The All New Old Kohli: What did Virat Kohli do differently in his 71st hundred?

The secret behind Virat Kohli’s renaissance in the desert city was that he rediscovered and not reinvented himself. Rather than embracing new methods or techniques, he reverted to those methods that had paved his way to cricketing greatness. Everything about him but the quiet celebrations, rolled back time and memories of a decade he had truly dominated world cricket. It was Kohli of the old, emphatic and energetic, a man in control of himself.

He confessed as much to Rohit Sharma in a chat put out by the BCCI: “I’m back to playing in my template like I have played for a while, which I was going away from because I was a bit desperate to do something that is not in my game, but I have come back to my template.”

He had gone away because he saw the need to amp his strike rate but couldn’t find the ideal way that suited him. A glimpse of it was seen in the Asia Cup game against Sri Lanka. A swipe to midwicket off a length ball from a left-handed seamer. It’s a shot he doesn’t play, even well settled, leave alone within his first few balls. When he wants to redirect a length ball toward that region, he chooses his signature swat-flick, coming inside the line. Here, he stayed beside, and went for the old heave-ho and unsurprisingly failed to connect. Such decisions over shot selections have gone awry far too often in the recent past.

A frank chat with coach Rahul Dravid too helped, he says: “I’d spoken to Rahul [Dravid] bhai three-four days back, where batting first, especially the middle overs phase, how I can improve my strike rate. My only goal was to work on whatever I need to improve.” He says he told the coaches he will target the gaps, stop trying for the glory shots for six, and let his natural strength come through.

But an inevitable question arises: Why do batsmen’s change the methods that are working perfectly? There are different reasons, a batsman’s own quest to perfection, the flaws that automatically creep in, the invariable bad times, the pressure to perform, the burden of expectations, and in recent times, the pandemic induced gloom even as the helter-skelter scheduling continued. Sportsmen, even the elites, are not immune to human flaws and vulnerabilities. No player plays the same way throughout a career—neither Roger Federer nor Lionel Messi, neither Sachin Tendulkar nor Wasim Akram. Changes and evolutions are part of a glorious sporting career, and those that don’t change get stuck in a plateau. The difference in Kohli’s changes, as admitted by him, was that it didn’t come from a place of clarity.

It’s no secret, after his recent interview where he revealed the mental demons that had afflicted him, how the quest for the elusive hundred was burdening him, and how he had lost the enthusiasm for the game. The break helped him, as did the clarity of mind that he has regained. The clearheadedness was the hallmark of his drought-ending hundred. He paced the innings brilliantly—a watchful start, power-play acceleration, middle-over stroll and death-over ballast. This was what you had been so accustomed to seeing from him. Like in the 2016 World Cup or the IPL season the same year, wherein he plundered four hundreds in a record tally of 973 runs.

But somewhere along the career, the fuss about his strike rate in middle-overs kicked in. Perhaps, it came after the success of West Indies in the 2016 World Cup. Suddenly, six became the only worthy currency in world cricket. Singles, twos and even fours were devalued. All teams began to stack teams with six-hitting colossuses. They began to pick holes in Kolhi’s batting—that his running-reliant middle-over game was insufficient.

Perhaps, Kohli too felt the urge to change, perhaps he began to do things differently. As he had said before, he was desperate to do something different. A classic instance was his 49-ball 57 against Pakistan in the last T20 World Cup, where, in the middle-overs, he attempted uncharacteristic strokes, like swiping across the line, slogging and sweeping, or even ramps or paddle. He was obsessed with the idea of hitting as many sixes as possible and he compromised his biggest strength, that is to pierce the gaps with placement rather than power and run madly between the wickets.

His first boundary was a six off Shaheen Afridi, which he executed by walking to the leg-side and smearing him over mid-on. Though a gorgeous stroke, an uncharacteristic one. There was an unusual amount of dot balls too-14, nearly one third of the balls he had faced. Usually against spinners, Kohli looks to clear the fence down the ground, but he would look to heave them through midwicket or sweep them through square-leg. On most instances he failed. Not that the innings was poor, his knock staved off utter humiliation, but it was not an innings from the Kohli batting manual. His 41-ball 52 against West Indies was etched on a similar vein, and reeked of artificiality, that he was trying too hard at something he was not good at. Even against Sri Lanka in the last match, he perished when attempting a hideous hoick.

The renaissance began with the realisation that the pursuit of becoming someone else was futile, in fact counterproductive. “Six hitting is not a big strength of mine. I can when the situation demands, but I am better at finding gaps and hitting boundaries, so as long as I can hit any boundaries, it will still serve the purpose for the team and I told the coaches as well that I am going to try to hit gaps in the field rather than thinking that I have to hit sixes to take my strike rate up in T20 cricket,” he said.

It was exactly how his 122 not out played out—where at no point he was starved of momentum. Apart from premeditated swept four off Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, to make him bowl shorter, every stroke was from the Kohli playbook, an innings composed of drives, flicks (34 runs including a six and four fours), and pulls, besides the leg-side nudges and off-side tap-ins. He ran as ferociously as he ever had—if you discount the balls he hit for boundaries (12×4, 6×6), he scored 38 runs off 43 balls. On a larger note, throughout the tournament, he has struck a six off only every 17th ball, but has still managed a strike rate of 147, 27 notches higher than Mohammad Rizwan, the top-ranked T20 batsman in ICC charts. And as many as 136 off Kohli’s 276 runs—that is a shade over half—have been either singles or twos, illustrating the importance of ones and twos in T20s. It would be even more precious in Australia, where dimensions of the ground are large.

Resultantly, there was no lag in the middle overs—from the seventh to the 15th over, he amassed 43 runs off 27 balls with the help of two sixes and three fours, the rest of the 17 runs hoarded as singles and twos, the middle-over heartbeat of his game. A strike rate of 159 in the middle overs is a golden yardstick. Thus, he has managed to sustain the game’s tempo as well as bat the way he wants to, bat as naturally as possible. The knock debunked the notion that a match-winning T20 knock need not be all lusty blows and sweeping swipes. “Obviously in T20 cricket we talk about big hitting and all of that. But that [century] was the perfect example of how to craft an innings without focusing so much on the big hitting,” Sharma testified.

It was always the way he batted in T20s but for a brief period when there used to be a lull in his middle-over game, when he was trying too hard to be someone else, when he compromised his successful template for an unnatural, forced blueprint. It only cluttered his mind. Now it has been decluttered.The result was the return of the old Kohli, emphatic and energetic, a man in control of himself.

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