Virat Kohli in a league of his own
Virat Kohli takes a giant stride towards cricketing immortality every time he goes out to bat these days, especially in One Day Internationals (ODIs). He scores runs and centuries prolifically, and with a mastery that marks him out as extraordinary.
The recent ODI series against New Zealand highlights this amply. Two centuries in three matches made Kohli the highest scorer on either side. These helped him regain the International Cricket Council No.1 ranking for batsmen in ODIs and also enhanced his run tally in 2017 to 1,460—the highest by any captain ever in one year.
I’m not done yet with data related to Kohli’s ODI records. These have come in a deluge from statisticians in the course of the series and are quite staggering. But for the moment, I would like to focus on the impact Kohli’s batting had against New Zealand.
Most crucially, his two centuries helped India win the series—on Sunday—after the first match had been lost. The main purpose of scoring runs (or taking wickets) can’t be restricted to gratification from statistics: If these don’t help the team win, their value is diminished.
Kohli’s back-to-back centuries spoilt New Zealand’s party. India appeared to have lost winning momentum at the Wankhede Stadium on 22 October, when they were outsmarted and upstaged by the opponents. But recovery came quickly, largely through Kohli’s determination to win.
True, others too made important contributions in the remaining matches, but the captain was in the vanguard in reversing the early trend and ensuring that India consolidated their position as the world’s No.1 ODI team.
The ICC ranking matters a great deal to Kohli, whatever the bugs in the calculation process. It gives the team—and him—a locus he obviously covets. His stated ambition is to be part (preferably in charge) of the best team in the world, and he spares no effort in ensuring this.
The hallmark of great players is not merely intrinsic ability, but the capacity to raise their game a notch or several when most required. They thrive under duress, the pressure of the situation stoking their resolve to excel even further.
Both his centuries this series were sterling efforts, particularly the one in the last match in Kanpur. Though Kohli was outscored by Rohit Sharma, batting at his brilliant best, the fact that he was willing to play second fiddle was equally pertinent to the outcome.
He had to temper his natural aggression once he saw the fluent groove Sharma had settled into so easily.
Two top-notch players in full flight can produce thrilling fare but could hurt the team’s prospects if the partnership is not managed well.
Kohli was magnificent in the circumstances. He didn’t try to live up to his status as the game’s most celebrated current batsman; rather, it was his growing maturity as a batsman and sense of responsibility as captain that shone through.
The Kohli brand of cricket has been marked by in-your-face aggression. He loves a scrap, and wants to be the dominant force in the middle at all times. Sometimes this has riled critics as much as opponents, but it has also paid him rich dividends.
Now that it appears he is willing to lace his natural instincts with astuteness, it will make Kohli even more formidable. The ability to shift gears comes from a sharper understanding of rival bowlers and match situations, and he can only become a better player.
How much better is the question that is now being asked in cricket circles. A second bout of data crunching helps put Kohli’s calibre in perspective.
His ODI-career run aggregate has gone past 9,000 in just 202 matches, the number of centuries has swelled to an astonishing 32, the average is 55.74 and the strike rate is 91.73. These statistics find few parallels.
Yet, statistics alone don’t necessarily establish the greatness of a player. Vivian Richards had only 11 centuries in ODIs and averaged 47; Sachin Tendulkar made 49 centuries and averaged 44.83. Both are way below Kohli on these parameters, but a large body of opinion veers towards one or the other as the greatest ODI batsman.
There are others too who would find favour with critics and fans of different countries and age groups: Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis, Brian Lara, Javed Miandad Michael Bevan and Kumar Sangakarra from the past and A.B. de Villiers, Hashim Amla, M.S. Dhoni and Rohit Sharma among Kohli’s contemporaries, to name a few.
Sweeping comparisons between players of different eras (or even the same) make for an interesting debate but can never be conclusive. The quality of opponents, the circumstances in which runs were scored, and the impact this had on the team’s fortunes are not easily evident from statistics.
What is relevant in Kohli’s case is that he is undeniably already in the league of extraordinary ODI batsmen. And he is not even halfway through his career!
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.