Ben Jones analyses an innings from the Indian captain which excited, but failed to elevate India’s resistance.
At the end of Day 1 at the Oval, India are not in a good position. With better batsmen and better bowlers, they find themselves at the end of the first day of the fourth Test against England level in the series, and behind in the Test. Virat Kohli has grown used to frustrating overseas defeats as the better side on paper; Joe Root, his foe on this occasion, would kill for the opportunity to be in that position.
The day started with an interesting contrast in captaincy calls. At Headingley – an extremely bowl first venue – Virat Kohli opted to bat first, and avoided criticism because it’s the default call. In reality, there was perhaps a glimmer of ego in the decision; after all the ‘analysis’ of the Lord’s win which focused on eye contact, body language, and which avoided the fact India have better cricketers than England, you wonder if Kohli bought into the story to too great a degree. India were rolled for 78, in a part of the country where cricket fans will very happily tell you so, and frankly – they told you so.
Today was similar, in some ways. While PitchViz, and other more underlying metrics, suggest that the best time to bat at the Oval in recent Tests is Day 2, the actual record of bowl-first sides pushes you in the other direction. Australia were embarrassed here in 2019 having made a similar decision, and while Joe Root deserves credit for making a call which less than 10 overs in, was being criticised by prominent journalists on Twitter but was proved to be correct, it would be fair to say there was ego in his call as well. Young men, in charge of things. Who can trust them.
So when England found their early inroads, and Kohli strode to the crease, there was subtext. Lay the gladiatorial stuff aside, and let’s play cricket. The ball was swinging more than 1.2 degrees in that opening session, and seaming not far behind. The stage was set. Kohli entered.
Arguably the most iconic Indian Test innings is Sachin Tendulkar’s 241 at Sydney, an innings where he famously never played a cover drive. At times today, it felt like Kohli was attempting to play a sort of perverse, inverted version of that innings, scoring runs only with high-elbow, flourishing cover drives. He went hard at ball after ball, waiting for any opportunity to climb into overpitched bowling and send it flying to the fence. It was a plan; we shouldn’t ignore that simply because the plan was fun.
Anything pitched up was dispatched – the only balls dispatched – the quality of the stroke only emphasised by what felt like an oddly partisan Oval crowd. The polite silence which met these strokes was Wankhede-like, in their indifference to the King.
At his best, Kohli looks like he’s in love with batting, and with the fact he’s Virat Kohli. If he wasn’t in the middle, he’d be buying a ticket to watch himself bat. Today it felt like that, like watching a musician at the height of their powers; there’s an effortlessness to Kohli’s best batting which even he seems to appreciate, rather than simply offers up for us to enjoy. He’s not immune to his own charms – he’s only human.
And boy did he show it at times today. Dropped edging the ball to Joe Root in the slips, Kohli showed the sort of hard hands and lack of diligence which defined his early series in England, and none of the clarity of thought which defined the 2018 version.
While his false shot percentage dropped lower after lunch – 11%, down from 14% prior to the break – he never gave the sense of an imperious leader taking his team through the storm. More accurately, he reminded you of the great George Dobell line with reference to England’s 2015-2019 Test team – if they met fog, they drove faster.
Eventually, that approach was almost vindicated, given the manner in which he fell. Ollie Robinson – who had nipped and snarled at the Indian batsmen’s heels all day – managed to angle one in and extract a _huge_ amount of seam movement, to take Kohli’s edge. 1.3 degrees is a lot for any delivery, but when that delivery is just back of a length in the channel (i.e., unleavable, a fact backed by our Expected Wickets model), then you’ve got yourself a jaffa. It may not have needed something special to remove Kohli today, but that was what did for him.
And so here we are again, another Kohli innings without a century – 650 days and counting – and another day to pour over the numbers, the quotes, the man.
People have started to talk about Kohli “getting in and getting out”, a remarkable thing for a man who has built a career and a reputation on flawless conversion. It’s fair enough, in many ways, to question why a man who until November 2019 had more tons than fifties, has stopped making centuries. And yet equally, to focus too heavily on that is to misunderstand the situation, and the challenge he’s facing.
To look at Kohli’s record and suggest it’s a sign of terminal decline may be reasonable, who knows. But if your primary evidence for that idea is this series then you likely fall into the camp of having criticised Joe Root’s conversion rate in the last few years. Converting in England – not batting full stop, but converting – is extremely difficult. As much as Root’s looseness, his general aggressive intent, his place of birth dictates his conversion more than most.
In a way, Kohli wasn’t the story today. Chris Woakes’ return to the side and continuation of brilliance, Shardul Thakur’s thrashing, Ollie Robinson continuing to bowl like a man with 40 Tests to his name – all were more prominent, setting the day off.
But in all of them was a small amount of Kohli’s story this summer. The relentless benefit of hitting the seam and a good spot in England; the inevitable roll of the dice when faced with these conditions. Through Kohli, you can always see the prevailing narrative of a series, be it his absence in Australia 2020/21 or his dominance in 18/19. No matter which way it goes, no matter how the cricket plays out, Kohli is always the story.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.