In Come to Think of it, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This time: why Kohli might not be the ideal T20 top-order batsman
In a week when his place in England's T20I line-up has come under intense debate, Dawid Malan has become the world's top-ranked batsman in the format. It shouldn't make sense but it does, sort of, encapsulating the contradiction between two views of T20 batting.
Proponents of the first view (who presumably include the designers of the ICC's rankings system) would point to Malan's basic numbers - the third-highest international average among batsmen with at least 500 runs, and a strike rate of 146.66 - and suggest that he scores runs both quickly and consistently. Why, they would ask, is this even a debate?
The dissenters would reply: look at how he builds his innings, and point to his strike rates over his first five, ten, 15, and 20 balls. He starts too slowly, they would say.
Getting your eye in before accelerating is a tried and tested way of building an ODI innings. Scoring slowly over 20 balls isn't that big a deal since 20 balls only make up 6.67% of a batting team's total quota of deliveries in an ODI.
"No one with any understanding of T20 would suggest Kohli is twice as good as Russell. But does Kohli even belong on the same level as Russell or AB de Villiers or Kieron Pollard?"
In T20, 20 balls make up a sixth of a team's innings. To proponents of the second view, those 20 balls would be better utilised by a more explosive batsman. Malan - or someone in his mould - might catch up later, but later might not happen at all, given the increased risk of dismissal inherent to the format. Even if that batsman does catch up, will it be enough to make up for that slow start?
It's the risk built into the role of the T20 anchor, and given the distribution of resources in a T20 innings - ten wickets over 20 overs - it's valid to ask if teams need one at all, even if that anchor is the best who has ever anchored.
You've seen the headline, you know where this is going.
It isn't just the armchair fan who believes Virat Kohli is a great T20 batsman. Former players say it all the time too, and pick him in their all-time XIs. He's spent large swathes of his career at or near the top of the ICC T20I rankings, and he's the highest paid player in the most lucrative franchise tournament in the world. His IPL earnings are particularly notable since the tournament enforces a spending cap, giving each team a purse of Rs 85 crore (approximately US$11.5 million) to assemble their entire playing squad. The Royal Challengers Bangalore spent a fifth of their purse at this year's auction just to retain Kohli's services. Oh, and he earns twice as much as Andre Russell does at the Kolkata Knight Riders.
Is Kohli that good?
No one with any understanding of T20 would suggest Kohli is twice as good as Russell, so that isn't the debate here. But does Kohli even belong on the same level as Russell or AB de Villiers or Kieron Pollard or Jos Buttler or peak Chris Gayle?
To those who believe in the value of the anchor, the answer would probably be yes. As in Malan's case, but over a larger sample size, the basic numbers are elite. If a career strike rate in the 130s doesn't look too flash, look at his numbers since the start of 2016.
But, as with Malan, Kohli is a slow starter. The graphic below charts how T20's top run getters (minimum 3000 runs) since the start of 2016 have gone about building their innings. You're doing pretty well to be among the light-blue dots (overall strike rate in the 140-150 range), but Kohli sits at the extreme left of that band, with a strike rate of 130.92 over his first 30 balls.
Let's split this by innings. The way batsmen approach chases is usually dictated by the target in front of them, and you could argue that Kohli's place in the chart below is influenced by the fact that he has had to chase 179 or less (below nine an over) in 29 of his 45 chases in this period, and 159 or less (below eight an over) in 19 of them.
Runs made while batting first (minimum 1500 since the start of 2016) present a clearer picture of a batsman's natural approach. Kohli's strike rate undergoes a stark jump here, from 129.90 at the 30-ball mark to an eventual figure of 144.77. The batting-first graph, in general, shows more batsmen diverting sharply from the trend line. Malan makes the biggest jump in strike rate (from 118.90 at the 30-ball mark to 138.54 overall) followed by Kohli (from 129.90 to 144.77).
Kohli, in fact, ends up with a better strike rate than Buttler (142.69), but the latter has a 30-ball strike rate of 142.30.
The 30-ball strike rate is an important number because 30 balls make up a quarter of a T20 innings. While batting first, a Buttler innings that lasts 30 balls would bring his team roughly 43 runs on average. A Kohli innings of 30 balls would bring his team 39 runs. Malan scores 36 off his first 30 balls, typically, and Russell, who has a 30-ball strike rate of 166.90, scores 50.
