Home >Mint-lounge >Business-of-life >Virat Kohli and AB De Villiers: T20’s greatest pair

Sport is at its best when it is an even contest with a thrilling finish—two teams or two athletes that are well matched, fighting it out until the final seconds. But there is also an almost perverse pleasure in watching a truly lopsided contest: a football team losing 10-0, a 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 victory in tennis, a first-round knockout in a heavyweight title bout, or one cricket team scoring so many runs in a Twenty20 (T20) game that you start to lose count.

The last of those scenarios was played out during a group game between the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and Gujarat Lions in this season’s Indian Premier League (IPL). RCB won the game by a margin of 144 runs, a number that most teams hope to score as their total in 20 overs. And this was no mismatch on paper. The Gujarat Lions finished in the top half of the IPL table this season and very much deserved to be in that position—they almost made it to the final. Still, Virat Kohli and A.B. de Villiers obliterated their bowling on their way to the highest T20 partnership of all time—229 runs.

That new record is impressive enough, but it is all the more amazing when you consider that it beat the record the same batsmen had set a year earlier when they put together a stand of 215 against the Mumbai Indians.

We have got to the point that Kohli’s form and the shots de Villiers is capable of playing have taken cricket to an entirely new level. In 2016, they have accelerated far ahead of the chasing pack. RCB finished nine runs short of winning the final, but in T20 cricket there has never been a partnership quite like the one forged by the two most destructive batsmen of their generation. Imagine a team where Brian Lara opens the batting with Sachin Tendulkar.

Kohli has left that thinking far behind. He has scored at an average that would be great even by Test standards, and at a strike rate that’s as good as any in T20. Since the beginning of the year, he has played 28 innings in T20 cricket and made an incredible 1,598 runs. He has done this with an average of 94 and a strike rate of 145. These are not numbers that are easy to comprehend. Even when you compare him to the best batsmen in the format—Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum, Aaron Finch, David Warner—Kohli is an outlier. Already, Kohli is only 67 runs short of the all-time record for the most number of T20 runs (1,665) in a calendar year, which was set by Chris Gayle last year. There is little doubt that he will cross it by a mile.

This IPL season alone, Kohli scored an incredible 973 runs in just 16 games, breaking Warner’s 2015 record of 848 runs in 17 matches. He set his record at a strike rate of 152 and an average of 81.08, and hit four centuries in the process. The season is no fluke—Kohli is now also the highest run-scorer in the history of the IPL, with 4,110 runs.

Now add de Villiers to the mix. The South African did not make a mountain of runs, but he came close: 687 runs at a ridiculous strike rate of 168.79.

No wonder that the massive 229-run partnership put up by the pair against Gujarat Lions is only the second instance in the history of T20 cricket of two batsmen scoring centuries in a single innings.

De Villiers’ biggest strength is his ability to strike the ball from the moment his innings gets under way. He has an uncanny knack of arriving at the crease and finding a way of firing immediately. For Kohli, the biggest asset is his skill at accelerating after setting a solid base. In the record partnership against Gujarat, Kohli reached his half century in 39 balls. He got to his ton 13 balls later. He made 30 runs from one Shivil Kaushik over. Together, they are the perfect double act.

A lot is made of how big bats and short boundaries have made an impact on cricket as a sport, but the real difference is that players practise hitting the ball out of the ground. Techniques have been borrowed from baseball so that batsmen can more consistently clear the boundary, and “range hitting", which involves netting in the middle of the ground and trying to clear the ropes, helps players get used to the idea of hitting the long ball.

That is not to say that every player can do what de Villiers and Kohli did. There are those who worry that the exhibition of ball striking that saw these two men make 229 runs in 16 overs will ruin the sport as a spectacle, that the balance between the bat and ball has been lost. This misses the point.

Not every batsman is making 1,598 runs in 28 innings. Not every player is putting on 200-run partnerships. Kohli is in freakishly good form. De Villiers is almost as good. If this were a superhero movie, these men would be from Krypton, and the other players, mere humans.

The ball is being hit further than ever before, but the sport has not stopped being great to watch. In fact, the converse is true. More people are tuning in to see cricket superstars hit the ball harder and further. Cricket is uniquely placed to cover all bases with its three formats; there is something for everyone and the sport needs to embrace that.

And you’ve got to embrace a tournament that can bring Kohli and de Villiers together as a team.

Peter Miller is a UK-based cricket writer and blogger. He tweets at @TheCricketGeek.

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