Why Virat Kohli, the ‘chaser’, is weaker in Tests
In the recently concluded three-match Test series in South Africa, Murali Vijay (102), Cheteshwar Pujara (100) and Rohit Sharma (78), put together, scored fewer runs than Indian captain Virat Kohli (286).
There is no other Indian batsman among the top six scorers of the series. Kohli also stood out with a solitary ton—for either side. Even though India lost 1-2, this was doubtless his series as a batsman.
Along the way, he also achieved a rare distinction among Indian batsmen—averaging 50-plus (55.80) in South Africa after two or more tours. Only Australia’s Adam Gilchrist averages more than Kohli in South Africa—since their readmission to international cricket in 1991—among visiting batsmen.
Despite his 153 in the second Test in Centurion, Kohli might look back on it as a missed opportunity to pick up a rare Test series victory abroad. Though he is known for his expertise as a “chaser” in One Day Internationals (ODIs), that skill does not get translated to the longer format.
“Kohli at home and chasing in ODIs is a different batsman from Kohli batting in Test matches in Australia and South Africa. Perhaps, in the second innings of Tests in challenging conditions, he has not performed at the level at which he can,” says former South Africa coach Ray Jennings, who was coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore when Kohli made his Indian Premier League (IPL) debut in 2008.
In the first Test in Cape Town (5-8 January), the winning target was 208 runs. But Kohli managed only 28 (R. Ashwin was India’s highest scorer in the innings, with 37) as India lost by 72 runs.
There was another opportunity in the Centurion Test (13-17 January). Yet again, Kohli (5) failed in a chase of 287 on a pitch which was more subcontinental than African. The hosts won by 135 runs.
“I think that is unfair,” says Jennings over the phone from Johannesburg. “Asking Kohli to win Test matches on his own is a bit too much. If you look at the history of the game, you need partnerships. He needs support upfront.
“Five years ago, Test pitches against India were flatter. The wickets you were playing on this time were tough. The percentage of getting out on a bad wicket is higher,” he adds.
Kohli’s performance (54 and 41) in the final Test in Johannesburg (24-27 January) against South Africa—which India won after batting first—helped him move from No.31 to No.26 on the all-time International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings for Test batsmen. According to an ICC press release, he has gone past the likes of Brian Lara, Kevin Pietersen and Hashim Amla and is just four rating points behind Sunil Gavaskar, the highest-placed Indian on the list. Gavaskar had peaked at 916 points in a Test match against England at the Oval in 1979.
“You can’t compare Lara with Kohli, who is an outstanding batsman. He (Kohli) has to win matches single-handedly, as Lara did,” argues former England captain David Gower over the phone from London.
Lara and Amla have built their reputations by playing some outstanding match-winning knocks in adverse conditions. Regardless of his extraordinary achievements in shorter formats (ODIs and Twenty20s), many believe Test batsman Kohli still has a long way to go.
“He is an impressive and outstanding cricketer in many ways but is still halfway through his career. The rankings are fun and they give you some clue. There always will be some Kohli fans and Lara fans and I am a Lara fan,” says former England captain Gower.
Kohli’s fourth-innings average in Test cricket is still commendable (around 50) but in 12 Tests played abroad, he is yet to be part of a winning team while chasing.
His formidable reputation has been built around his exceptional chasing skills, yet he has failed to finish off some possible winning chases.
In February 2014, Kohli had an opportunity to win a Test in New Zealand. The tall chase (407) looked well within reach before India lost the match by 40 runs. Kohli managed 67 while Shikhar Dhawan scored a ton.
Ten months later, in his first match as Test captain in Adelaide, almost the same pattern was repeated. Despite making an astonishing 141 (he had scored 115 in the first innings) in the last innings, India couldn’t achieve a target of 364. Kohli was the seventh wicket to fall and India lost the match by 48 runs.
Even against a lesser opposition like Sri Lanka in 2015, he (3) failed in a chase of 176 in the first Test at Galle. India lost by 63 runs.
“I think he needs to win in England and Australia now,” says Gower.
“This team hasn’t batted enough in the fourth innings (where a win was possible). I do feel that only once his career is over, we can make an informed judgement on this, but yes, 2018 is crucial from that point of view,” says former India opener Aakash Chopra, who recently authored the book Numbers Do Lie: 61 Hidden Cricket Stories.
There is little doubt now that as an ODI batsman, Kohli is likely to break many of Sachin Tendulkar’s records. However, if he wants to carve a niche for himself in Test cricket, he needs to do what Tendulkar couldn’t. Lara was rated higher by many because he single-handedly won matches from hopeless situations.
“It’s a good talking point. Six and seven years down the line, we will have more evidence. Over a longer period, Sachin was the best because of his longevity. I think that’s Virat’s new challenge—he needs to be universally good,” points out Gower.
“It’s more about perception and romanticism than reality,” argues Chopra. “Apart from that famous Australia series at home, how many did Lara win in the fourth innings? Or, for that matter, give me any name that did it for 15 innings?
“Don’t judge Kohli by his past record because he is no longer the same batsman he used to be. The foreign circle (international tours) comes once in four years and he will do well like others,” adds Chopra.
Perhaps Kohli has a better chance of winning overseas Test matches after fourth-innings chases than a Tendulkar or Lara. He has a good support cast in batting apart from an outstanding bowling attack, a luxury neither Tendulkar nor Lara enjoyed during their careers.
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.
He tweets at @vimalwa