March 22, 2016

Where Kohli is better than Tendulkar

In limited-overs cricket, Kohli always gives you the feeling that he can fix any situation, unlike Tendulkar - though the latter was a superior batsman
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'No obvious weakness in Kohli's batting'

I have, of late, but wherefore I know not, been writing a few pieces for ESPNcricinfo. So I am, I suppose, becoming in some very small way a bit of a cricket writer. But I have a long way to go before I can call myself a member of the club. There are trials to endure, secret handshakes to learn, miles to go before I can lunch with Dobell and Kimber, speak lightly of Gideon and Harsha, before I can - oh, be still, my beating heart! - DM Derek Pringle.

Above all, there is one test, and it isn't for the faint-hearted.

If you ever want to spook a press box, ask if anyone in it has ever written a piece not completely adoring of Sachin Tendulkar. Faces turn suddenly pale, knuckles whiten with the strain. Grown men flinch, call hurriedly for double whiskies, down them as glasses shake in trembling hands.

Silence falls. There are thousand-yard stares, twitching lips. They are remembering. And what they remember is clearly something they would much rather forget…

But faint heart never won the prize, and I would really like to DM Derek Pringle. So, here goes.

Tendulkar, eh? Good player, definitely. Very good, even. One of the best ever, no question. Absolutely. Lovely chap too, by all accounts.

But, well, umm, here's just a small observation, okay?

Virat Kohli - and here I speak only of limited-overs cricket, you understand - gives you something Tendulkar never did. When Kohli bats in limited-overs cricket, he whispers into my ear: I've got this. Whatever the situation, whatever my form, however hot the opposition are: I've got this.

Often he doesn't have it. He fails, or others fail around him, and the game is lost. That's just the nature of cricket, of batting in particular, because failure is the condition of batting. But the aura is consistent.

Tendulkar evolved from a batsman who imposed his will on the game at the start of his career to a more reactive one © Getty Images

Tendulkar, at least to this observer, never gave off that particular vibe. He gave off many others, and is responsible for many of the best cricket-watching experiences of my life. But he never, to my eyes, gave off that almost chilling aura of stone-cold certainty. That, I think, is the crucial difference. Tendulkar gave you hope. As long as he was there, the match wasn't done. But Kohli gives you certainty. When he comes in, the match is done.

There are others with that Kohli-esque aura; Michael Bevan and MS Dhoni spring immediately to mind. But Bevan and Dhoni played the role of finisher, where it's much easier to be Mr Wolf. Not because the task is easy, but because the opportunity is frequent. That's why I want to compare Tendulkar with Kohli; why I think Kohli is remarkable. It's a lot harder for someone in the top three to make you think: he's going to fix this.

The question is, why? I mean, Tendulkar was objectively, and by some distance, a better batsman than Kohli. Heck, he probably still is. So it's not to do with quality, which would have been the obvious explanation. What then?

I think one part of the explanation is that Tendulkar and Kohli are different kinds of batsmen. Tendulkar, in fact, was himself different kinds of batsmen over his career, but none of those kinds was conducive to certainty.

In the first part of his career - it saddens me that some people forget this part and only remember the second or third part - he was basically a trouble starter, a punkin' instigator, an extremely twisted firestarter. His one-day career really began in Auckland in 1994, and though obviously he played different kinds of innings, that was the template. He was a tightrope artist. His genius meant he often made it to the other side - but the nature of his genius also meant that you were never sure whether he would or not (this World Cup game, for instance, illustrates both the genius and the tightrope).

Part of the reason why Kohli can play with the freedom he does is because of the batting legacy Tendulkar has left behind © AFP

As must happen with all adolescent phases, Tendulkar gradually grew out of the punk. He got a steady job, ascended the company ladder at a dizzying rate, settled into a comfortable middle age. Not for him any longer the mad incandescence of youth. He was no worse, on some scales even better, but he was different. He became a kind of cricket supercomputer, processing match situations, conditions, his own form, and doing what he thought all those factors together demanded. He became, in a word, a reactive cricketer.

He was a supremely successful one. But what this meant is that he was no longer imposing his will on the game (to repeat, I'm generalising, and there are naturally exceptions). He was letting the game determine his will. Which is an intelligent thing to do, but it means that you are also in some sense at the game's mercy, its servant and not its master.

Kohli is never a game's servant. He too is a supreme calculator, but the calculations are subtly and crucially different. They are not: what does this situation demand, but rather: how do I change the situation to suit my demands?

Part of this is down to temperament and personality, no doubt, but part is also down to technique and to a changing understanding of batsmanship. Kohli had the good fortune to be developing as T20 grew, and he has benefited from the pressure of having to learn to score quicker while retaining control. Indeed, he attributes his recent consistency in T20 cricket to his decision to stop worrying about hitting sixes, to be content with fours, because they are more natural to him, because they give him better control. He's just - and this is heresy, I know - more able to ruthlessly control a match, simply because he understands batting and risk differently, because batting and risk are for Kohli not what they were for Tendulkar.

A second part of the explanation has nothing to do with either Tendulkar or Kohli, but has to do with me, with us.

Basically the Indian fan has stopped expecting the worst. I'm probably the last generation that still does - in the 2011 final, after Tendulkar got out, I couldn't watch for an hour, so convinced was I that it was game over. But even I'm changing, and fans younger than me never had to change, they seem to expect success and consider it their entitlement. This expectation is, I think, a necessary condition for the aura Kohli gives off. He both reflects and sustains that expectation, is simultaneously cause and effect of a growing confidence (that sometimes spills over into ugly arrogance).

