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Is Virat Kohli ready to rev up RCB?

by Gaurav Sethi

The year 2016 was Virat Kohli's best IPL season by a long shot. He scored the first and last of his four IPL 100s that year. His strike rate at 152 was his highest ever. That year, Virat Kohli opened the batting with KL Rahul. Like some wild cats, openers too hunt in pairs. This season, Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) gave KL Rahul the miss, and Kohli mostly gave opening the batting a miss.
Whatever goes on to happen in RCB's last two league matches, at five wins and seven losses, this has been far from a champion side. Out of these five wins, two have been against bottom placed Delhi Daredevils and another two against a weak Kings XI Punjab (KXIP), way too reliant on its openers. Three of these five wins have been of the blade of AB de Villiers.
RCB's other win was against Mumbai Indians which was on a losing spree.
While Kohli has opened the batting thrice out of 12 innings, he's largely batted at three, occasionally at four. Twice he opened with Quinton de Kock, and once the other day with Parthiv Patel, hunting down Punjab's two fat ladies, 88. He scored 48(28) that day. 92*(62) against Mumbai Indians' 213, where he was the only RCB batsman to go past 20. And while his score looks flash on paper, it was largely an innings of Net Run Rate damage-control, wherein he batted out the innings with wickets falling around him - he accelerated at the end, upping his strike rate and shrinking the margin of defeat. It was Kohli in auto-pilot mode. In many ways, like a perceptive Dhoni innings.
In between, he opened against CSK, ending with 18(15). There's no pattern to when Kohli opens, but on all three occasions, de Villiers (who missed a few matches) had been in the playing XI. Twice RCB had been chasing, once a 200-plus total, once a score below 100 - RCB's fourth, sixth and twelfth games.
Going into their thirteenth game, neither RCB nor Kohli still know what their best playing XI is - as with losing teams, their playing XI has been tossed around. Only now, Kohli, de Villiers, Umesh Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal are sure shot starters but don't bet on that either.
Consumed by this uncertainty, Kohli has hedged his bets too - between coming at his customary three or even four, and only opening on the odd occasion. Opening the batting takes upon one of two roles:
1) Fearless T20 offensive
2) Coasting T20 offensive
While even a passive Kohli can coast at a steady strike rate of 120-plus, it's the destructive Kohli (s/r of 150-plus) that has taken a break. Inert openers, such as Gambhir and Rahane have relinquished their spot.
Whereas those such as KL Rahul, Chris Gayle, Shane Watson and Jos Buttler have defined results.
Both Watson and Gayle have centuries, whereas KL Rahul has struck 558 runs at a strike rate of 162. His highest of 95*(70), wasn't too dissimilar to that of Kohli's 92* (62) - he was the lone warrior in a lost cause, the only batsman to go past 11.
While Rahul found in Gayle, a fellow bully opener, that plundered opening bowlers, Kohli had an unsure de Kock, preferring to partner a similarly accomplished bat such as de Villiers in the middle overs.
After being lost in the middle overs for half the tournament, Buttler opened the batting in a rain-hit 12 over shoot out. His 67(27) with seven sixes, all but stormed Delhi. However, this set Buttler for a record-breaking five half centuries on the trot - 82, 95*, 94* being his last three successful crusades. Buttler single-handedly beat stronger teams like CSK and MI with his bat. And when he failed to cross 50, in spite of a blistering start, 39(22), his team went down to KKR. But there was never any ambiguity. Buttler striking at 155, for his 548 runs of which 428 were in the last six innings opening.
Meanwhile, a more restrained Kohli has been striking at 142 for his 548 runs. While Kohli has had de Villiers for company, Buttler has largely been lonesome at the top and elsewhere too.
Goes to show that even a weak, somewhat imbalanced team such as Rajasthan can win matches with one Mad Max on the top. It may not always come off but when it does, there's nothing more spectacular than 100-run salute by a marauding bat.
It's over to Virat Kohli. Does he want to hold himself back? Does he want to unleash AB? Does he want to unleash both himself and AB? And if so, then why not on the top?
Surely they've both been watching Buttler bat. And learnt a thing or two about T20 attack in the power play. It's never too late to unlearn the art of restraint in this format. Especially, in your eleventh season.
First published here

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