Is Virat Kohli already better than Sachin Tendulkar?

It’s hard to remember a phase in his career when Sachin Tendulkar looked as much in control as Virat Kohli does today—he’s making form look permanent


Kohli (left) will always be measured against Tendulkar. Photo: T.Narayan/Hindustan Times.
Kohli (left) will always be measured against Tendulkar. Photo: T.Narayan/Hindustan Times.

In an interview last year, Virat Kohli had insisted he found comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar “embarrassing”.

Assuming he still feels that way, the Indian captain might as well get used to the idea of spending the next decade or so with flushed cheeks.

For those who missed it, India beat England by three wickets on Sunday despite conceding 351 runs and then losing their first four wickets with just 63 on the board. Taking centre stage, obviously, was Kohli, whose 122 took India out of the woods. In the process, the 28-year-old broke Tendulkar’s record for the most number of centuries in successful run chases (this was his 15th, going past Tendulkar’s 14). He also equalled Tendulkar’s record of 17 centuries while batting second—Tendulkar got those 17 tons in 232 innings, Kohli in just 96.

Comparisons across eras are unfair; they’re also a lot of fun.

First, a look at the objective statistics—just the One Day International (ODI) numbers, and some extrapolation based on Kohli’s age and the stage of his career.

After 177 matches, Tendulkar had scored 5,211 runs. After 177 matches, Kohli has 7,692. Tendulkar had scored 12 centuries. Kohli, 27. At this stage in his ODI career, Kohli already seems streets ahead of the man who we thought would be Bradmanesquely untouchable in this format.

Tendulkar’s greatest statistics, however, have been built on the back of his longevity.

He scored 18,426 runs in a career spanning 463 matches spread over 23 years. Kohli is midway through his ninth year in international cricket, and fit as he is, it’s unlikely he’ll be around for another 14. It’s safe to assume, however, that he might go on till his late 30s, which gives him another 10-12 years to score 23 more centuries and 10,735 more runs to cross Tendulkar’s tally.

He currently scores a century every seven innings, and even if that average drops to more human levels, it’s hard to imagine him not ending up as the holder of that record.

The number of runs are a different matter altogether.

Scoring over 1,000 runs a year for the rest of his career would require crazy consistency, but with the kind of form he’s been in over the last 12 months—he’s averaging over 90 in One Dayers—and with the contest between bat-and-ball becoming increasingly lopsided, that’s not a record that’s completely out of reach either.

To reduce Tendulkar’s career to just numbers, however, is unfair (even if arguments based on subjectivity end up sounding like the desperate attempts of a middle-aged sports-writer to defend the Great Indian Hero’s legacy—trust me, the last thing Tendulkar needs is anyone defending his legacy).

For the first half of his career, Tendulkar was dragging an underperforming team along—the Sachin-out-TV-off era—whereas Kohli has spent almost all his nine years in a team that has dominated the ODI landscape.

There are other immeasurable factors such as the flatness of tracks, the toothlessness of bowling attacks and, most pertinently, the impact Twenty20 cricket has had on batsmanship across formats. When Tendulkar made his debut, 250 was a winning score. On Sunday, 350 looked like it was at least 35 runs short.

Despite all this, it’s hard to remember a phase in his career when Tendulkar looked as much in control as Kohli does today—he’s making form look permanent. Virender Sehwag had once spoken about batsmen finding themselves “in the zone”—a mental space where they could do no wrong.

Kohli isn’t just in the zone, he’s bought the zone, built a house there, moved in and regularly throws parties there. It doesn’t look like he’s moving out in a hurry.

Sorry skipper, but the comparisons with Tendulkar are just about to go into overdrive. And to be fair, you have brought this upon yourself.

Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.

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