There is no doubting Virat Kohli’s talent or his determination to succeed at Test level. Anyone who watched him make a hundred in Adelaide at the start of the year knows how badly he wants to be seen as a complete cricketer. He is also unquestionably one of the batting pillars around which the next-generation Indian team should be built.
But something has not been quite right against England. He has seemed tense at the crease and unsure of how to build his innings. It isn’t simply that he has struggled to make runs (he has made 19, 14*, 19, 7 and 6); it is the way he has been getting out.
In the first innings in Kolkata, he hung his bat out to a James Anderson delivery that moved just enough off the pitch to take the edge. More egregious were his two dismissals in Mumbai.
In the first innings, Panesar gave him width outside off but Kohli was unable to keep his shot down and spooned a catch to Nick Compton in the covers. Worse still was the way he perished in the second innings. With India struggling to stay in the game, Kohli mishit a full toss from Swann down the throat of mid-off. The spectators were stunned into silence as Kohli looked down at the toe of his bat, as if he was wondering how it could betray him at such a crucial juncture.
In Ahmedabad too, Kohli left a big gap between bat and pad for Graeme Swann to exploit.
Three months ago Kohli led the batting averages against New Zealand and was in control of his game and his emotions. But this is the first major series India has played without Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. The pair brought a sense of calmness and control to India’s middle-order. They were men for a crisis and you knew it. With Sachin Tendulkar also struggling for form, the pressure to shore up the side seems to be telling on Kohli. It hasn’t helped that aside from Ahmedabad, he has come in at a time when India has not been entirely comfortable. In Mumbai, it was 60 for 3 and 52 for 3; in Kolkata, it was 117 for 3. That has added to the weight of expectation he already places on himself and so far it has served to restrict him from playing his natural game, making him overly defensive instead.
The ease with which Cheteshwar Pujara has taken to Test cricket has also magnified Kohli’s poor run. Pujara has been calmness personified, whereas Kohli has been skittish as a young foal.
During the World T20 in September, Kohli was asked what he thought about while batting. He said didn’t think about anything, he just batted. That is the mindset Kohli needs to rediscover. He needs to forget about the match situation, the pitch and the opposition. He needs to remind himself that he plays this game because he enjoys it and is good at it and that nothing else matters. He needs, in effect, to bat for himself. When Kohli is at his best, he dictates terms to the bowlers and can score quickly by piercing the field instead of taking risks. If India are to go on and win this series, that’s the Kohli they need to do it.