Virat Kohli has now gone 20 Tests without scoring a hundred, a run that accounts for nearly 20 per cent of his entire career.

Rewind three years back to a pre-pandemic world and Virat Kohli’s status as the pre-eminent cricketer of his generation was unchallenged. AB de Villiers had already retired from international cricket and no one – not even the other members of the Fab Four – came close to his cross-format dominance.

In Test cricket, his career average hovered around the 55 mark. His ICC Test batting rating was in the high 930s, comfortably in the top 15 of all time. Over a four-year period stretching back to the start of 2016, he averaged 67 in Test cricket and over 40 against every side he came up against. Kohli had 27 Test hundreds to his name and having just turned 31, Tendulkar’s record haul of 51 was not an implausible target.

More than three years on, Kohli remains stuck on 27 Test hundreds. It’s not a bad place to be stuck on, but he is still stuck.

The last three years have become an increasingly prominent part of the Kohli story, a subplot in the overall narrative that has lingered on too long to be edited out of the final script. His run without a century in Test cricket is now 20 Tests long, representing nearly a fifth of his entire career in the format. It is no longer a minor dip, but a prolonged slump.

In started in early 2020 in the weeks before Covid-19 halted not just cricket but life as we knew it. In a gripping two-Test series against New Zealand, Kohli failed to reach 20 in any of his four innings at the crease. It felt like a minor aberration but it was understandable; this was a low-scoring series played on tracks that gave assistance to New Zealand’s excellent seam attack and anyway, two Tests is nowhere near long enough a period to draw serious conclusions from.

The pandemic came and Test cricket was put on hold for the majority of 2020. When Test cricket returned Kohli scored 74 only to be run out in the first Test of India’s famous tour of Australia in 2020/21. It was a quiet classic from Kohli, withstanding the world’s premier attack in another low-scoring affair. Naturally, that knock was quickly forgotten in the carnage that followed as India were bundled out for 36 in their second innings. Kohli would then miss India’s remarkable series victory, having returned to India for paternity leave.

India’s next challenge was against a buoyant England side, fresh off consecutive series victories against Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies and South Africa, two of those coming overseas. Again, a defiant Kohli resistance act came in defeat. He scored 72 in the second innings, he and a young Shubman Gill the only Indian batters to pass 15 as India lost just their second Test at home in the previous nine years.

In the following Test, Kohli overcame a first-innings duck to score another half-century – his third in as many Tests. For a player as complete as Kohli, nothing to write home about but also nothing to cause concern. This time, his 62 helped India recover from 106-6 to 286. In the subsequent two Tests at Ahmedabad, on two controversially spin-friendly surfaces, Kohli registered scores of 27 and nought, now seven Tests without a hundred.

[breakout id=”0″][/breakout]

Since then it’s been more of the same. The occasional half-century punctuating an elongating streak without a standout score, never really putting together a series of low scores so stark to point to a complete abandonment of form. Even in the 2021 English summer when his top score across five Tests was 55, he compiled 94 crucial runs across the Oval Test in a memorable India victory.

In South Africa at the turn of the year it was a similar story. His 79 at Cape Town – his best knock of the three-year fallow period – was surrounded by three starts that he failed to capitalise on. Since that tour, Kohli has passed 25 just once across nine innings but each series has been so isolated, months apart from any other red-ball cricket that even then it’s hard to definitively conclude that this is a man completely out of touch, especially when there are signs that he’s getting closer to his best once more in white-ball cricket.

But over what is now a significant period of Kohli’s career, his output has been some distance off not only what we’d come to expect of Kohli, but of what India would expect of a top-six batter. Since the start of 2020, of specialist batters to play 15 or more Tests only Ajinkya Rahane (24.08) averages less Kohli (26.20). Rahane has since been dropped from the India side.

It is fair to point out that India have encountered a disproportionate number of bowler-friendly surfaces but even still, Kohli’s returns are still a way off what was expected of him around his 2016-2019 peak. There is unlikely to be one catch-all reason for the slump. It is too simplistic to blame the state of the schedule since the start of the pandemic; while in 2020 and 2021 it brought its own unique challenges, elite cricketers were afforded minimal build-up periods in pre-pandemic years as well.

The slump probably doesn’t matter as much as most make out. We place too much emphasis on numbers, especially when looking back on careers retrospectively. At any level of cricket, when asked to name the best players, you first point to the moments that a player creates, not the numbers they produce.

The sadness in Kohli’s prolonged slump is that the extraordinary level that was maintained for the best part of half a decade has only fleetingly been recreated in what in theory should have been the continuation of that peak. Numbers aren’t the be all or end all, but they do represent the frequency of those special moments. His average falling from the mid-50s to the high-40s means that those moments that established the legend of Kohli have become less and less frequent.

At his best, Kohli dominates. But even in his best recent moments, Kohli has been more of a battler than a tone-definer, exerting his personality on games in the field more than with the bat. His 72 at Chennai is his only 50-plus score struck at a rate of more than 55 in the last three years. Kohli will surely score more Test centuries and he may well rediscover his best form to be once more become India’s leading man in what is an enormous year for Indian cricket. His MCG heroics against Pakistan earlier this year showed that the magic is still there. A comfortable series win over Australia should seal India qualify for the World Test Championship final and there’s the small matter of a home World Cup to come later in the year. Kohli still has ample time to create more of those timeless moments. But whatever happens, a sadness will always remain that we saw so few of them from 2020 to 2022.