India in South Africa

Decoding ‘intent’, Virat Kohli’s buzzword

The Indian captain doesn’t miss a chance to stress on the importance of intent whenever he talks.

“You can’t be in a zone of not having intent and see off 35-40 overs.”

This was Virat Kohli on the day India lost the first Test at Newlands against a Vernon Philander-inspired South Africa pace attack. The Indian batting lineup had failed in both innings and except for an out-of-the-box knock by Hardik Pandya, the margin would have been much bigger than 72 runs. Only two Indian batsmen managed to faced more than 100 balls and there was still a whole day’s play left in the match. Kohli had multiple issues to worry about in Cape Town but time was not one.

So it was all the more interesting that Kohli still chose to talk about intent from his batsmen. Well, despite him not naming names, it wouldn’t take a NASA-employed scientist to figure out that he was talking about Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma’s stubborn defiance in the first session on day two.

Kohli went on to elaborate:

“We need to have intent because the kind of bowling attack they have – especially on these pitches they get extra bounce and they get extra pace off the wicket – you can’t be in a zone of not having intent and see off 35-40 overs. You need to find the perfect balance to do well in South Africa especially where there is more bounce.

“You can’t just stand there and take whatever is coming your way and not have intent at all. You might get out, but it’s important to keep coming at the bowler and making them feel, ‘If you make an error I am going to score.’ So I think that message needs to go pretty strongly and you need to do that as a batting unit, collectively.”

This is not the first time Kohli has harped on about the need to score runs at a good clip, especially if the conditions are tough, to wrestle momentum away from opposition. It was a hot-topic when he captained the team for the first time outside the subcontinent, in West Indies in 2015. He was vocal about Pujara’s scoring rate, and even experimented with Rohit at No 3 on that tour, dropping Pujara.

And back playing Tests outside for the first time since that West Indies tour, intent has once again become the buzzword for Kohli.

Ahead of the must-not-lose second Test starting in Centurion – South Africa’s fortress when it comes to the longest format – Kohli was asked to explain what his idea of intent was, given his almost-pointed criticism of Pujara and Rohit’s approach.

Take it away, Virat.

“Intent doesn’t really mean that you have to go out there and start playing shots from ball one. Intent is there in a leave. Intent is there in defending as well. Intent is about being vocal out there in calling. All those things count as intent. Just the way your body language, the way you are thinking about the game. It gets portrayed in your body language. People can tell if you are playing with intent or not. 

“There will be tough moments but I think even the tough moments one needs to overcome through intent. Defending or leaving the ball, you need precise footwork to do that. And that only comes with a clear head and a positive intent in your head. That’s how I look at things. Even if I’m going to leave the ball, I need to do it with intent. My stride should be big enough to leave the ball, or defend it. So in my head I’m feeling positive about those things. Being positive doesn’t mean you are scoring every ball. But it’s understanding that you are in control of what you want to do. That’s how I break down intent.”  

This is slightly different in tone from what Kohli said after the first match but in line with what he has said over the years. In an interview with Michael Vaughn during England’s visit to India in 2016-’17, he spoke about the disastrous tour to the English shores in 2014 – a series where he score a little over 130 runs in 10 innings. Kohli, who was in the middle of a purple patch during the interview, recalled an important change he had to make to his game to bounce back after that tour and how Sachin Tendulkar helped him with that:

“He said he had watched me in England and he helped me with a few technical things that are important at this level in terms of getting a good stride in, always having intent when playing the ball and never being unsure of what to do at the crease.

“I never had a forward press but he told me you should go forward to a fast bowler like you would defend a spinner. Do it with the same conviction is the only way you can be in a good position to tackle, swing seam or anything you want.

“We ended up speaking a lot during that phase. Those things worked out for me. Then I spoke to him about preparation. I said in Test cricket I see a lot of guys batting in the nets, they want to hit 200-300 balls before the game. I feel I am ready and tend to overdo things because I am so desperate to do well so go away from my routine. 

“He told me the importance of mentally staying relaxed. If you do not feel like hitting the ball, don’t hit it. Do not look at other people having a great net session for long hours, go off, try and do the same thing and come out frustrated. That helped me a lot.

You see, it’s not just as a captain that Kohli covets “intent” on a cricketing field. It’s who he always has been as a player. But, now that he is leading the side, his take on intent has to match what the skill-set of the rest of his team. For Pujara, intent is in leaving the ball, it’s about defending a good-length ball with a dead bat. And he is pretty darn good at it.

Kohli likes to talk about intent – which is during pretty much every press conference these days – almost as much as MS Dhoni spoke about “process” during his stint as the captain. The usage of the word shot up especially during away difficult tours when the results didn’t go his way. (Remember the “process” tangents during the 2014 tour of England?)

Having talked the talk in the build-up to this series and in the two weeks they have spent in South Africa so far, Kohli would want that buzzword of his to translate into results soon.

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