Why England tour is Virat Kohli’s Federer Moment

A test for Virat the batsman and Virat the skipper awaits.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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Early this year Michael Holding, the fast bowling legend and one of the most respected voices in world cricket, said something in midst of a test series between India and South Africa. Speaking on Indian skipper Virat Kohli, who had just scored an outstanding 153 in a losing cause in the second test, Holding said, “When I see him score runs in England, I would call him a great player. I like people who score runs everywhere.”

It was something that even Virat Kohli’s ardent fans secretly talked among themselves — the way  Roger Federer’s fans did before he won French Open in 2009 to complete the missing trophy from his iconic grand slam career. Starting on July 3 and involving 5 test matches and 3 one-day and T-20 matches, India’s upcoming long tour of England has in a way become Federer’s Roland Garros moment for Kohli.

One can understand Holding’s skepticism and even Kohli’s desperation to do well on a testing seam and swing-friendly pitches in  English weather conditions. Kohli made his intent clear by choosing to have a preparatory stint at English county Surrey for acclimatisation. It eventually turned out to be a plan thwarted by his neck injury.

Quite unusually, English bowling great Bob Willis slammed Kohli’s Surrey contract as “nonsense” as it was giving him a chance to hone his skills in English conditions and depriving England of a greater chance of making him suffer again in the country. In view of the long tradition of English counties signing foreign players and current scene of players playing in domestic leagues overseas, Bob’s reaction was surprising.

However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Virat did struggle miserably in the 2014 English tour. In ten innings of five-test match series, he could score only 134 runs at the paltry average of 13.4. His scores in the series, which didn’t include even a single half century were: 1, 8, 25, 0, 39, 28, 0, 7, 6 and 20. He was reduced to a bunny of English pace bowler James Anderson who dismissed him thrice in the series. It’s a fact that Anderson hasn’t forgotten easily.

Two years later when Kohli was scoring heavily against England in home conditions, Anderson wasn’t convinced. “I am not sure if he (Kohli) has changed. I just think any technical deficiencies he has got are not in play out here. The wickets just take that out of the equation (pace and movement). There is not that pace in the wicket to get the nicks like we did against him in England – with a bit more movement,” Anderson argued.

Anderson might have a point there. Kohli, to be fair, has been aware of those flaws in his game. Besides technical shortcomings, he admitted that the mental pressure that he put himself under was also his undoing in the disastrous 2014 tour. It’s the kind of pressure that’s not unusual for subcontinental batsmen keen on proving themselves in overseas conditions. To his credit, Kohli has scored remarkably well on challenging Australian and South African pitches. Perhaps that had made his English debacle more haunting for him.

He did diagnose the chinks in this technique and has admittedly worked hard to rectify them. He got out mostly nicking outswingers in England series. “I was expecting inswingers too much and opened up my hip a lot more than I should have done. I was constantly looking for the inswinger and was in no position to counter the outswing,” he recalled “I used to stand at two leg (middle stump) and my stance was pretty closed and then I figured out that after initial movement of the backfoot, my toe wasn’t going towards point rather it was towards cover point, so anyway my hip was opening up initially,” he said, So to get the feel of the ball, I had to open up my hip as I was too side on. Anyway, I had too much of a bottom hand grip and I didn’t have too much room for my shoulder, to adjust to the line of the ball, so it was getting too late when it swung in front of my eyes,” he added.

This diagnosis also made him  realise what was wrong with his stance.

Talking about the corrective measures, Virat said, “I did some drills, making sure someone is recording me from the side. Every time, I played the ball, I wanted to make sure that my toe is pointing in point direction rather than cover, that’s how I kept my hip nice and side-on and gave myself room. I widened my stance as well so that I have good balance when I wanted to go forward”.

He also acknowledged the help of Indian batting legend Sachin Tendulkar in making him aware of the importance of forward press. “There Sachin helped as he told me that I have to approach a fast bowler (forward press) just like you approach a spinner. One has to get on top of the ball not worry about pace or swing, you got to get towards the ball and give the ball lesser chance to move around and trouble you. The advice helped me and became my second nature,” he remembered.

Only coming months would tell how applying of those technical adjustments helps him on English pitches, especially in test matches. His chief tormentor in that haunting English series James Anderson is no longer the force that he once was. However, there has been recent spark in his bowling, threatening enough to make legendary Australian pacer Glenn Mc Grath to say that though Virat is more experienced now, in-form Anderson can still make life difficult for Indian captain in English conditions. Besides Anderson, one shouldn’t lose sight of the new crop of English quicks and seasoned campaigners like Stuart Broad.

Many, however, believe that Virat would solve the English puzzle this time and nail the conditions. McGrath’s former Australian teammate, spin legend Shane Warne has predicted an “unbelievable” series for Virat. Given the sheer scale of Kohli’s success in last four years, both home and abroad, it’s difficult to rule that out.

The next three months would tell us whether Virat does what Federer managed in 2009 at French Open —  conquering a missing territory of his claim on all-surface batting greatness. What, however, is clear now that within the larger story of Indian team’s performance in England, the scrutiny of Virat’s batsmanship would be a riveting subtext. As much as he would hate saying it publicly, the tour is as much a test of Virat the batsman as it is of Virat the skipper.


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