In Kolkata in November 2019, Virat Kohli scored 136 against Bangladesh. Ostensibly, it was a routine event: Kohli’s 27th Test century, 70th in all international cricket and a mere continuation of his relentless excellence. Certainly, there was no indication of what would come next.
As India return to complete their Test series with England, that innings against Bangladesh remains Kohli’s last hundred in any form of the game. In 2½years and 17 Tests since, Kohli has averaged 28.03. His malaise has extended to the shorter formats: in this year’s Indian Premier League, Kohli averaged only 22.7.
First Kohli gave up the T20 international captaincy, then the one-day international and Test jobs too. But the curious case of his dwindling form has remained. And so, the question has become inescapable: what is ailing one of the titans of the modern game?
The first answer, perhaps, lies well away from the cricket pitch. "As cricketers we limit ourselves to how much we want to do without trying to find out how much we can do,” Kohli said in 2017. “I want to explore more, understand my maximum ability, even with the intensity in the field. The day I start getting burnt out, I pull back."
The sense is growing that, because of what he has put into 13 years of international cricket, exacerbated by two years of playing in biosecure bubbles, Kohli could simply be burned out. "Kohli is overcooked. If anyone needs a break, it's him," said Ravi Shastri, who left as India head coach late last year. Shastri added that Kohli was at risk of getting a “fried brain".
Cricketers have tended to go from one engagement to the next - whether international or franchise - and only have an
extended break when they are injured. Yet Kohli needs only look at England’s captain for an example of what an extended break from the game can achieve. Ben Stokes missed last year’s series and the Twenty20 World Cup “to prioritise his mental wellbeing”; now, he and his side are both reinvigorated.
Yet Kohli has also suffered from specific technical issues during his slump. Two interconnected problems, both against pace bowlers, stand out. Kohli has become newly vulnerable to deliveries well wide of off stump, those over 40cm wider. From averaging 40 against such deliveries in the five years until 2020, he is averaging just 14 since.
In England last year, Kohli was dismissed six times by deliveries either in the channel outside off stump or a little wider: whether it was New Zealand’s Kyle Jamieson in the World Test Championship final, or James Anderson, Kohli was susceptible pushing at balls away from his body. At the same time, he has also become notably vulnerable to fuller deliveries. From averaging 55 against full deliveries from seamers before 2020, he has averaged just 27 since, being dismissed 10 times.
Kohli is renowned as an endless tinkerer, even sometimes changing his trigger movements midway through an innings. Such tweaking has been one of the foundations of his greatness, most obviously in leading Kohli to return to England in 2018 with a new stance - pointing his toe at point, rather than cover, as he explained - and hitting the ball half a metre further forward than during his poor tour in 2014.
The result was a magnificent tour in 2018. But last summer, England found a new method to counter Kohli. England bowled 0.7 metres fuller to him in his first 20 balls than in 2018, a length designed to compel him to play at as many balls as possible early on.
One of the eternal compromises of batting, one of those riddles to which there are no right answers, is between being more vulnerable on the outside edge - like Joe Root - or the inside edge, like Devon Conway. Throughout his career, Kohli has oscillated between the two. But in his current incarnation, his vulnerability is on his outside edge, leaving him susceptible to balls moving away from him. He is averaging just 27 against out swingers since 2020, that previous preternatural judgment outside off stump no longer quite as secure.
As Kohli has mislaid his previously resplendent form, he has naturally become less domineering at the crease. From 2015-19, the years when perhaps only Steve Smith could rival Kohli as a Test batsman, he had a strike rate of 61. Since the start of 2020, Kohli’s strike rate has only been 42. Even when Kohli has batted for a long time, he has struggled to regain assertiveness: in Cape Town in January, against an admittedly exceptional seam attack, Kohli batted 344 balls in the match for 108 runs. A trait of Kohli has always been his penchant for rotating the strike, finding minute gaps and then running ferociously, but he has become easier to keep on strike: from scoring off 34 per cent of balls from 2015-19, he has scored of just 22 per cent of deliveries since 2020.
And so, in recent months, it has become increasingly tempting to proclaim that we are in the end days of Kohli. That would surely be premature. He has a track record of overcoming seemingly major technical issues and, according to those who work with him, there is no indication that his voracious work ethic has diminished. Perhaps this magnetic cricketer needs a break; perhaps he simply needs some luck. Either way, international cricket will be more compelling if - and, surely, when - Kohli returns to something approaching his best.
What you've probably forgotten about the England-India series
By Rob Bagchi
Super-spreader saws off series
England's Pataudi Trophy series resumes at Edgbaston on Friday for the fifth Test, nine months after the original match at Old Trafford was postponed hours before play was due to begin when four members of India's backroom staff - but no player - returned positive Covid tests. One of those infected, the coach Ravi Shastri, contracted the virus at his own book launch in London after the Oval Test, in what turned out to be a 'super-spreader' but, he insisted, not biobubble-popping event. India flew out to Dubai 2-1 ahead, to quarantine for the resumption of the 2021 IPL, sawn off in April by the pandemic.
After drawing the first Test at Trent Bridge, India were only 28 ahead with three wickets down in their second innings at Lord's on the Sunday. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, both almost comically out of nick, were barracked by the crowd for taking three hours and 49 overs to scratch together a partnership of exactly 100 runs. But it kept India alive and allowed Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami to thrash 89 for the eighth wicket to set up the declaration after lunch on day five. India's seamers did the rest, rolling England over in 51.5 overs.
Having served a three-match suspension for historic 'racist and sexist' tweets posted in 2012-13, Ollie Robinson returned to the side for the first Test and was given a rousing reception when he came on as first change. He bowled with great precision and nip all series, bowling the most overs and taking the most wickets, 21 at 21.33. Robinson's five for 65 in the second innings at Headingley bowled England to their sole victory (so far) and he never gave India's most destructive batsmen, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant an inch, dismissing the first two three times and the wicketeeping whirlwind on four occasions.
England were nine down and seven runs ahead when James Anderson joined Joe Root at the crease in the first innings at Lord's. Having annoyed India during their previous two visits, particularly Kohli and Raindra Jadeja, the No11 batsman was subjected to a veritable chin symphony from Bumrah, including a 10-ball over of roughhousing necessitated by four no-balls, in which he speared yorkers at Anderson's toes and hit him on the head, ribcage and hand. Anderson was understandably upset but with no help from the umpire could take solace only from Mark Wood clanking Bumrah on the helmet on day five.
Root reclaims his place
Joe Root, having started 2021 in danger of becoming the Pete Best of the Fab Four, ended it at the toppermost of the poppermost, making 109 at Trent Bridge, 180* at Lord's and 121 at Headingley, scoring 568 runs at 94.00, 196 more than the next highest scorer, Rohit Sharma, and a preposterous 380 more than the next best Englishman, Jonny Bairstow. By contrast Kohli made only 218 runs at 31.14 but he got a far better tune out of his team than Root, though neither of them ends the series as captain.