There is a story that goes around from the early days of Virat Kohli as a professional cricketer. He was with the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) franchise in the IPL. During one of the earlier seasons, Ray Jennings, who was the coach allegedly sat the young lad down and indicated the potential for greatness he had seen him but instructed him that he will have to change his lifestyle, work ethic and focus his energies in the right direction if he were to realise the abilities he had been blessed with.
Kohli, in the following years, changed his diet, workout regimen, became one of the fittest players in the world and has been on a run-scoring spree in all formats of the game. He has become a run machine which is accurately indicated in his position at the top of the ICC batting rankings in both Tests and ODIs.
But this column is about Rohit Sharma. This isn’t to compare the two and determine who is better; that’s a fool’s errand. It is just a device to put into perspective the white-ball-white-hot form that Rohit Sharma has been in, not just at the 2019 Cricket World Cup but for the past two years.
Sharma’s physical shape is far from the sculpture that is Kohli’s — he has always maintained a look that he never really got rid of his baby fat — but with the willow in hand, both of them have an insatiable appetite for runs. Kohli’s game is built on a more conservative approach that eschews risks, flows at a steady rate feeding on quick singles and twos, textbook drives and wristy flicks along the carpet. Sharma, on the other hand, usually takes his time to set up his stall and explodes with a dazzling concoction of contemptuous pulls and silky drives.
In India’s final league game against Sri Lanka at Headingley, chasing 265 runs, Sharma etched his name in the record books by scoring his fifth century of the tournament, breaking a tie with Kumar Sangakkara who had notched four in the 2015 edition. That is, just so we are all clear, count it, one, two, three, four, five centuries in eight innings for Sharma. His tally of World Cup tons stands at six, which by the way, ties the touchstone of all things ODI batting, Sachin Tendulkar. Only that Sharma’s six came in just 14 innings while the Little Master’s were collected in 44 innings across six World Cups.
In the lead up to this tournament, it was evident that the majority (52 percent to be precise) of India’s scoring came from their top three batsmen — Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, and Kohli. Despite the record numbers the openers have put together, Kohli was the straw that stirred the drink. Opposition teams looked at India’s captain as the key to thwarting India’s hopes at the World Cup, and not without reason.
Since the end of the 2017 Champions Trophy, Kohli has rattled off 3449 runs at an average of 80.20 and 14 centuries while Sharma has kept pace with 3435 runs of his own at 67.35 and 17 triple-figure scores. It is futile, really, to try to figure out which one has been better in the last two years.
Sharma, however, as he does once he goes past a landmark in some of his innings, has floored the gas pedal in the last 365 calendar days. He has amassed 2063 runs at an average of 73.67 and ten (10!) hundreds. The great Kohli has only 1697 runs at 70 and just six centuries. In fact, as per statistician Rajneesh Gupta, no man has ever notched up 10 centuries in any span of 365 days in ODI history!
When Dhawan was lost to a fractured finger two matches in, Sharma had to shoulder further responsibility of coaxing the most out of the ever-self-hypercritical-and-psychoanalysing KL Rahul so that India get a good start and also ensuring he gets himself going to set the table for Kohli and the crew. Speaking to one of the broadcasters after he got himself a maiden World Cup ton, Rahul extolled the virtues of his senior batting partner. “The way (Sharma) has been able to change his gears, the way he has been able to manoeuvre and hit gaps is just outstanding... It just takes the pressure off me.” Now frame this shepherding job by Sharma since that Australia match when Dhawan was injured in the context; he has four centuries in six innings with a new opening partner with whom he has now had back-to-back 150-plus run partnerships in a World Cup, and you guessed it, no set of openers have accomplished that in 12 World Cups.
During the many times Sharma was asked about the records that are falling by the wayside, the jovial but thoughtful Mumbai batsman responded as a matter of fact, “I'm not here for records, I'm here to play cricket. I'm here to score runs and lift the Cup.” Scoring runs, he sure has been, like it is child’s play. He is the leading run-getter as the tournament heads to the knockout stage (647 runs) and is on course, if his form should hold for another week, to surpass Matthew Hayden’s tally from 2007 (659 runs) and (once again) the 673 runs of Mr Touchstone himself from 2003.
Kohli averages a century roughly every 6 innings and he is yet to register one in this tournament. It will be a sight to behold when he turns it on (law of averages, stupid!), and he has his vice-captain and the No 2 batsman in the ICC ODI rankings for company. In the meantime, the Sharmageddon has been so thoroughly dominant, Kohli turned in to a fanboy as he interviewed the “Man of the moment”, “Man of the tournament” for bcci.tv. The joy and admiration in Kohli’s eyes for Sharma’s successes were unmistakable. Even the King is happy to play second fiddle sometimes.
When Kohli queried about his motivation in this World Cup, Sharma, as precisely as he deposits a front foot pull to the boundary, responded, “Yes, it’s a World Cup but as even you have said it in the past, it’s a game of cricket and you have to play well to win a game of cricket, and that’s what I try.”
Try he — the most destructive ODI batsman in the world currently — most certainly will. And we will all be watching his unprecedented run of runs.