Virat Kohli backs away a long way. From where he’s standing, if the ball is bowled at the stumps, it’ll be in the channel for him. And having given himself that much room, he goes further and clears his front leg out as if he’ll be charged rent for it staying put.
This is not a position you see Kohli being in, at the batting crease, and certainly not one you associate with him when he’s four balls into an innings. As it turned out, Kohli’s movement worked, in that it got him enough room to swing hard at the ball. That he swung it straight to mid-off was incidental.
Kohli made a five-ball duck in India’s first T20I against England. He got out to Adil Rashid, but he had tried a similar, clear-front-leg-out-and-hoick to the previous ball, against Jofra Archer. It was un-Kohli like in the image that has come to define him, of the batsman who has conquered all formats by playing ‘proper’ cricketing shots and scoring tons of runs. It was very Kohli-like in the image of the captain of a team who’s willing to walk the talk.
A day before the series got underway, Kohli had promised India would embrace a batting philosophy that veered from the path they had traditionally gone on. They had the personnel to bat deep, which meant the top order didn’t have to worry as much about protecting wickets, which meant they could go hard at the bowling from the start. High risk, high reward.
That it didn’t come off in the first T20I on Friday doesn’t make it the wrong approach. It just illustrates the ‘high risk’ component. Batting depth allied with the freedom it allows the main batsmen is the most common-sense tactical approach in T20 cricket, provided you have the personnel to carry it out. England have had it, a full-strength West Indies side have it. Others have tried it with varying degrees of success. A full-strength Indian side can also hope to approach it, because they would have Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja providing lower-order ballast, and able to do so more freely with the security of at least two more bowlers who can bat to follow.
But, while the strategy is well defined, it is also unknown territory for the Indian team. To make the switch in mindset on how to go about a T20 innings requires, like all things, practice. The batting line-up has been asked to change its rhythm. As good as they are – and they are pretty darn good because even with conservative batting tactics, India’s win-loss ratio in T20Is is better than other top team’s since 2018 – the new rhythm needs to be adjusted to.
It was made more difficult on Friday by England’s bowling plans working out perfectly, and a pitch that was on the slower side.
Kohli qualified what the team needed to do in these cases. “As a batting side you have to accept the conditions. If the pitch allows you to play those kind of shots, you can be aggressive from ball one,” he told Star Sports after the game. “But we got ahead of ourselves a little bit, probably didn’t spend enough time out there in the middle to assess the conditions. Shreyas [Iyer] did that but there were too many wickets down at that stage to get past 150-160 and had we got, say, eight wickets in hand at the end of 10 overs then we could have got a few more runs and made a game out of it.”
While that sounds like a reversion to the mean, of India being more cautious at the start instead of trading wickets in hand for a potentially higher run-rate, Kohli did not seem to suggest the strategy was flawed, merely the execution. “We just weren’t aware enough of what we had to do on that kind of a pitch. Lack of execution of the shots that we tried to play out there in the middle, it’s something we have to address as batsmen.”
Shreyas Iyer was the only Indian batsman to emerge with credit in a team innings of 124 for 7, and he was clear that India wouldn’t be discarding their new philosophy because of one bad game.
“It will definitely not change. You see the batting line-up that we have and the power-hitters down the line,” Iyer, who made 67 off 48, said at the post-match press conference. “You know, we really don’t have to change anything to be honest. We have come with a plan and we need to execute it as much as possible. Going into the World Cup, we need to see to it that we have ticked all the boxes. We have to try this as much as possible. This is a five-match series, so it’s a perfect time to try out different stuff and see whatever suits us.”
The strategy might still not work out for India, it’s impossible to predict with certainty of course. But it has enough going for it that it needs to be given a chance to fail more comprehensively before being discarded.