Say it out loud but say it softly. Until recently it was a whisker short of sacrilege to suggest that there was a batsman in India who could legitimately challenge the great Sachin Tendulkar for the title of greatest ever.
Fans of a certain age will remember the time Tendulkar found his way into the Indian consciousness, bursting onto the scene in 1919 as a teenager. He might have been a stripling, but even by then the success of Tendulkar had been foretold. If there was ever a certainty in cricket, something that felt utterly inevitable, it was that the boy wonder would grow into bigger boots as an international cricketer and fulfil the promise that experts had seen in him from a young age.
Tendulkar began with every shot in the book, the freedom of youth and an attacking air that was a break from the norm in Indian cricket. At home, the Indian team was one that was not taken lightly but it was true that they were poor travellers, suffering especially heavily when they went to Australia or England.
At a time when India’s batsmen were living up to the tag of tigers at home and lambs (to the slaughter) overseas, here came a young man like a breath of fresh air. Short, small, curly haired and decidedly baby faced, Tendulkar stood up to all the snarling fast bowlers out there. And, what’s more, it was not as though he hung in there at the crease, battered and bruised, resisting. Rather, he took the attack to the opposition.
In Test cricket, Tendulkar made a name for himself early enough, but when he added success in 50-over cricket, he became a player you could not take your eyes off. And, with dominance, aggression and a pursuit for excellence fuelled by an insatiable hunger from runs, the records tumbled, not slowly, but very very surely.
By the time Tendulkar was done and dusted, he had not only the longest career (in terms of number of international matches played) but also the most illustrious one of any batsman. Sir Don Bradman, the legendary Australian, owns the one record that will almost certainly never be equalled — an average of 99.94, a number that every cricket fan learns before they throw a ball or hit one — but, that apart, it is Tendulkar whose name is at the top of every list that counts.
Most runs in Test cricket — 15921 in all — over 200 matches. Most runs in One-Day Internationals — 18426 from a staggering 463 appearances. Most centuries in each format, and a combined total of 100 put together, including the first to get to 200 in a 50-over international. These are numbers that most experts, historians and statisticians believed would never be bettered, when Tendulkar finally called it a day in an emotional Test at his home ground, the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, back in 2013.
But, as unbelievable as it sounds, there is a run machine on the prowl who seems hell bent on reminding the sporting world that what was once believed to be impossible one day becomes achievable, such has been the sheer will with which Virat Kohli has played his cricket. Like Tendulkar, Kohli was earmarked for big things as a youngster, something that was confirmed when he led India to victory in the Under-19 World Cup. But, Kohli did not so much barnstorm international cricket as slip into it.
There were enough flashes of brilliance early on, but the consistency and hunger that were Tendulkar’s calling card were conspicuous by their absence. It took a while before Kohli began to believe in himself wholeheartedly, and when that happened, what was once a dream became a pursuit. Kohli wanted to be the best batsman in the world, desperately so, and focussed on that to the exclusion of all else. A once playful and chubby teenager grew into a mature young man, one who pursued fitness and wellness with maniacal intensity, fine tuning his body into a weapon that was purpose built to score runs in international cricket.
At 31, Kohli already has numbers that put him well on track to challenge Tendulkar. Without the early start that Tendulkar enjoyed, Kohli may not end up with as many games under his belt. But, where he lags in appearances, Kohli leads in fitness and outright aggression. While he is certainly in the second half of his career, Kohli is at the very top of his game and there is no reason to believe he will not get better still.
Kohli has 27 Test centuries to go with 43 ODI three-figure scores, making that combined tally of 100 eminently beatable, even if he cannot keep up the frantic pace that he has set. Kohli averages nearly 54 in Tests and almost 60 in ODIs, and when you add to this 2021 Twenty20 International runs at an average of 50, you can see why Tendulkar loyalists are worried that their God’s records may be beaten yet.
The biggest names in the game believe Kohli has it in him to be the one to better Tendulkar’s numbers. “Kohli is a very good player. It doesn’t matter where I place him because a champion in one era would be a champion in any other era. What pleases me most is that he has been successful in all three formats by playing traditional cricket shots, like Viv Richards used to do,” says Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain who has spent an entire lifetime in cricket and is one of the most respected analysts in the game. “I don’t know that there are many with more will to succeed than Virat. He has a real desire. Something’s driving him that is beyond what most people are capable of. I think we still haven’t seen the best of him. I think maybe not better to come, but more of the good to come.”
Chappell concedes that Kohli ticks all the boxes when it comes to what is needed to be a modern legend. “He has probably exceeded what anyone would have expected. I think after (Sachin) Tendulkar, most people felt that’s the pinnacle but the sport has a funny way of always throwing somebody up who can exceed what the champions of the past have done. Kohli as well as having great physical talent has the mental capacity and the emotional capacity to deal with what it takes to be successful in that really harsh environment.”
But, don’t take Chappell’s word for it. If Tendulkar was considered blessed when he was compared to Bradman, with the Australian legend seeing a bit of himself in the diminutive Indian, Kohli has a similar parallel in Viv Richards. For the uninitiated, Richards was the most dominant batsman for all the years he played the game, punishing attacks in all parts of the world with a swagger that bordered on intimidating.
“I love watching Virat Kohli bat. He looks to me like an individual of my own heart. I love his aggression, and has serious passion that I used to have. He reminds me of myself,” says Richards, whose words are a stirring endorsement of Kohli’s ability to stamp his influence on a game. “He is an individual who doesn’t back off from confrontation; someone who can stand his ground under pressure. I love that as you can’t teach these instinctive aspect. There are times when folks would look at us and say, ‘Wow why are they so angry?’”
As for Kohli, he finds the comparisons with Tendulkar a touch difficult to take in. After all, Kohli grew up watching Tendulkar on television, worshipping the manner in which he batted. It was Kohli who famously hoisted Tendulkar onto his shoulders when India won the World Cup in 2011. “Sachin Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It was time we carried him,” said Kohli then.
To this day Kohli dismisses the suggestion that he will outdo his hero, although, he will know, in his heart, that there is no truer successor to that school of batting. “Honestly I feel embarrassed when someone compares me to Tendulkar,” says Kohli. “It is unfair and Sachin can’t be compared with anyone. Comparisons are not valid from my end. I have looked up to him but want to be myself and definitely draw inspiration from him. He is two levels above any player. Sachin was born with talent and I had to work for it.”
And work he has. All that is left is for Kohli to keep it up, and there will be no need for over the top praise or bashful acknowledgment. By the time Kohli is ready to give up the game, the numbers will do all the talking. Say it softly, but say it anyway, if anyone can go past Tendulkar’s insane batting numbers, it is Virat Kohli.