If scientists had somehow invented a perfect batting machine, they would have called it Virat Kohli.
When Kohli bats, he does it like a run machine, minimising human error, performing on every ground, against every opposition and in every condition; without succumbing to that scourge of every cricketer: pressure. He does it day in and night with regularity, consistency and efficacy. Such is his record and timing that even the best Swiss watches would be envious of Kohli.
The only time Kohli believes in being human, apart from the times when he is heartbroken or blowing kisses at the stands, is when he gets out, correction, when he is given out. Only when he walks back to the pavilion, kicking, screaming, shouting obscenities — mostly at himself — we get to know that inside the batting machine beats the heart of a petulant child who doesn't like to be separated from his bat.
Courage, the trait that separates the great from the ordinary, on a cricket ground comes in many forms. It is evident when a Sunil Gavaskar bats almost all his life without a helmet against the quickest bowlers in the game’s history. It reveals itself when a 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar bats on a green-top even after being hit on the head in his first Test series, when he returns from his father’s funeral to score a scintillating hundred in a World Cup game. It becomes legendary when a Sandeep Patil hits Lennie Pascoe, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Rodney Hogg all around the park just a few days after being felled by a bouncer of an Aussie pitch.
Kohli too has a story that shows he has nerves of steel, mind of concrete and, as some argue, a heart of gold. Not the usual muscle and bones of a regular man.
In December 2006, his team Delhi was playing a Ranji Trophy match Delhi against Karnataka. On the fourth day of the match, while Delhi were trying to save the match, Kohli was unbeaten on 40. The next morning, five hours before the game was to restart, Kohli's father passed away.
While many expected him to return home, Kohli quietly told his coach that he wants to bat. So, with rare determination and focus, the 18-year-old batted for more than two hours that day, scoring 90 runs, taking his team to safety.
He went back home only after being given out LBW — replays showed the ball had hit the bat— earning the praise of his own team and even that of the opposition.
But, courage alone doesn’t make a batsman great, though without it nobody can even dream of it. Consistency, class, stroke play, ability to win matches from impossible situations, snatching victories from the jaws of defeat and forcing the opposition to capitulate are the hallmarks of a great player.
In a cricket match, the biggest test of all these skills is the fourth innings of a Test match, or, in a limited overs game, when the team is chasing. Kohli's record while chasing or playing in the fourth innings is impeccable.
In the fourth innings of Test matches, Kohli’s average is close to 70, much higher than any other Indian cricketer. In ODIs, while chasing, he averages almost 65, at a strike rate of 90. In T20 games, his average is 83.6. Even Don Bradman would have been proud of it.
Notice that, unlike many other Indian greats, Kohli’s average in the fourth innings or while chasing, is much higher than his career average. It is a sign of his mental toughness, refusal to wilt under pressure and the ability to outperform himself when the stakes are high and the challenge is insurmountable. Man or Machine?
As this article in ESPNcricinfo points out, Kohli’s record while chasing had surpassed that of many legends of the game way back in 2013. “So far in his career, Kohli has scored 65% of his ODI runs in chases; the corresponding percentage for Sachin Tendulkar is 47%, for MS Dhoni it’s 44%, for Viv Richards 45% and for Brian Lara it is 52%. Only 17 of Tendulkar’s 49 ODI hundreds came when batting second; for Kohli the ratio is 10 out of 16.”
This, then brings us to the debate former India captain Kapil Dev has started by arguing Kohli is the greatest cricketer ever. The Indian all-rounder argues that by the time he retires, Kohli would have eclipsed legends like Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting.
Is he really the greatest after Don Bradman?
Records certainly indicate that Kohli is far ahead of the other legends of the game. But, are records everything?
Does Kohli inspire the same fear when he walks out to bat as Richards did at his prime? Kohli has the same swagger and arrogance, but does he walk out to bat like a smiling tiger out to devour sheep in flannels? On his day, Richards could be both god and devil incarnate, destroying oppositions, performing miracles with the bat. Is Kohli already there? Ok, here is a simple test: Do you think a bowler today would fear Chris Gayle more than Kohli? If the answer is no, Kohli has a long way to go before he competes with the other Caribbean greats like Lara and Richards.
Does Kohli make batting look a child's play as Lara and Tendulkar did at their prime? Can he match the elegance of Lara’s cuts and cover drives or match Tendulkar’s straight drives? Will you go all the way to a Test match to just watch Kohli bat when either of Lara or Tendulkar is batting on an adjacent ground?
In my opinion, to be called an all-time great, Kohli has to pass a few more tests. To begin with, he has to put his stamp on a world event, change its course by the sheer dint of his heroics, like Lance Klusener did in 1999 and Richards did during the 70s. In fact, Kohli is yet to play an innings that remains in the mind for ever, like Kapil Dev’s 175 in 1983 and Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s historic, leading-from-the-front innings in the 2011 final.
Maybe Kohli will get there soon. But till then, to rephrase the famous Iqbal couplet, is greatness ke imtihaan aur bhi hain!
It is futile to compare Kohli with the game’s great players. Cricket has evolved a lot since the days when Sunil Gavaskar used to walk out bare-headed to face the likes of Lillee, Malcolm Marshall, Thomson and Joel Garner on uncovered pitches.
With the advent of T20, heavier bats, batting pitches and declining prowess of bowlers, cricket has changed dramatically. They still call it cricket, but it is a different game now. Kohli is certainly the greatest batsmen of his generation of cricketers.
There is a famous song in Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari, where the lyricist, Gopal Das Neeraj, defines love. He writes, shokhiyon mein ghola jaye thora sa shabab, us mein phir milaye jaye thori si sharab, hoga phir nasha jo taiyyar, woh pyaar hai.
So, instead of calling him better than Richards, Tendulkar, Ponting and Lara, let us be content with this thought: In him we see a glimpse of each of these greats. He is Richard’s arrogance, Lara’s grace, Sachin’s consistency and Ponting’s bravado. Mix them all, hoga phir bastman jo taiyyar, woh Kohli hai.
Like a perfect machine, Kohli is made from the best of each one of them.