Kohli's continuing middle-phase puzzle

Opener has kicked on in the powerplay but like in the previous games, has shown a propensity to slow down once the first six overs are done.
Royal Challengers Bengaluru's Virat Kohli plays a shot during the Indian Premier League cricket match between Royal Challengers Bengaluru and Sunrisers Hyderabad in Hyderabad.
Royal Challengers Bengaluru's Virat Kohli plays a shot during the Indian Premier League cricket match between Royal Challengers Bengaluru and Sunrisers Hyderabad in Hyderabad.Photo | AP

CHENNAI: When Sunrisers Hyderabad opened the bowling with Abhishek Sharma against Virat Kohli, it was a no-brainer. Spin is a negative match-up against the Royal Challengers Bengaluru batter up front and every one in the cricketing fraternity knows it.

What, perhaps, came as a surprise was Kohli kicking off with a four on the very first delivery. He did not stop there. Kohli went on to charge at Pat Cummins and flick him for four and then lofted the Australian inside out — something you don't see often from him in the powerplay — for another boundary. With Faf du Plessis too doing his bit, RCB had raced to 49/1 in three overs. At this point, Kohli was on 23 from 11 balls, batting at over 200+ strike rate.

It's been a trend so far this year. Unlike the past, where Kohli has barely hit over 140 SR in the powerplay, he is striking at 155.4 in 2024. It is clear that he has had to make changes in his approach and is trying to be proactive. After all, his T20 innings construction has been a constant debate in this day where the role of an anchor is diminishing in the format. This season, with the T20 World Cup on the horizon, Kohli has shown intent up front. At least he has tried to. He is hitting the pacers over the infield often and has even slog swept spinners once in a while.

However, the problem begins after the sixth over. As it did on Thursday. He played out Shahbaz Ahmad for just two runs in the fifth over, and hit a six off T Natarajan in the next over. But after the powerplay, Kohli went into a shell. He just worked singles and nothing else against Mayank Markande and Shahbaz. While they are considered as negative match ups, that he did not even try to take on Jaydev Unadkat and Pat Cummins only added to the slow down. From 23 off 11 balls, Kohli went to 50 off 37 in the 14th over.

Kohli would get out trying to pull Unadkat six balls later, while only adding one run to his tally to be dismissed for a  43-ball 51. Although the ball did not necessarily come on nicely, a SR drop from 209 to 118, without a single boundary for eight overs from his bat makes little sense for someone like Kohli.

At a time when teams are posting 200+ scores on a consistent basis, sometimes even without a single fifty, to call Kohli's T20 innings construction conservative is not out of place. As much as he has improved his intent in the first six overs — 2024 is his best ever in terms of SR in the IPL — his middle-overs approach hasn't changed. Since 2023, he has regularly struck in 130s while most batters try to accelerate between overs 7-16. This year, his SR in that phase is 131.29. Albeit an improvement from previous seasons, it is not on par with the current climate.

To put it into context, among top-order batters in the ongoing IPL season (min. 82 runs in overs 7-16), only B Sai Sudharsan (126.84) and Ajinkya Rahane (126.15) strike slower than Kohli. Sanju Samson (155.26), Shubman Gill (150.6), Suryakumar Yadav (183.05) and Abhishek (189.13) are miles ahead in innings progression. Rohit Sharma, Ruturaj Gaikwad and KL Rahul, too, have their SR in the 130s, but they are marginally ahead. And among the three, only Rohit is a certainty in India's T20I XI and his PP SR (175.47) is much higher than Kohli. Which begs the question — is Kohli's approach in middle-overs a deterrent to the potential total his side can put up? Only the teams can answer.

On Thursday, RCB had the likes of Rajat Patidar (20 ball 50) and Cameron Green (37 n.o off 20) to make up as they posted 206/7 in 20 overs. Whether or not they defend it, Kohli's approach is up for debate, if not for RCB on Thursday, for India or any team he plays on a given day while batting first. And that is something he would want to change. For, if someone with the calibre of Kohli can upgrade himself in the powerplay, he could do the same if he wants to in the remaining phases of the game as well.

Kohli innings construction since 2019

Year/Ovs SR
1-6 7-16
2019 138.9 118.6
2020 109.4 108.1
2021 130.3 106.5
2022 116.8 115.2
2023 136.8 133.9
2024* 155.4 131.29
* - until RCB v SRH on Thursday

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