Thirteen matches into the season, there is a tone of despair in the voice of even the staunchest supporter of Virat Kohli. Irrespective of whatever parameter one chooses, there is little doubt that this is Kohli’s worst IPL season since 2008 and 2009. For most batters, 236 runs at a strike rate of 113 is ordinary; for Kohli, it is almost shocking.
Kohli was not at his best in 2020 (strike rate 121) and 2021 (119) either, but in both seasons, he played several innings that reassured his fans that while he was not at his best, a great innings was not too far away. It has been different this time. He did look decent – but not exceptional – during his 36-ball 48 in a chase of 152 against Mumbai Indians, but since then, nothing has looked up for him.
In his last seven innings, Kohli has got out first ball thrice. While that is never good news, the first ball is when a batter is most vulnerable. More than his golden ducks, his 53-ball 58 against Gujarat Titans and 33-ball 30 against Chennai Super Kings – two struggling performances on pitches where several batters thrived – reflected his ordinary run.
Some former cricketers and pundits have advised a break for Kohli. Some want him to sort things out in the nets. Some prefer him to continue, for no practice is better than match practice. However, none of them loses anything substantial if Kohli’s poor form continues – barring the man himself, and his team, Royal Challengers Bangalore.
Bangalore have a match left in the league stage of IPL 2022. Despite the massive defeat against Punjab Kings, they remained in the top four – though that may be deceptive. They have played and won a match more than Delhi Capitals and Punjab Kings, and two more than Sunrisers Hyderabad. Their net run rate is lower than all three, which puts them in a tricky situation.
What do Bangalore do in their last league match, against table-toppers Gujarat Titans, who boast of arguably the strongest pace attack of the tournament? Do they back Kohli one more time, backing the old adage of class, unlike form, being permanent?
If they back him, and Kohli chooses the innings to return to play his first special innings of the season, the decision will be vindicated. Unfortunately, his form and numbers scream and subdue every optimistic voice – and rightly so.
What about the alternative, then? Of course, Kohli may choose to sit out. There is a precedence of that, in Kumar Sangakkara (of Deccan), Ricky Ponting (Mumbai), Adam Gilchrist (Punjab), Daniel Vettori (Bangalore), and Gautam Gambhir (Delhi). Some decisions – like Ponting’s and Gambhir’s – turned out to be crucial, for they paved way for Rohit Sharma and Shreyas Iyer as captains. Other moves were not as significant.
In international cricket, Mike Denness had famously dropped himself during the 1974/75 Ashes, a decision that helped Denness find form but did not help England. And when Dinesh Chandimal sat out of the knockout matches of the T20 World Cup, Lasith Malinga led Sri Lanka to their only major trophy success since 1996.
Unlike them, Kohli is not the captain of the side, but he almost certainly has the agency to opt out of a match. But if he does not, will Bangalore leave him out – thus taking the harshest selectorial decision in the history of the IPL?
The IPL franchises have been harsher than the Indian cricket team selectors, but even they have seldom dropped the Indian superstars mid-season. When leaving them out was necessary, they have usually waited until the end of a season before releasing them. It is less controversial that way.
A decision of that magnitude is likely to incur the wrath of their enormous fanbase. For years in the IPL, Kohli and the franchise have been synonymous with each other. With no Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers, Shane Watson, and Yuzvendra Chahal all gone, Kohli is the remaining link between the current ‘batch’ of cricketers who played key roles in Bangalore’s popularity.
It will not be an easy decision to make, but given how the odds are stacked against Kohli, it is perhaps the only logical move to go ahead. In fact, retaining him in here is perhaps a riskier option than leaving him out, for not only do Bangalore have to win, they have to do so by a huge margin to make up for their ordinary net run rate.
In Moneyball, while discussing whether Johnny Damon was a good fit at Oakland Athletics, Peter Brand made his stance clear: ‘Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.’
One cannot help but wonder whether Bangalore have fallen into the trap of focusing on Kohli instead of runs and wins. While one can understand them backing a giant of cricket in a crucial match, the support has probably run its course this season.
Of course, the shortest format of cricket is also the most unpredictable. Bangalore may pick Kohli, and Kohli may play one of those innings, and Bangalore may qualify, and go even beyond. At this point, however, all that seems a miracle. A beautiful miracle, of course.
Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketNews and co-author of Sachin and Azhar at Cape Town.
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RCB have 14 points under their belt with two games to go and it’s a pretty straight forward equation for them. Just go out there and win!
During the post-match interview, Kohli revealed he had a 90-minute drill session in the nets ahead of the game against Gujarat Titans which turned out to be very helpful for him
Virat Kohli, on Thursday, got back to form with a 54-ball 73 as RCB defeated table-toppers Gujarat Titans by eight wickets to stay alive in IPL 2022 playoff race.