The Kohli dilemma

The Kohli dilemma

A year ago, if you were to look ahead to the World Cup, you could only be sure of two things; that M.S. Dhoni would be captain and that Virat Kohli, with scores of 82, 78 and 123 in New Zealand, would be the lead batsman at No. 3.

One of those is valid - Dhoni is still captain - but the other, rather strangely, is now only partially true.

Kohli is still seen as the lead batsman but his position fluctuates, it varies depending on what the others have done. I fear it is a defensive move, it is a move governed by "what if". It carries a whiff of vulnerability.

You can see the thought process. No one paces an innings like Kohli does, no one hunts down targets like he does. And so, he must be playing those middle overs, he must make the opposition insecure, he must make them hope there were 20 more in the bank.

And so Kohli must survive the first 10 overs, when the ball still has some fangs attached, when it could swing, when it could rear up. The best way to do that seems to be, rather unusually, not sending him out at all!

It also means India are playing themselves into a situation where it is "anyone but Kohli" should an early wicket go down. Can you win a World Cup like that? Out of fear that the lead batsman will get out?

It suggests either a mistrust of numbers 4, 5 and 6 to win games if a couple of wickets go down; or a rigidity of approach that limited overs cricket so refreshingly revolted against.

There could be another defence. Limited overs cricket is changing with the knowledge that T20 has imparted to us. Matches were won by the top order in the era of Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden; of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag; and of the spectacular Sanath Jayasuriya.

Yes, you needed a Rahul Dravid and a Yuvraj Singh in a run chase at No. 5 or 6 but the big guns boomed at the start of battle. It was all so different from those rather staid early days when you made 45-0 from the first 15 overs.

But T20, big bats and an unfettered imagination have shown us that anything is possible with wickets in hand in the last few overs.

Nobody is batting an eyelid at 10 an over and a 31-ball hundred has been achieved. In the Big Bash, a bowler who had taken four wickets for six runs in his first three overs couldn't defend 23 in the last over!

Like fashion that turns around and, in doing so, mocks those who laughed at the demise of a style, defence is making a re-entry at the top of the order. Wickets are being hoarded like gold used to be.

And so Virat Kohli can't get out early.

Look at how A.B. de Villiers finishes matches. He doesn't bat at No. 3.

Since the fear is "what if" Kohli gets out, why not turn the argument on its head and take on a more optimistic "what if he doesn't"?

If Kohli bats 45 overs, how many could he make? If Kohli was 30 not out when the first power play was done, how far could the team go?

If conditions were difficult, shouldn't your best batsman counter them early and leave you the opportunity to repel them?

By worrying about Kohli getting out, isn't the team undermining his skill in a way? Has what happened in England cast a shadow on the plan?

Ah, that moving ball that made him uncertain of where his off-stump is!

But in Australia, Kohli has been scintillating. He has taken on the bowling and he has led challenges. A lesser player at the start of the game isn't something the opposition would mind too much.

It gives them the opportunity of having Kohli in with two down early rather than one down early. Kohli is better off going in at 20-1 than at 30-2 when the opposition have started dictating the game.

There is also the matter of trusting the rest of the batting to win you a game if Kohli is out early.

South Africa can play de Villiers at No. 4 because they have quality in Amla and du Plessis at 2 and 3. India are sending out Ambati Rayudu at No. 3 making him even more homeless.

In trying to give Kohli a different role, India might end up batting two players out of position. I can see the argument coming up about there being no sanctity to batting positions in limited overs cricket and I believe that is true from No. 4 downwards.

The first three almost inevitably bat there.

I suspect Dhoni is also worried that there is little batting after him and so he is trying to hoard his batsmen. If Jadeja or Binny could be reassuring at No. 7, I won't be surprised if Kohli marches out again at 3.

It will be the right thing to do. And for the right reasons. Right, now to find an opening pair!

tabla@sph.com.sg


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