is a great batter averaging only 26.80 since his last Test century.

Virat Kohli

Virat Kohli has now gone 21 innings without a Test century.

There was extensive analysis during the England tour on how Virat Kohli may have gone away from his side-on stance a touch for this phase and is opening up his hip a lot more in anticipation of the incoming ball. But that is not an issue you’d expect would hold back the king for so long.

Kohli’s strongest confidant Ravi Shastri felt the inconsistency is a result of wear and tear that has come about due to excessive time spent in bio-bubbles since the start of the pandemic. That Kohli himself has been quite vocal about the need for players to take timely breaks to freshen up and comeback recharged is one give away of his own mindset.

But beyond the talk around technical chinks and physical and mental wear out is the fear that Kohli is approaching a phase where his reflexes are beginning to slow down. It’s not related to physical fitness – in that, Kohli is arguably the fittest 33-year-old in world cricket – but the quickness of the eye and the time one has to react to the ball. It is very much likely that the next ‘peak’ will come but it may come at a compromise on the rate at which Kohli scores his runs.

In Test cricket, specifically, it’s a trade-off that doesn’t hurt much: that Kohli can cut down some of his risky off-side strokes to last longer at the crease has been a benefitting scenario in the offing for a long time now. A brief but positive advert of the same came in Adelaide where Kohli kept denying himself the drive against Cummins and Hazlewood and batted 244 minutes for his patient 74. If the run-out hadn’t come, and it was a lesser attack with more boundaries on offer, Kohli might have got to a century and gotten more belief and trust in the ‘new approach’.

But the fact that it took a lapse and run-out for him to be dismissed should’ve been enough still for Kohli to buy into it and replicate it every innings. If giving away the outside-the-line stance and frontfoot push is stretching the limits personally, for his and India’s sake, he should at least drive only when the ball is full enough for him to drive and not try and create one from the good length area. Kohli’s excellent backfoot game should still make that area a fruitful one for him, as we saw in Australia back in 2014-2015 when he kept pulling Johnson in front of mid-wicket.

When Rahane goes, Virat Kohli should bat at No.5 for India

It’s difficult for sportspersons to tell themselves they can’t, for all their lives they’ve outstretched their limits and found ways to succeed. But the time has come for Virat Kohli to accept perhaps that now he wouldn’t be able to dominate attacks like he once did and bat with some extra care and caution. It wouldn’t be a defensive move but adapting a pragmatic mindset where he is maximising his output in the deeper side of the thirties. Sachin Tendulkar did it to enjoy perhaps the greatest phase of his career from 2008 to 2011.

And a part of bringing about this change would be to change the slot where he bats. With Ajinkya Rahane likely to be phased out not long from now, time is ripe for Virat Kohli to think of himself as India’s next No.5 rather than sticking to the No.4 spot which he has owned for the better part of last decade. Tendulkar didn’t make this change but Tendulkar was different. There were no technical deficiencies to Tendulkar’s game. He was the most perfect thing that the game of cricket has seen. Kohli, if he doesn’t want to give away the frontfoot push, should at least be putting himself into scenarios where he is facing less movement in the air and off the deck.

On paper, the move from No.4 to No.5 is only one spot down. But in reality, it makes a huge difference, for you’re facing bowlers who are generally more tired and generating lesser swing and seam movement with the oldish red-ball. It’s a demotion that shouldn’t require too much of a mental adjustment but technically, Kohli would have more cushion and cover for his chinks and be able to play his frontfoot game a lot more freely.

This could be the difference between edging that extra ball that results in the caught behind and finding an extra boundary that keeps the innings going. With reflexes likely to be on the wane, in two-three years’ down the line, that expensive cover drive would probably go out of Kohli’s game anyway. What would matter, though, is that he is still ‘in’ and finding other ways to score runs for India. The next 5-6 years that Kohli is still around should be about how he can prolong his stay in the middle each innings.

There would be other benefits to it. From India’s perspective, Kohli’s move down to No.5 would allow them to groom their next No.4, say a young Shubman Gill, who is currently being put into the firing line at the top of the order with an underdeveloped frontfoot game against pacers.

If India are hoping to try Gill in the middle-order, they should do it at No.4, between Cheteshwar Pujara at No.3 and Virat Kohli at No.5, so that not only is Gill getting accustomed to the new spot but is finding more comfort doing so.

If the move to bat Gill in the middle-order is imminent, why not take a more futuristic route than a short-term one. It would also give Gill a sense of clarity and show of trust, which might then compel him to speed up work over his technique. Also, in rare scenarios where India feel the need to play an extra batter in Hanuma Vihari, it would be safer to place Gill and him either side of Pujara and Kohli than to club them together in the tricky lower middle-order at this stage of their respective careers.

Kohli’s presence at 5 may also bring out the best of Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja at 6 and 7 in the Test line-up abroad. He could play the experienced anchor at his spot for the two freeflowing batters, who may need reminding from time to time where they need to draw the line with risk-taking. Jadeja managed himself well in this regard in England but Pant struggled to cope and looked scrambled with his thought process on how to handle Robinson’s away going ball.

It doesn’t help that India tends to have weak tails, with Ravichandran Ashwin not given the No.8 spot even after his SCG epic – and that compels Jadeja and Pant to bat quicker – but they might be able to delay that extra high-risk stroke if Kohli is there, guiding them from an end through the difficult periods.

But it’s clear that with India approaching near the next transition phase, maybe it’s time for their best batter to also transition himself into a new force that may not be as dominant as before but is still maximising his output and continuing to make an impact. A king with less command but still powerful enough to reign on the opposition.

A cricket writer by heart and profession. Currently at work for CricXtasy. Previously with Circle of Cricket. You can find him on Twitter @crickashish217