And at least on the cricket field, no one has contributed more to creating that confidence than Tendulkar. So while Kohli has in a certain sense gone beyond him, he has only done so because of him. If he sees so far, it's because he's standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Pranay Sanklecha is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Graz. @PranaySanklecha

Comments have now been closed for this article

  •   Thayyil Sai on March 29, 2016, 9:53 GMT

    I would say whoever compared Kohli to Sachin is the top fools in this world. Players of 2nd Generation like Sachin, Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman & Sewag have a ability to play any kind of pitches and faced top class bowlers. None of the test playing countries have a single top class bowlers for last 5 years. Once Kohli remember these names he cant play cricket for next 10 years which Tendulkar faced the heat of pace battery & art of spin Walsh, Ambrose, Malcom Marshal, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Yunis, Mcdormott, Whitney, Merv Hughes, Mcgrath, Shane Warne, Muralidharan, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollack, Dale Styn, Shane Bond, Daniel Vettori, Ian Botham, Heath Streak, Anderson, Chaminda Vaas, Brett Lee, Kallis, Abdul Quadir, Saqlain Mushtaq, Flintoff, Chriss Hariss, Chriss Crains etc etc

    My request please dont put rubbish comments. I agree Kohli is a best player not top class. Sun is only one. Starts can be many.

  • needgreenpitches4bowlingallrounders on March 28, 2016, 17:50 GMT

    Now even if there is another big player these fans of old generation greats won't agree on numbers? or quality of bowlers? or bat improvements? and many more non mathematical equations ? These arguments holds some sense but comparing between two generation sports players is always there in sports. Why does cricket want to shy from this and audience not being open.Still players yarn for GOAT in tennis after years not achieving Calendar Grand Slam. Fun intended but when sports stars are compared to previous years greats its not diminishing there predecessors but trying to stake hold of something above current generation. Kohli has arrived and we will have few more in this great sport of cricket.

  • needgreenpitches4bowlingallrounders on March 28, 2016, 17:49 GMT

    Later on he was compared to Ponting. All the while Sachin had almost covered 2 plus generation of players. Argument stating that Virat needs to play few more years for this comparison to being at holds true in this regard. But young Virat has at least by comparison of current numbers has more than owned most of the numbers. Audience and fans here should be more than willing to accept the fact that once someone is retired all he will be left with will be numbers for statisticians to play with. There is no doubt memories of tussles will stay in minds of fans but it all ends up in numbers game. Virat definitely owns them as of now. But will there be another Sachin ? will there be another Virat? Cos of T20 and leagues number of Tests have drastically gone down.Also Sachin by his own years of cricket was not able to match test matches to someone who has played 3/4th(especially from England and Australia) of his years of international cricket cos BCCI was more involved in ODI's.

  • needgreenpitches4bowlingallrounders on March 28, 2016, 17:49 GMT

    Sachin no doubt would be remembered by fans all around the world. And for some reason the same fans where not willing to compare him with Bradman stating he is from different Era. This doesn't mean writers and journalists can't do that based on various inputs and parameters. Its like people trying to compare martina navratilova to serena williams. I think this holds true to have comparision between Virat and Sachin . Cos the same audience might have watched these two giants playing out in front of there eyes. Very few have previlige to watch both Bradman and Sachin play. Coming to essence of this article. I think neither of them are truely on top of everyone else. Numbers should be considered only when there numbers are better than second best from there generation by a margin. Since Sachin's longevity is too long to compare initially he was more compared to Lara, Inzi and Mark waugh.cntd..

  •   Sumit Silwal on March 28, 2016, 13:33 GMT

    Kohli no doubt is the best player for india at present. But u need to assess the opportunities that he has got in terms of the IPL the shorter formats being dominating the cricket scene and all that. Though I love him but I can never accept him in a debate even close to SACHIN.....let him perform well in 3 consecutive world cups and we can talk.

  • SupportTestCricket on March 28, 2016, 6:39 GMT

    I am commenting now after that superlative effort from Kohli yesterday. I have a simple question for the blind followers of Sachin Tendulkar. In the same scenario, would he have taken India over the line? I guess not. Although I have been big fan of Tendulkar's batting, I am a realist also. As far as chasing a total goes, Kohli is incomparable and even Tendulkar may not match up here. The rest, even Kohli agrees that Tendulkar is his idol and he does not miss a chance to praise his idol.

  • needgreenpitches4bowlingallrounders on March 28, 2016, 2:34 GMT

    This article is too much indian curry spicy not to comment. When I was growing up with my budies and had frequent discrepancy on who was best in that era all my friends suggested Sachin and rightfully followed by lara. Now funny it might be we didn't want to comp

  • truebleue_cricfan on March 27, 2016, 12:48 GMT

    Agree with the author. Tendulkar just became a run accumulator during the latter part of his career. His strengths were the straight drive and a decent ability to rotate strike. Which bowler overpitched to him anyway? They knew many other ways to tie him down. Any average batsman coming in at the top of the order could have got the runs in the manner he did. Great player during the first 10-12 years of his career. Just average after that.

  •   Ratnam Naidu on March 27, 2016, 12:17 GMT

    It's not good to compare players who started career in 1990s with players who started career in T20 era... Before posting any article, Kindly check whether it makes sense or not... One cannot compare legends, such as Sachin Tendulkar, Bradman and Brain Lara with current T20 players...

  • baskar_guha on March 27, 2016, 12:03 GMT

    Sachin's game was that of a great artist while Kohli's is that of a great craftsman. Sachin's artistry was evident even in his many brief innings. Kohli's craftmanship is in his remarkable ability to consistently deliver results.