In the southern United States, they speak of a creature known as the ‘joint snake’. If you cut up a joint snake, it’s various parts can simply reassemble themselves and become whole once again. There are no known videos or images of this phenomenon, largely because it doesn’t exist. The joint snake is a mythological creature, possibly inspired by legless lizards in the region that can grow back their tails if they’re cut.
In fact, snakes in general don’t have any regenerative abilities, and if you cut off any part of a snake it eventually dies. Presumably, the Australian team was aware of this fact, which is why they used the analogy to describe their intentions of targeting India’s captain, Virat Kohli, ahead of their recently concluded tour of the country. In case you missed it, the plan was ‘to cut off the head of the snake’.
Kohli had come into the tour in the kind of form that would win him the Wisden Cricketer of the Year award; the kind of form that saw him as the leading batsman in each format; the kind of form that future generations might look back at the moment batting as a craft entered a new era. Kohli had also cemented his reputation in his previous series against Australia, where he had taken on and tamed the Aussie pace attack in their own backyard. So it was quite logical for the Australians to look to target him.
By the end of the series, the only thing that was clear was that snake analogies do not apply to cricket. India managed to win the series 2-1, despite the fact that the head of the snake had been well and truly cut off. Kohli’s average of 9.20 from three Tests was easily the worst return from any series in his stellar career so far.
Let’s just contextualise how bad Kohli was in this series. Coming into the series, Kohli had averaged 63 (4 tests in WI), 52 (3 tests vs NZ), 109 (5 tests vs ENG) and 121 (1 test vs BAN) in his previous four series. He wasn’t just in good form, he seemed to be redefining batting itself. His slump against Australia wasn’t a result of any injury or anything either, so one must ask what exactly happened.
Before we go any further, it is instructive to remember that despite spending next to no time at the crease, Kohli was EVERYWHERE throughout the series. He was at the heart of several controversies, he was in the face of every opponent, and when he got injured, he made himself 12th man and thus maintained his omnipresence. In other words, Kohli’s lack of form also can’t be attributed to him disappearing in some shell or the like.
...four out of five dismissals suggested a lack of concentration. But how can Kohli, who was constantly, almost unbearably, switched-on throughout the series be lacking concentration?
So we return to the question - what happened to Kohli’s form? It might help to consider the manner of his dismissals. In five innings, Kohli was dismissed by a different bowler each time. In his very first innings, Kohli seemed to want to ‘make a statement’, and got out playing a rather wild shot to a wide ball. His next two dismissals were made for GIFs - shouldering arms to a spinner.
Had Steven Smith not been dismissed in a similar style soon after, these two wickets would have been even more embarrassing than they eventually were. Kohli’s fourth dismissal was perhaps his only unlucky one as the ball stayed low and the third umpire didn’t rule in his favour in a close call. His final dismissal was another soft one, yet another loose drive being taken at slip.
There is no pattern here in terms of how he was targeted or what his weakness was save for the fact that four out of five dismissals suggested either a lack of technique or a lack of concentration. Since the former isn’t possible given his overall form, we must go with the latter. But how can Kohli, who was constantly, almost unbearably, switched-on throughout the series be lacking concentration?
The answer, I feel is that the Australians successfully got under his skin. Despite all of Kohli’s claims that attrition and aggression helps his game, the evidence seemed to suggest that being identified as the main target got to Kohli, who kept getting dismissed in a manner that his form in earlier series would have never allowed.
"Despite all of Kohli’s claims that attrition and aggression helps his game, the evidence seemed to suggest that being identified as the main target got to Kohli, who kept getting dismissed in a manner that his form in earlier series would have never allowed"
The most obvious clue that Kohli had been rattled lay his final press conference. In a situation that many of us haven’t experienced since class five, Kohli spent a lot of time talking about who he was friends with and who he had decided never to be friends with again. This wasn’t the first time that Kohli had been prickly in the presser, but it was definitely the first time that he was being ‘uncool’. It seemed to betray some desire to be set up as a the victim, to push the spotlight back to him when he didn’t deserve it, and to perhaps distract everyone from his poor numbers.
This, however, doesn’t mean that we have discovered Kohl’s achilles heel. I doubt if other teams could get to him the same way the Australians did, and even with them it was the context of this series. After all, Kohli had thrived under the media scrutiny when he toured Australia in 2014. But here, with India expected to dominate, he seemed to get a little too desperate to prove his point. And the desperation was so intense that it disrupted one of the richest veins of form any batsman has ever had. It left him making embarrassingly false accusations of cheating, and had him getting out in a manner far less talented batsmen would have been ashamed by.
For the first time, the cricket world saw that despite his divine talent, his good looks and glamorous life, there are times when it just isn’t cool to be Kohli.