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One ball, a million questions — what now for Virat Kohli?

Kohli Anderson
by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

The James Anderson – Virat Kohli tussle resumed in dramatic fashion on day two of the first Test with the India player falling to the quick for a golden duck. Rohit Sankar digs into why the one ball opens up a whole new world.

It’s just one ball after all. For someone with 7,547 runs, having faced over 13,000 deliveries, making 27 tons, one ball, however good, should make no difference, raise no questions.

But this is James Anderson against Virat Kohli. 39-year-old Anderson, who declared he was “bowling as well as ever” a day before the Test, against Kohli, the man who conquered his demons and emerged triumphant in the country where he once stooped to his lowest.

The pre-series build-up saw both Anderson and Kohli play down the intensity of the battle. Anderson was casual as ever: “To be honest I don’t care if I get him out. As long as somebody gets him out that’s the main thing.” Kohli, on the other hand, was cold as ever when asked how he’d tackle Anderson: “I’ll just bat”.

It’s difficult to really tone down the battle between two modern-day greats however much you try. One ball could pierce a hole in the can of worms, packed, sealed, and tightly shut since 2014. In this case, that’s exactly what it did.

A familiar weakness from the 2014 tour, where Kohli went hard at anything on the fourth stump channel, repackaged itself into a more modern version threw itself up as Anderson, his tail up after working Cheteshwar Pujara over with a peach, hit the corridor that Kohli could never squeeze out of seven years back. Kohli’s dejected stare and Anderson’s unfamiliar celebratory run after the nick to the wicketkeeper spoke volumes about the intensity of the face-off.

The battle between the two greats is so nip-and-tuck that an edge here or a perfect cover drive there could tilt the momentum. Anderson knows it best. Thrown into a sea of reporters after a great day marred by frustrating edges and misses and dropped catches against Kohli in the 2018 series against India, Anderson quipped, “I was thinking, ‘why can’t he edge them like everyone else?’”

Four years before that, Kohli was perhaps thinking the opposite: ‘why am I not missing them like everyone else?’. Both were fair questions. In 2014, Kohli played nine false strokes and got out to Anderson four times. Rotten luck. In 2018, Anderson induced 48 false strokes from Kohli and got him out a grand total of zero times. Rotten luck.

It’s a game of small margins alright, but how important can luck be? Fairly big as the numbers showed us earlier. Here, Anderson worked Kohli over perfectly – the wobble ball swinging in to force the shot and the seam movement away catching the edge. But, however technical you get, you still need luck to induce the actual edge. Take Kohli’s 2018 run for instance.

With an intent to iron out an evident weakness – “I was expecting inswingers too much” – Kohli worked on his technique. As pointed out by Twitter user @flighted_leggie and several others in the recent past, Kohli would play away from the body and open up his hip in 2014. In 2018, he kept his back foot parallel to the crease to avoid doing so. Neat fine-tuning of one’s own technique, but Anderson did still invoke 48 false strokes and one of Kohli’s greatest Test innings would never have happened if a catch had been taken after Anderson induced an edge early on in 2018.

Here, in 2021, Kohli reads the swing on the wobble ball perfectly. The shiny side is outside and the ball swings back in. Kohli picks it, but does not account for the ball straightening off the seam and edges behind. Did Anderson mean for it to seam away? Or was it a natural variation? We’d likely never know. There’s lots unknown about the science behind seam movement. What’s worrying from Kohli’s perspective is that it is eerily similar to his dismissal in the second innings of the World Test Championship final against Kyle Jamieson – playing away from his body, following the ball and edging behind.

It’s just one ball again. However, at the start of a long tour, where the minutest of self-doubts can multiply into a series of disasters, it’s a telling blow for Kohli, battling with a lack of big runs in international cricket for a while. This tour was supposed to be all rosy for the Indian captain. He had after all conquered the country in 2018, amassing 593 runs at an average of 59.3. The Test ton, which last came in November 2019, seemed to be written in the stars.

Instead, one ball into his Test series, Anderson has thrown open a smorgasbord of different possibilities, one where Kohli’s century drought resumes, or worse still a repeat of 2014 unfolds. With a wobbly batting line-up, question marks lingering around batters on either side of Kohli, India can least afford their skipper to go through another trough.

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