Kohli, of course, begins his innings with the expectation of spending more time at the crease than a late-overs hitter like Russell would. This is why early on he plays fewer shots that would be construed as risky in the longer formats. But how often does he get past the 30-ball mark?
Kohli is without equal when it comes to getting past the 30-ball mark in chases, doing so in nearly 58% of his innings. Of the 22 other batsmen who have made at least 1500 runs while chasing since the start of 2016, KL Rahul is a distant second at 43.59%. You can ask whether Kohli could score significantly quicker if he batted with less certainty, and whether scoring quicker would be more beneficial to his teams, but you can't doubt his efficiency in executing his game plan.
While batting first, however, Kohli only gets past the 30-ball mark around 39% of the time, not significantly more frequently than de Villiers or Aaron Finch, who score significantly more quickly in those first 30 balls.
When Kohli does stay in, however, the payoff can be spectacular. In all T20 cricket since the start of 2016, 20 batsmen have scored at least 500 runs in the death overs (16-20) while batting first. It's worth reproducing the entire list here, because it paints the full picture of how quickly Kohli scores at the death - quicker than Russell, Pollard, Hardik Pandya, MS Dhoni.
Kohli, of course, is almost always well set if he's at the crease at the start of the 16th over, whereas most of the others on that list usually begin their innings around that point. But Kohli, unlike most T20 batsmen of his kind, has that extra gear. You might watch Ajinkya Rahane - a similarly slow starter - and occasionally wonder why T20 teams never retire batsmen out. You wouldn't do that with Kohli.
But as much of an outlier as Kohli may be among the larger group of anchors in T20, he remains an anchor, and the value of that role remains up for debate.
If India have a weirdly skewed T20I record since the start of 2016 - they have 29 wins and seven losses while chasing, and 23-13 while batting first - it probably has something to do with the fact that they often play three anchors (Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli) at the top of their order, and that their quicker starters (Rahul, Rishabh Pant) have either been shunted up and down the order or in and out of the side, or have not had the chance to bat often enough - Pandya has only batted 25 times in 40 T20Is.
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In the wider philosophical debate over the role of the anchor, India currently sit in opposition to England, who have no place for Joe Root in T20Is, and will probably have no place for Malan when Jason Roy and Ben Stokes return to the side.
Over its history, football has gradually moved towards a universalisation of skills, and teams at the elite level of the sport now seldom have room for defenders with a limited passing range, goalkeepers who are pure shot-stoppers - recall Joe Hart's experience when Pep Guardiola took over at Manchester City - or forwards with a poor defensive work rate.
Test cricket rewards specialist skills, but batting in T20 is probably destined to evolve towards universalisation. The vast majority of cricketers currently play at least two of its three formats, but the experience of West Indian players - for whom the politics and economics of the sport opened up a wider schism between T20 and the other formats - has given us a glimpse into the future. The likes of Gayle, Evin Lewis, Nicholas Pooran, Pollard, Russell and Dwayne Bravo either only play T20 or only white-ball cricket, and train year-round to be elite T20 hitters. West Indies' line-up at the World T20 in 2016 had room for one anchor - Marlon Samuels - but there's unlikely to be room for any such when they line up to defend their title next year.
Elite teams of the future are likelier to conform to the model followed by West Indies and England, with more players specialising in one format or another, and a greater universalisation of roles among the T20 specialists. The best teams already have fairly fluid batting orders, with batsmen sent out to target specific opposition bowlers, but they will only grow more fluid with less room for an anchor.
The likes of Kohli, Babar Azam and Kane Williamson are top-rung Test batsmen, and their only T20-specific training takes place around major T20 events. They can only be so good at T20, and becoming better at it will probably take something away from their longer-format game; the Test-match skills of Kohli, Azam or Williamson, you'd agree, are far too precious to lose. And so, given all the restrictions placed on him by his circumstances and priorities, Kohli is absurdly good at the specific role he plays in T20 cricket. But is he one of the world's best in the format? Probably not, and in years to come, perhaps we'll view him as the best of a dying breed.
With stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman
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