November 3, 2013

The king and his heir

As Tendulkar prepares to walk into the sunset, Virat Kohli is set to become the Indian batsman opposition bowlers fear the most

With Sachin Tendulkar on the verge of retirement, Australian bowlers, past and present, must be sighing with relief that the torment is nearly over.

Those expressions of relief are a bit premature. Virat Kohli's two recent centuries, plundered in winning Indian causes, were eerily similar and a stark reminder of Tendulkar's feat against Australia in Sharjah in 1997-98. Considering the circumstances - Tendulkar's first hundred in Sharjah was scored in a game India had to perform exceptionally well in to advance to the final, while the second came in the final to pull off an extraordinary win - they were the two best ODI innings I saw Tendulkar play.

He tore into an Australian attack that included Shane Warne, and in both innings Tendulkar scored at better than a run a ball in an era when that wasn't an everyday occurrence. In the first of those two brilliant knocks, India had a certain figure to reach in order to ensure an appearance in the final even if they eventually lost the match to Australia. Not satisfied with just guiding his side into the final, Tendulkar's competitive instincts had been aroused and he was in hot pursuit of victory when he was dismissed.

That's where Kohli went one better than Tendulkar. Both his imperious centuries ended in unlikely Indian victories. That's not to say Kohli is a better player than Tendulkar, but he has acquired the knack of being at the crease when the winning runs are hit in extraordinarily difficult chases.

He also did it at Bellerive in a chase against Sri Lanka that was similar to Tendulkar's first century against Australia in Sharjah. This time India needed to win inside 40 overs to retain any hope of a spot in the CB Series finals. Kohli achieved this aim comfortably with a scintillating unbeaten century.

So many times did Tendulkar shred Australian attacks that it's difficult to choose the best of those Test innings, but two in his early days were crucial to his legend.

First, there was his hundred at the SCG in 1991-92, which set in motion a love affair with the ground. That was bettered two Tests later by a remarkable century on the bouncy WACA pitch. A short man of just 18 years, coming from a country renowned for low-bouncing pitches to a ground unique for steep lift off a length, had no trouble taming a rampant Australian pace attack.

Tendulkar, calm and calculating, is reserved more by circumstance than nature. Kohli, on the other hand, is an extrovert who wears his heart on his sleeve

Tendulkar was already a star, but this remarkable performance ensured the world would understand that this was a batsman out of the box.

To continue the Tendulkar-Kohli similarities, it was an innings in Perth by the younger batsman that enhanced his self-belief at Test level. Kohli didn't make a hundred at the WACA, but his confidence-building 75 in the second innings was a shining jewel in the rubble of India's performance; this he followed up with a century in his next Test innings.

Like so many overseas batsmen before him, a century in Australia was the achievement that convinced Kohli he had arrived as a Test player. Since then he hasn't looked back, and he's now set to take over not only Tendulkar's coveted No. 4 spot but also his mantle as the Indian player opponents most want out.

Despite those similarities, there's much that's different. Kohli started his career at a much more advanced age than the child prodigy and they are totally dissimilar in temperament. Tendulkar, calm and calculating, is reserved more by circumstance than nature. Kohli, on the other hand, is an extrovert who wears his heart on his sleeve, and you wonder if that won't hurt him when he endures a rough trot. The Indian fan's obsession with "star culture" can be a two-edged sword.

For the moment, Kohli's passion fuels his play, and in his more flamboyant innings it appears that there's nothing he can't achieve. As a likely future Indian captain, he may have to rein in outwardly emotional displays. In the meantime, his batting is there to be savoured and enjoyed - that is, if you are not an Australian bowler. Long remember the king for he's (nearly) gone; hail the prince, because he's still around to torment bowlers.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist

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