By the time Virat Kohli made his ODI debut in August 2008 in a five-match series in Sri Lanka, Rohit Sharma was already winning matches for India, dazzling with oodles of natural talent and delighting with his lazy elegance. Kohli, in an interview to a TV channel not too long ago, had admitted to being in awe of the Mumbaikar’s batting. Even today, many pundits believe Rohit is more gifted, but Kohli’s sheer determination and hard work has taken his game to another level.
“If I speak of Rohit, he hit three-four sixes off Morne Morkel in the T20 World Cup in South Africa (in 2007) on a bouncy Durban track,” said former India off-spinner Harbhajan Singh recently. “I understood then only that he has a special talent. And, if I just speak of talent, he will be above Kohli but with hard work, Kohli left everyone behind.”
When the two bat together, as they did in the first ODI against Windies in Guwahati, you know you will pay to watch Rohit but if you were to bet on a batsman, it would have to be Kohli. His evolution as a batsman across formats has been remarkable, but his batting in one-dayers has been stratospheric. When Kohli is batting, your jaw may not drop like it does when AB de Villiers is wielding his bat like a magic wand or he may not pull off shots that Rohit does with such nonchalance, but neither of the two can match his efficiency and consistency.
We don’t know if he can execute those outrageous shots; maybe he does but he never even attempts them simply because as much as they can be productive, they come with an element of risk. Kohli wasn’t born with this quality of restraint but it’s something that he has tried and successfully imbibed. Very early in his career, he managed to strike that balance between being an outright aggressor and an out and out accumulator.
He is only 29 and has already reached 10,000 runs in the 50-over format, needing another 8000-plus runs to surpass the great Sachin Tendulkar. That means, on an average, he has scored 1000 runs each year since his debut. He has taken 54 innings less than Tendulkar to climb Mount 10,000, and if he stays as fit and maintains his form, he will soon double that tally. That would be a staggering feat by someone who was considered talented but dismissed for being too distracted. His claim to fame – the U-19 World Cup triumph under his captaincy – coincided with the start of the Indian Premier League and the glitzy, glamorous tournament may have contributed to the youngster losing his focus. He, however, was quick to get his priorities right and has embraced a lifestyle that has so well augmented his game.
When Tendulkar was done with his career in 2013 in Mumbai, not many would have believed his records --- 100 international tons, over 15,000 Test and 18,000 ODI runs --- would be obliterated. But at the pace Kohli is gathering runs in all formats, those feats no longer appear the Holy Grail. Not surprisingly, there have been comparisons between him and Tendulkar and opinions are divided as to who is the better ODI batsman. Comparing batsmen of different eras is risky business, and the Kohli-Tendulkar comparison is no different. There have been some exhaustive and fascinating statistical analyses of the two but at the end of the day, it all boils down to the challenges, the demands and the responsibilities of a player of that era. Hence, they should be viewed in isolation and not in comparison.
Tendulkar played at a time when for at least half of his career, he alone carried the heavy burden of expectations of an entire nation on his young shoulders. Just look at the kind of bowlers he faced -- Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Saqlain Mushtaq, Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie, Dale Steyn and Allan Donald, to name some of the finest of his era.
For the most part of his career, only one ball was used per innings unlike the two in recent times and for the first few years of his career, ODIs were played with the red ball which offered more help for pacers. The use of two white balls per innings has also taken reverse swing out of the equation for all practical purposes. In his times, countries like England, Australia and South Africa still rolled out pitches that weren’t bowlers’ graveyards. And not to forget, Tendulkar batted in the middle-order for the first 66 innings of his career when he didn’t get as much time to bat as opposed to when he started opening.
This is not to belittle Kohli’s mind-numbing feats. He has been the best of his era by some distance, but is he better than Tendulkar? That’s always debatable. Kohli has his own set of challenges too. He plays in all three formats and captains in all of them with astounding personal success, something that Tendulkar could never manage as successfully while leading India.
Another factor that stands out about Kohli is his batting in chases. You could feel the tension and the uncertainty with Tendulkar while in pursuit of a target but when it comes to Kohli, there’s that sense of assurance and, more often than not, he gets the job done. Tendulkar has 17 centuries in 232 innings while chasing, Kohli already has 22 from just 116 innings, of which 20 have come in a winning cause. Where Kohli averages 68.54 per innings with a strike rate of 94.51, Tendulkar averaged 42.33 and a strike rate of 88.44. The high number of 28 not outs is one of the main reasons for Kohli’s enhanced average, but then it also reflects his ability to finish off chases.
When Kohli is eventually done with his playing days, we may be able to put their careers in perspective. Until then, let’s celebrate two of the world’s finest for what they are – entertainers, but also peerless match-winners.