Updated: April 25, 2016 12:38:59 pm
It must have been sheer happenstance that Virat Kohli accomplished his maiden Twenty20 hundred on Sachin Tendulkar’s 43rd birthday. But the twitterati couldn’t resist linking the two, as though this coincidence was something of a divination, ordaining him again as Tendulkar’s spiritual protege. But then Indians in general, and the cricket-watching Indians in particular, are ever so obsessed with such quirks and coincidences.
Then there is a section of his admirers who even suggest Kohli is an upgrade on Tendulkar, the lightning rod for this appraisal being the former’s ability to win matches. His match-winning capabilities can’t be disputed. To take a random sample, 21 of his 25 ODI hundreds have resulted in India’s victory. Further proof came last month when Kohli hit successive match-winning knocks in the World T20 – a tournament that elevated him to a different pedestal altogether. So, his fans reckon that Kohli, unlike Sachin, ensures his milestones accompany an Indian win, and they invariably have the stats at the twitch of their hands — only 33 of his 49 ODI hundreds have resulted in India’s triumphs, and even his epochal 100th international century ended in a defeat. There’s a not-so-subtle slight at Tendulkar alleged obsession with milestones.
But on Friday, on Tendulkar’s birthday, it was this supposed tragic flaw of the master, the inability to seal the contest, that came to haunt his protege. While it was a terrific effort, especially since he was cramping towards the end, it wasn’t quite T20-ish in pace. This isn’t to take any sheen off his sublime effort, or hold him culpable of losing the match, but merely putting in perspective a flaw in his method. In fact, it’s not as much a flaw as it is a limit to what that method – which has yielded runs a scarcely believable T20 average of 110 this year — can achieve.
Of the 37 hundreds in nine seasons of the IPL, only three have come at a slower rate. It may seem preposterous to suggest that a 63-ball 100 can be slow, but that’s how the strike-rate bar is inching higher and higher this format and tournament. On 27 of those instances, the hundred has been completed in 55 or fewer balls — the unacknowledged par for T20 tons. Kohli consumed 63, just four fewer than Manish Pandey (2009), the slowest to reach the three-figure mark in IPL. Even if you take it slightly out of the context and compare it with the fastest ODI hundreds, it still would be the 23rd fastest century.
All the same, it can be argued that Kohli’s assigned role in the RCB set up is not to freewheel, but to anchor or modulate the innings, with free-spirited hitters like Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Shane Watson rallying around him. This gameplan has worked perfectly, almost to a T, with Kohli running quick singles and twos, while only expanding himself towards the end or when fed with loose ball. The method works consummately when batting with Gayle or de Villiers or Watson. Like, against Sunrisers Hyderabad, in which his 51-ball 75 was offset with de Villiers’ 42-ball 82, or against Rising Pune Supergiants when de Villiers’ crunched 83 off 46 balls while Kohli played the able-ally role with 80 off 63.
But on Sunday, he batted mostly (12.2 overs) with KL Rahul, a rather steadier than a spectacular batsman, who is still finding his space in this format. He can’t be expected to fully go berserk like the power-hitters. While Kohli did an exemplary job in shepherding him, he could have taken a few more risks to accelerate himself — he was still getting runs at a brisk clip, but not quite in tune with the pace this modern-day beast demands. There was a phase in the match they got into the ODI mode. In five overs, between nine and 14, they ground out only 31 runs. Even such a brief, relative, lull could make a massive difference. Kohli also fell into a phase wherein he couldn’t find a boundary (13 balls from over 9.5 to 14.4). But he didn’t make any concerted effort to hit one either. Instead, in this span, he relied on his trusted means, to runs quick singles and twos. He managed 14 runs off these deliveries, but merely 100 per cent strike rate isn’t much valued in T20s. Resultantly, the run-rate too plunged from nearly 8 to 7.
Maybe, he misread the pitch. He said during the innings break: “I thought 155 (was a good score). The wicket was slow, breaking off, you’ll see it will be much difficult batting in the second innings.” It wasn’t the case as Gujarat Lions, after a blistering start, rather easily chased the 181-run total down.
It wasn’t the first time that Kohli miscalculated in this IPL. In the previous match, after his 80 off 63 balls, a slow churn by T20 yardstick, he confided he thought he had faced 10 balls fewer for the knock. Even in that knock, there was a prolonged drought of boundaries – he went boundary-less for 32 balls. Though he did eke out 26 runs, the lack of boundaries clearly perturbed him, as when he admonished himself after mistiming a pull, the ball before he gnashed out of the shell with a six off Thisara Perera.
Lack of sixes
Returning to the list of IPL centurions, Kohli had stroked the least number of sixes (just one) en route to the landmark. By his own admission, he is not a big six-hitter. He has struck just 171 sixes in 181 innings, less than one per match. Gayle averages nearly two and a half per match. Kohli, meanwhile, averages three boundaries a match; Gayle’s corresponding number is 2.7. The disparity will be huge if you compare the singles or twos they had run. But in the end, nothing can be — or is – more fabled than a six in this format. It’s a simple principle — the fewer the number of balls, the more precious the most productive shot becomes. A reason six-hitters are so prized in any T20 auction.
To further prove the undulated supremacy of sixes over singles and twos, look no further than the India-West Indies World T20 semifinal in Mumbai. India accrued 95 off those 192 runs through singles, twos and a three. West Indies hoarded just 44 though those means. They played out 48 dot balls, but in end they usurped India with three balls to spare. The marked difference: 11 sixes by the West Indians and just four by the hosts, and just one after Rohit Sharma’s dismissal in the eighth over. The bottom-line is if you can hit big enough, why bother running?
But if Kohli’s team came up short despite his ton, there are other compelling reasons too. Bangalore’s pathetic bowling resources, slack fielding on Sunday and the general trend this IPL where teams batting first are losing far more frequently than those who are chasing. Only thrice in 20 matches a side batting first has won this season, and on two occasions it was Kohli’s team which bucked the trend.
It would, therefore, be harsh to scrutinise his effort, but there is no denying that Kohli’s rationale and methodology works out incredibly well when chasing — as evidenced during those masterful knocks against Pakistan and Australia in World T20 – but it is not always a foolproof method when batting first, when he’s tasked to figure out what’s a safe total on a particular pitch.
It doesn’t make him a lesser batsman, he remains the best (in limited overs at least, and certainly in T20) by a margin. But this one hurdle remains in his quest for batting perfection. Knowing Kohli, you can rest assured he would be working hard to overcome it.
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