The Kohli conundrum: is the format evolving faster than he is?

It is difficult not to sympathise with Virat Kohli. He is an all-time great who has given his heart and soul to RCB, the only team he has played for since the inaugural year in 2008. But cricket is not a one-man game; his franchise continues to let him down. He has scored 38% of RCB’s runs so far, which tells its own story.

More significantly for Kohli, the format seems to be evolving faster than he is. He cannot be both anchor and destroyer in the same innings. When he took 67 balls to get to his century against Rajasthan Royals, it was the slowest in the IPL. Later he said the plan was for one of the openers to bat through the innings after the other fell. This is 50-over thinking.

RCB haven’t got their team or their tactics right in 16 years. In the inaugural year, their batters were Rahul Dravid, Wasim Jaffer, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jacques Kallis. Fabulous Test players, but not men with the six-appeal crucial for T20. Kohli was 19 then, and the only one capable of change. In 2016, his magical year, he scored 973 runs at a strike rate of 152 with four centuries.

Strange bind

Watching his unbeaten century against Rajasthan Royals go waste (anything that doesn’t contribute to a win is a waste – T20 is simple that way), it became clear that Kohli is in a strange bind. He hasn’t won the IPL with the RCB, or indeed the World T20 with India (who last won in 2007). Perhaps both his teams have identical problems.

Of the many cliches I grew up with as a reporter (and player) was this: it is easier for a Test match batter to adjust to the 50-over game than it is the other way around. Experts (including former cricketers) spoke highly of the batter who could “mix caution with aggression.” This was sometimes taken literally as when a batter followed a six by either defending the next ball or nudging it for a single. It was supposed to show a balanced temperament or maturity or something.

Some of today’s international players must have heard this often as they made their way through age-limit cricket. When Kohli captained India to the Under-19 title in 2008, the IPL was just over a month away. Kohli fell in the in-between generation, forced to shed some of the thinking of the earlier one but without fully adapting or at the time even understanding the needs of the new.

T20 has been drifting away from the other two formats in terms of tactics, strategy, technique and emphasis. A team can lose a wicket every 12 balls and still last the full 20 overs. Defence just does not matter. It is the younger player who has absorbed this. Scoring a 50 or a 100 is not as important as scoring at a strike rate around 200.

A six-ball 20 lower down the order can be more valuable than a 45-ball 50 up the order. Five mishits to the boundary trump three cover drives that fetch few runs. Batters should be allowed a certain degree of irresponsibility, and understand that losing their wicket isn’t a crime.

New look at coaches

Perhaps it is time to look at coaches afresh too. Traditional coaches come from Tests or the 50-over game with a mindset trying to play catch-up with T20 tactics. The ideal coach would be someone who has played the format successfully, someone like M S Dhoni, for example. Or perhaps the time has come for the non-playing captain in the format. The job calls for a detached involvement or an involved detachment.

Watching batters like Angkrish Raghuvanshi, Abhishek Sharma, Riyan Parag, and others not so young making up in intent what they lack in experience has been a lesson in calculated risk-taking. It will not succeed every time. But intent is important. It is unlikely that 32 runs will be scored soon off one of the fastest bowlers in the final over — but no team can afford not to try.

Two things have to be done right for a team to win the IPL or indeed the World T20. Getting the selection right and ignoring advice from the past.

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