To revitalise his T20 career in these rapidly changing times, Kohli has taken a leaf out of the past. As luck would have it, the conditions in Australia have meant his team has followed suit, underlining the batter’s own importance in his post-captaincy cricketing career.
The crowds here, sensing something special was about to unfold, have been following Kohli across Australia since before his innings against Pakistan, which was undoubtedly the knock of the World Cup so far.
Even Australia legend and former India coach Greg Chappell, not always a fan of the T20 format, was so overwhelmed he hailed Kohli’s innings as “a song by God”.
“Ironically, it was also the innings that legitimised T20 cricket as, dare I say it, an art form, more than any I have seen in the past 15 years,” Chappell gushed.
‘Art’ isn’t something one associates with impactful T20 knocks but Kohli’s artful-dodger approach to power-hitting is revolutionary. His success here, the genesis of which lay in the long break he took before the Asia Cup and the much-awaited century against Afghanistan in a dead rubber, has been wrought by Kohli going “back to the basics,” as cricketers like to say, instead of trying to re-engineer his T20 approach from the ground up.
To understand how Kohli worked this out even before landing in Australia, one needs to understand the genesis of captain Rohit Sharma and coach Rahul Dravid’s insistence on a more attacking approach up the order: India’s failure in last year’s T20 World Cup.
India did have a restrained batting approach up the order in the shortest format and that needed to change.
“What should take priority is if we are getting better as a team,” Rohit had said. “We felt there needs to be a change in attitude. At the same time, we need to remember that when you are trying to do new things, there will be some failures. It doesn’t mean you have to take a step back.”
There is absolutely no divergence of opinion here but instead, synergy.
After the century against Afghanistan in September, the two senior players in the team sat down for a rare chat with bcci.tv in which Kohli said, “I got a lot of clarity from you guys and the team management, to just allow me to bat. That was very important. The space I got made me feel very relaxed. The World Cup is big and if I play well, I can contribute big for the team. I’d spoken to Rahul bhai (Dravid) on how I could improve my strike rate in the middle overs.”
Since that Afghanistan knock, in which he scored his last 72 runs off just 29 balls, Kohli’s knocks have been all about end-over acceleration in the old-fashioned way.
“I banked on good cricketing shots,” he explained. “Six-hitting is not a big strength of mine. I can (hit them) when the situation demands, but I’m better at finding gaps and finding boundaries.”
This realisation seems to have freed up not only Kohli, but in the early summer Australian conditions at the World Cup, in which batters have struggled in the Powerplay, it has shown India the way forward: look to attack but if need be, develop your own approach. Don’t be reckless in tough conditions.
Against Netherlands in Sydney, as Rohit Sharma looked to hit his way out of trouble and then later said he wasn’t too happy with his half-century, Kohli simply bided his time: his first 25 came off 24 balls, the next 37 off 20.
Against Pakistan, his first 25 had come at less than a run a ball at the bouncy, pacy MCG (28 balls) but his next 57 came off 25. The 63 against Australia in Hyderabad and a 49* against South Africa in Guwahati saw a similar approach: bide your time, work the ball around, get your eye in and then back your strengths and explode. The time-tested Kohli way to an impactful innings in any white-ball format.
Pacer Bhuvneshwar Kumar admitted as much when he talked about the conditions in this World Cup.
“We might feel as a bowling unit we conceded 15 to 20 more but that has been a pattern of all teams in this World Cup. If you see most matches, teams haven’t scored much in the first 10 but once the ball becomes a touch older, set batters start making runs.”
One important reason India’s top order has been able to take its time here is the ability of No. 4 Suryakumar Yadav to effortlessly up the tempo. This separation of roles has allowed everyone to play to their strengths.
“Everyone has different plans when they go in to bat,” ‘SKY’ said after the game against the Netherlands. “It’s equally important what their (own) game-plan is. So they (the top order) are doing the same thing, trying to get their eye in. I’m loving the way they are batting.”