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