Kohli embraces sweeping change in the quest for T20 relevance

Heading into the IPL 2024 clash against Gujarat Titans, Virat Kohli had an albatross around his neck. His strike-rate against spinners read 123.57 as opposed to 161.62 against pacers, with an imminent slowdown tailgating the PowerPlay.

As the hosts posted 200 in Ahmedabad, where the average score batting first has been 39 runs fewer than the season average of 194, and jog-trotted on the field with a spin attack of Rashid Khan, Noor Ahmed and Sai Kishore, the quiet confidence of keeping Kohli quiet pervaded through the huddle.

The dismissal of Faf du Plessis in the fourth over and Will Jacks’ early struggle combined to form the perfect recipe to push Kohli deeper into his anchoring vocation before the fastidious cricketing world saw the narrative flip. He struck at 179.41 against spin, fleecing 61 of his 70 runs against the tweaking trio, off only 34 balls. With the point of calculation being 20 balls from spinners atleast, Kohli has scored faster against spin only on two other occasions, versus Gujarat Lions (188.46 SR) and Punjab Kings (240.90 SR) during his 2016 jamboree.

At the heart of the turnaround lay the sweep. It is a shot that doesn’t come naturally to him, and hasn’t been a part of his repertoire for almost the entirety of his decorated career. “We know Virat doesn’t sweep against spin and he pretty much plays down the ground. If you had to set fields, you can do so accordingly and control his boundary count after the six overs and that’s may be an area he can assess,’’ former South Africa captain Graeme Smith said last year when Kohli was attracting flak like a magnet for his middle-overs deceleration, with commentator Simon Doull even taking a ‘milestone’ jibe at the opener.

Ex-Indian head coach Ravi Shastri also urged Kohli to cover all bases as far as his shot-making range is concerned. ‘’It’s great that Virat is using his feet against the spinners, but he must start playing the sweep more often, and “with freedom”, to make it tougher for the opposition. It’s such a shot that if a batter can play it, the spinner won’t know where to pitch the ball.’’

What exactly is it about the sweep shot that renders the spinner helpless? Firstly, the range. When a batter is able to play all variations of the sweep shot, like Tom Latham for example, he opens up swathes of scoring area, starting from fine leg and stretching all the way to mid-wicket. It is a huge expanse for the captain to cover, so the deployment of personnel on the leg-side is bound to leave empty pockets elsewhere.

Secondly, as the ball breaks, the angle can be used to your advantage. Last but not the least, runs off a good length – the ideal length to sweep – vex a spinner the most for it yanks them out of their comfort zone.

Royal Challengers Bangalore had kept up with the required rate of 10 in the PowerPlay, with Kohli’s consecutive sixes off Sai Kishore applying the finishing touches to their harvest in the first six overs. In what came as a refreshing change, he continued to bat in an attacking vein against the spinners, with the sweep becoming his weapon of choice.

Noor Ahmed strayed down the leg to set alight the brooming endeavour as Kohli helped the ball along its way, albeit forcefully. On the other side of his half-century, his eyes lit up again, spotting the right ball for the shot that was almost non-existent in his armoury for the longest time. His frontfoot stepped forward and inside the line of the ball to create a stable base for the strike. Kohli’s head and shoulder dipped forward as per convention but rather than his bat and hands going high in the backswing to generate power he carried out the chopping motion through an archetypal whippage of the wrists. While David Miller’s misfield aided the cause on this occasion, he could only watch the ball sail over him as Kohli committed to the slog sweep fully on the next delivery by Noor.

He produced six sweeps during his 44-ball stay – the most he has ever played in a T20 – collecting 22 runs off those half-a-dozen strokes, including two sixes and two fours. The impact of sweeping on his scoring avenues was palpable as he was striking at an elusive 200 against spin after facing 38 balls, having reached fifty off 32.

The demons slain, Kohli lambasted the critics who look at plain numbers devoid of context. “All the people who talk about strike-rates and me not playing spin well are the ones talking about this stuff. For me, it’s about winning the games for the team and there’s a reason why you’ve done it for 15 years, you’ve done this day in and day out, you’ve won games for your teams, I’m not quite sure that if you haven’t been in that situation yourself, to sit and talk about the game from the box.

“For me, people can talk about their assumptions day in and day out, but those who have done day in and day out, they know what’s happening and it’s a kind of muscle memory for me now,” he asserted.

Kohli is the first batter to go past 500 runs this IPL season. He has achieved this feat seven times in the history of the competition, which is the joint-most, but the jury has been out on his efficacy as a T20 batter given the limitations of his power game, especially against spin – strike rate of 108.9 in 2020, 100 in 2021, 108.1 in 2022 and 112.8 in 2023.

Research shows a profound link between high performance and self-awareness, thus the ability to evolve is the hallmark of champions. The fact that Kohli is broadening his horizons by consciously adding the sweep to his arsenal and vying to dominate the spinners points towards an underlying, healthy cognizance of his own shortcoming. Elite athletes are forever on the path of continual improvement, embracing change to ultimately serve their team better.