Bowling team always has a set plan for key batters of the opponent side. Based on the batsman's history against certain deliveries, his batting strength, and bowler's abilities, the plans are laid and astutely executed. And not that these plans come as a surprise to the batsman. Against some plans, it's all about awareness, like the one Vernon Philander had laid against Virat Kohli during India's Test series in South Africa in 2018.
For most, it is about having a grasp over one's patience, which James Anderson and Stuart Broad, bowling in tandem on their seam-friendly home pitches, had tested Kohli back in 2014. But four autumns backs, Kohli was given a taste of both worlds at home, and both ended in a bitter note for the Indian skipper. New Zealand paceman Neil Wagner, through his barrage of short-length deliveries, troubled Kohli throughout and even managed to bounce him out. However, to understand the gravitas of the battle, it is important to understand Wagner as a bowler.
Six years earlier, during India's last trip to New Zealand, the hosts were gunning down a 407-run target. And with Shikhar Dhawan at 115 and Kohli past is half-century mark, India found themselves comfortably at 218 for two, leaving New Zealand to believe in a possible comeback only with the new ball. But in the manner in which the two set batsmen took on the run chase, it would leave New Zealand little to defend even with the new cherry red. Skipper Brendon McCullum desperately required the run rate within check before the arrival of the new ball and hence turned to Wagner. For 13 overs in the morning, Wagner conceded only 29 runs, and that had been his job.
But the first ball of Wagner's over, the 61st in the innings, Kohli drove it through covers for a boundary. For a moment it was felt, the visitors could possibly continue with their batting rampage and leave little for Trent Boult and Tim Southee to make an impact with the new ball. But what followed was not sane. Blowing into the wind over his next spell of 10 overs, relentless Wagner bowled 18 bouncers to dismiss Kohli and Dhawan while conceding just 26 runs. Kohli went after the widish short ball, making the mistake of pulling instead of cutting as the ball took the bottom edge before dying into the hands of the keeper. Dhawan fell a brute of a bouncer
Wagner had done his job again. Even with the old ball, he dismissed two set batsman and brought two new to the crease for New Zealand's new-ball pair. Boult and Southee dismissed three more before Wagner was recalled to get rid of another set batsman, MS Dhoni. India managed only 144 runs more after Kohli's dismissal, losing the game by 40 runs.
What made Wagner's two spells impressive was his relentless effort to grab those four wickets on a flat pitch under a sunny sky with the track offering nothing to the bowlers. And this will make Wagner a threatening bowler in the Basin Reserve, the venue for the first Test between India and New Zealand.
Two years later, New Zealand visited India for a three-Test series and Wagner had something different in his arsenal to dismiss the Indian skipper. While the short-ball strategy remained intact, Kohli however was undone by angles. 51.1, Wagner bowled around the stumps and Kohli dispatched the short ball to the fine-leg boundary for a four. 51.3, Wagner went over the stumps with another short ball, but Kohli top-edged the pull to Ish Sodhi and fine-leg.
"Two similar balls produce two radically different results: it was down to the angles. When Wagner bowled around the stumps, the angle took the ball into Kohli's body and it was a easier to guide the delivery to fine leg. But the moment Wagner went over the stumps, the angle took the ball away from Kohli and that led to a lack of control while playing the same shot," former cricketer Aakash Chopra had then explained it in his column on ESPNCricinfo.
A week later in Eden Gardens, on a track that had more for the pacers thereby allowing the bowling side to lay a plan, Kohli's patience and awareness was both tested. Walking in at 28 for two, all he required was to weather the early storm, but Kohli was up against Wagner whose sole plan was of course to bounce him out. There was a forward and backward short leg along with deep fine leg and deep square leg.
Kohli required more than just patience against the bowler who had once taken six wickets in Christchurch, all through bouncers, to reduce Australia from a dominating 356 for two. You duck the deliveries, let go off it, but Wagner, like Rafael Nadal, looks to chase every bit of opportunity to get his job done.
He bowled nine bouncers that afternoon to Kohli before he was taken off the attack. For a moment, it seemed Kohli had seen off the tougher days, but the sucker ball awaited his dismissal and the executioner was Boult. It wasn't quite a half-volley, more of a full delivery placed wide off the off stump that drew the batsman forward for the edge.
But more than past history, the world will have its eyes glued on the battle especially after Wagner's recent triumph against Steve Smith. He dismissed him four times, all through short balls, conceding just 27 runs off 159 deliveries in the contest last December. The series unearthered Smith's true weakness especially after a stupendous Ashes 2019 as the battle single-handledly reduced his average of 93.66 against short-balls to 40.
Come February 21, Kohli will look to embrace himself for that variety of delivery of which Wagner is considered to arguably the world’s pre-eminent exponent. Since 2016, he has taken 75 wickets through bouncers, which is 53 per cent of his total wickets in the period. And overall, 63 per cent of his deliveries in a Test matches are of bouncer length and it resulted in 63 per cent of his wickets. Moreover, in his recent Test match against Australia in Perth, he bowled 193 short balls, 63 per cent of his deliveries - no player has bowled as many short balls as Wagner has in a Test match in Australia since 2006.
The bouncer barrage awaits Kohli at the Basin Reserve and in Christchurch, but it will be his strategy against those repeated attacks which will hold key in India's charge with the bat.