It has been 71 innings across formats, a stretch of 838 days, since Virat Kohli last scored a hundred. A hundred was, once to him, a habit, an essence of existence like his own breath di lui. He scored a hundred every seventh time he strode out. And then it stopped, almost unfathomably.
The last time the nation waited so anxiously or expectantly for a hundred was for The Hundredth Hundred. It became a sporting event in itself.
A wait of 362 days and 33 innings, from Bangalore to Dhaka across a stream of other venues in different corners of the world, wading through a spectrum of emotions, from anticipation and agony to fretting and fuming, and finally a shred of relief as he grafted the last of his hundreds, The Hundredth Hundred and dropped an emphatic one-liner: “People forgot that I had scored ’99 hundreds.”
There have been distinct stages for that wait. First there was that brief period of purely sporting anticipation. Then a time obsession, then a period of desperation, and finally a sense of disburdening though at no point there was a sense of resignation. The world knew that The Hundredth Hundred was inevitable, just as Kohli’s 71st.
This wait too has traversed distinct stages. First, there was a sense of casualness. The usual cliches: Round the corner, just a knock away. Almost a hundred. Tendulkar, the Emperor of Hundreds, did. So did Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting. Among modern-day masters, Joe Root had a two-year drought that he overturned with a flurry of daddy and double hundreds. Then kicked in a sense of disbelief. Something is wrong with the world. But this too shall pass. Now has winked in a phase of doubt. Can Kohli indeed endure this phase and rediscover his one-century in seven innings gold standard?
The dissection too has begun. Has he lost the hundred-scoring temperament? Tendulkar did towards the end of his Test career, going century-less in his last 40 knocks. Looking set for a hundred, sumptuous and steady, but somehow contriving to perish. A corker of a ball (you tend to get these more often when you are riding a slump) or a stroke of indiscretion (you are more prone to these too), or a freak dismissal (theory of probability). The whole world, the very world that made you, seems conspiring to unmake you.
Throughout this century-less phase Kohli has seldom looked troubled or tormented, as though the game has deserted him altogether. He has been assertive and authoritative, and not looked like a man in deep pits of an existential crisis. The Mohali knock was a classic case, as had been those against England in Chennai last year (72 and 62 on rank-turners). He looked all set for symmetrical destiny —a hundred in his hundredth Test – before playing inside the line of an orthodox left-arm away-spinner that spun across the face of his bat and hit the off-stump. A rather harmless delivery, but he chose the wrong option. An error in judgment, so to speak.
A noticeable technical quibble throughout the phase is that it’s the away-going deliveries, swing, seam and spin, that has been his chief nemesis. Any great cricketing career you look, away-goers would have accounted for their wickets more than those bent into them. All four times in South Africa, it was the ones that moved away after pitching that consumed him. In as many as three of these instances, he went chasing for the ball. Some of them were cover-drivable indeed, and the ones that he’s accustomed to nailing through the covers, but here he could just manage a nick. Twice the keeper consumed him, and twice the slips-men.
In the New Zealand series before that he was twice accounted for by left-arm spinners, once lbw to a slider and then chopping a conventional one onto his stumps.
It was not like in the English summer of 2014 when he was genuinely harassed by James Anderson’s away-swingers, but here his judgment could not be faulted but his execution could be. What is it that happened to his fabled cover-drive of him? Perhaps an inimitable stamp of aging is that his reflexes di lui have slowed down a fraction – in most sports, this fraction-of-a-second deficit matters. Or that his bat-speed di lui is not as quick as it once used to be. Or that the muscle memory is de-memorising. Or that a minor technical glitch has crept in, as all batsmen are prone to making.
Some former players turned television pundits have pointed out that his shoulders are a trifle open, and hence facing towards the mid-on region, when he’s looking to drive through the off-side. Hence, his front-foot di lui doesn’t stride out as prominently as it once did, the back-foot doesn’t go through fully either. Another problem, as pointed out by former opener Gautam Gambhir is that his bat tends to be in line with the pads, especially when facing spinners. “When that happens, it is difficult to play deliveries that turn away as well as those that don’t turn. If you keep your bat ahead of your pad, you will be beaten only on one edge, ”he said.
It was different in England in the series before. Six times he was nicked off, but often looking to defend rather than drive. Not just to away-goers, but even to those ones that held the line after pitching. Here, he was more judicious, but he could not resist those fatal stabs outside the stumps. And here again, most of the dismissals were avoidable, barring a couple of peaches from Ollie Robinson. There was a perception that he was not as watchful or judicious as he had been in the 2018 tour of England, when he conquered Anderson and Stuart Broad.
Not for the first time in his career, he has been advised to exercise more abstinence and watch one of the most self-abstinent knocks of all time, Tendulkar’s cover-drive-less 241 not out in Sydney. Kohli has embraced that method too, digging into the outer limits of patience, like during the 79 in Cape Town (off 201 balls) or 44 (off 132 balls) in Southampton against New Zealand. So it’s not like he is averse to the idea of biding time. Like all great batsmen, there are several dimensions to his game di lui, and he’s self-aware and worldly-wise enough to sort out the issues that are plaguing, be that of the mind, the body or the technique.
All said and done, how he comes out of this century drought would be a fascinating phase of this wholesome narrative. Outwardly, he has seemed undisturbed. In interactions with the media, he has allayed the fears that the quest for the 71st is eating his sleep di lui. The entire team and support staff have thrown their weight behind him as well. Recently, captain Rohit Sharma quipped at a journalist when he asked about the century rut. “Virat Kohli ko confidence ki zaroorat hai? Kya baat kar rahe ho yaar? … “
Inside though he would be suffocating —for hundreds were his favorite currency. It was not too long ago that he was tipped as the only active cricketer who could reach The Hundredth Hundred after Tendulkar.
There is still a sense of inevitability that Kohli would end this over-stretched period of no centuries.
The Test in Bangalore, his second home, against a ramshackle Sri Lanka side, is another golden opportunity. But the longer the wait goes on, that phase of doubt shall soon turn into a spell of suspicion. Has Kohli lost it all? Is there a comeback? At 33 and without the crown of a captain? And the wait, meanwhile, shall go on. For The Hundred since the Hundredth Hundred. An event in itself.