Michael Jeh writes on why the India and Royal Challengers Bangalore’s in-form batsman is so very special and dangerous
It is hard to find superlatives to put Virat Kohli into perspective. In an era where power-hitting is now almost de rigueur, his T20 batting defies description, defies anything the bowlers can do to stop him.
Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper Virat Kohli en route his 113 vs KXIP at M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore on Wednesday. Pic/PTI
What sets him apart from Chris Gayle, Rohit Sharma, AB de Villiers, Kieron Pollard, David Warner (the list goes on) is that Kohli murders the bowling without any obvious bloodshed. There is no brutality, no savage mauling. It is a more beautiful thing than anything Gayle, self-proclaimed universe boss, can bring to
What the rest do with their feet, Kohli does with his wrists. De Villiers has dancing feet, an unbelievable eye and amazing trick shots. Yuvraj Singh has a graceful arc that is sometimes vulnerable to the short ball or the yorker. Warner uses a railway sleeper to bludgeon. MS Dhoni has a short backlift and incredible power in the forearms. Kohli scores as fast as anyone, often faster, with the most classical cricket strokes in the context of T20 cricket. Those incredible wrists open up 360 degrees without having to move around the crease to create impossible angles in the style of Glenn Maxwell or De Villiers.
Over cover, the sliced yorker that sizzles to backward point, the tracer bullet that leaves mid-wicket helpless, the straight arrow that leaves a comet trail past the umpire, the leg glance that has short fine-leg floundering in its wake — Kohli accesses these areas without extravagant changes to his footwork. Hardest to bowl to For a bowler, this must surely be the hardest player to bowl to because he offers few clues as his intentions and the angle of his wrists can direct the ball to almost every part of the ground.
How do you defend against that?
One idea might be to land the ball on the green stuff more often. You know, the stuff that cows eat. Grass. Has there ever been an IPL where fewer deliveries make contact with the surface so lovingly tendered by the curator? Every team has its own specialist bowling coach but they may as well recruit a pitching coach from baseball if their modus operandi is to keep serving up balls that don't bounce before they get dispatched for a home run.
Let's assume for one moment that professional cricketers (bowlers) are capable of executing a closed skill. Bowling is essentially a closed skill in the sense that you should be able to make the ball land roughly where you intended it, perhaps a few centimetres grace allowed. The pace may vary, the ball might swing (or not) through the air, it may nip off the seam but when you bring it back to basics, it is probably the only aspect of the game that encompasses a (relatively) closed skill set.
Apart from prevailing winds or dew, bowling is a closed skill. The batsman and fielders then have to react to where the ball lands and every other aspect of the game then becomes an open skill. The key assumption of course is that the ball will actually "land" on the pitch, thereby presumably create more variables that the batsman has to contend with.
For all Kohli's brilliance (and brilliant he is without question), when modern batsmen keep being dished up knee-high full tosses, you have to question why teams waste money on bowling coaches. If that is the end result of their skill-transfer protocols, then save your money. It cannot possibly be the case that the game plan was "bowl full tosses and see if he mishits one eventually".
So is it a case of poor coaching, poor execution or a dire gameplan? Let's give the modern batsman (and the modern bat) some credit — even perfectly good balls have a habit of collecting air miles all too regularly. I'm not for one moment suggesting that you can bring runrates plummeting down by being so simplistic as hitting the deck more often. But to watch full tosses disappearing into the stands and then to see the cameras pan to the rueful bowler who looks mightily surprised that a taxi has been dispatched to retrieve the ball is all-too-common. Why are you so surprised Mr Bowler? Which part of that sequence which ended with the umpire reaching for the sky, possibly in danger of being diagnosed with Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI), is a surprise?
I've heard the excuses offered by bowling coaches. The ramp shot makes the yorker less effective. Heavy bats mean that if you miss your length, you pay the price. Shorter boundaries. Flat pitches. Valid excuses all of them. But it still begs the question; even allowing for all of the above, having considered all the available options, did the brains trust settle on a full toss as the best possible choice? And if the answer is NO, we're back to my original point; that the modern bowler who does very little else with his life except to practice a closed skill is unable to execute that skill under pressure.
If the batsman moves forward, moves back or moves sideways, there's not much the bowler can do to counter that. Everything is in favour of the batsman. Kohli and his genre are geniuses, make no mistake. But I'd like to see how this generation of power hitters can score at 15 runs per over without getting out against someone like Joel Garner who just kept nailing his yorker, ball after ball. You can block the ramp shot if you have confidence in your bowler executing that skill consistently.
It is inconceivable to imagine someone scoring at the rate that Kohli does, digging yorkers out ball after ball and not missing one that crashes into middle stump. With batsman as skilled as Kohli, De Villiers, Gayle et al, nothing is impossible. With bowlers as poor as the current crop, it is only a matter of time before someone scales the impossible heights of an individual double century. Until recently, only the power-hitters dreamt of scaling that peak. Kohli has re-written the script and in doing so, has transformed a bloodbath into a clinical dissection with barely a drop of blood spilt.
Michael Jeh is a Brisbane-based former first-class player