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Kohli's subcontinent habit that doesn't work in South Africa

ESPNcricinfo logo ESPNcricinfo 13-01-2018 Sidharth Monga

© AP Photo

"… and he plays at a ball first ball that he need not play. This is short of a length, wide enough, and he defends. India need to leave balls alone. He middles this to gully."

"… on a length, outside off, a big stride in to defend. Again, he doesn't need to play at these balls. Even if he middles them, he sends them straight to mid-off."

"… another needless forward-defensive to a wide length ball. This time he edges it. In Australia it flies to gully. Here it dies and goes past gully for a single."

"… no run, on a length, wide outside off, a forward-defensive. He middles it and gets nothing after working so hard to get close to it. And if the ball misbehaves a little, it takes the edge."

"… another big stride to get close to a wide length ball. He middles it, but gets nothing for it."

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This is ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary from the start of a Virat Kohli innings at the P Sara Oval in Sri Lanka in 2015. P Sara is one of the best pitches in Asia; it provides some seam movement early on, and turn later. Still, neither is Colombo Cape Town and nor are Dhammika Prasad and Dushmantha Chameera as ruthlessly accurate as the South Africa quicks. This is from the first 19 balls of Kohli's innings after he comes in to face the new ball at 12 for 2.

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So every four balls he has gone to defend a wide delivery, a shot not likely to fetch him even one run if he executes it properly. The only thing he does is expose himself to a dismissal by playing at those balls without an intent to score off them. He even edges one but gets away with it. In between, he is also offered two plum half-volleys, one on the pads and the other outside off, and he gets going. On these pitches and against these bowlers, Kohli gets away.

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Not much had changed when it came to planning how to bowl to Kohli last week in Cape Town except for the bounce and seam in the pitch, and the significant fall in the number of freebies from the South Africa fast bowlers. They bowled away from Kohli's cover-drive, nothing on the stumps, and soon enough he edged when defending one. In terms of where it pitched, the Morne Morkel delivery that Kohli edged in the first innings was not too different to the ones he kept defending in Asia for no tangible returns. It was short of a length, pitched eight metres from the stumps, about a set of stumps wide outside off, a line and length Kohli strides forward to defend in Asia. Here it bounced higher than his waist, and having committed to playing at it, Kohli was left trying desperately to use his wrists to control the bounce.

The words of James Anderson come to mind. In the Mumbai Test in December 2016, Kohli had scored a superlative double-century against England and when Anderson was asked how much Kohli's game had changed from the time the same England attack didn't let him get even a half-century in a whole five-match Test series a couple of years before that.

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"I'm not sure he's changed," Anderson had said. "I just think any technical deficiencies he's got aren't in play out here. The wickets just take that out of the equation. We had success against him in England, but the pace of the pitches over here just takes any flaws he has out of the equation. There's not that pace in the wicket to get the nicks, like we did against him in England with a bit more movement. Pitches like this suit him down to the ground."

There are two ways of looking at it. And this is presumably Kohli's way: Why change your technique when it is getting you runs in the present conditions and the present conditions are going to prevail for two years? We will cross this particular bridge when we get to it.

Moreover, Kohli is not a batsman to eliminate anything from his game; call it ego or domineering nature, but he will try to get better at a certain shot rather than just stop playing it. He just doesn't want to lose out on options that help him put the pressure right back on the bowlers.

This is not to say Kohli has not looked at changing his game at all to counter the conditions better. He might well have. He might have told himself a 1000 times in the nets that he is not going to play at balls - more incriminatingly, just defend - that are outside off and not full enough to drive, but we don't know the funny things a batsman's mind tells him in the half second between the bowler's release and the ball reaching him.

You never know if feeling bat on ball is the first step for Kohli before he starts feeling confident enough to drive the ball. It is possible he feels he can't put away bad balls if his first instinct is not to get into shot-making positions every ball. It doesn't help that Kohli doesn't play the orthodox cut, which gives the bowlers a bit of freedom on the shorter side.

The beauty of watching Kohli is that he can punish the smallest of bowling errors ruthlessly. While the bowler might know Kohli has a weakness, he is also aware he can go for plenty if the bowler doesn't get it absolutely spot on. That fear itself can draw errors. On these pitches, though, that error has to be extreme.

The bowling plan is not going to change. In the 53 balls Kohli faced in two innings in Cape Town, he could drive only six. Most of his runs came when the bowlers erred and bowled too full or too straight. If Kohli has to go for his favourite shot, the drive, he has to either take a risk or wait for the bowlers to tire or make mental errors of length. It is not his natural disposition, but he might need to watchfully bat out tough spells in tough conditions before cashing in on tired deliveries.

Centurion - with no green grass - might be India's and Kohli's best chance to put the runs on the board. If he doesn't have to face the new ball, it will be a big help. Kohli spoke about intent in the aftermath of the defeat in Cape Town and also in the lead-up to the Centurion Test. He will be the first one to admit that a defensive push to a wide ball is the exact opposite of that.

Kohli has shown many a time he can master various difficult match situations. He is an important aggressive batsman in a batting line-up he has selflessly trimmed to five so that they can keep picking 20 wickets. It is these conditions and this ruthless attack that continue to ask him how much he is willing to change his natural game.

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