Virat Kohli scored his 30th ODI hundred in his 194th ODI (186th innings), against Sri Lanka, recently. This put him joint second with Ricky Ponting on the all-time list of ODI centurions. Sachin Tendulkar is first, with 49 hundreds.
The frequency with which Kohli scores ODI hundreds is unsurpassed in the history of ODI game. However, when comparing Kohli in an all-time list, it is worth placing the comparison in context. Especially in ODI cricket, where the balance of power between bat and ball has shifted in favour of the batting as the format as matured.
Are Kohli's numbers exceptional? To answer this, first let us compare Kohli to four other players - Viv Richards, Tendulkar, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers. Amla and de Villiers can be considered Kohli's contemporaries. Richards and Tendulkar have been chosen because they were the pre-eminent ODI players of their respective eras.
As a first step, consider each player's performance against that of batsmen in the top seven in matches they have played in. Kohli's century frequency is extraordinary, but Amla matches him. Further, matches Amla has played in have been marginally more difficult for century-scoring than matches Kohli has played in. One reason for this could be that the average ODI wicket in South Africa is not as flat as the average ODI wicket in India. (It is worth keeping in mind that in recent years ODI wickets across the world have tended to be flat.)
The most telling figures in the chart above are those produced by Richards, who scored a century once every 15 innings. In these games, other players made centuries once every 55 innings. Richards scored at 90 runs per hundred balls where other top-order players managed 62.5 runs per hundred balls.
Tendulkar's record of a century every 9.2 innings needs to be asterisked. He famously moved to the top of the batting order in 1994 and made no secret of his preference for the spot in subsequent years. As an opener, he made 45 hundreds in 340 innings, or a century every 7.5 innings. In these matches, other openers made a century every 15.8 innings. Other players batting in the top seven in these matches scored a century every 26.9 innings.
Kohli has scored hundreds 3.2 times more frequently than other players in the top seven in the matches he has played. The corresponding figure for Richards is 3.6. For Amla and de Villiers the figures are 3.75 and 2.6. For Tendulkar overall, it is 3.2; for Tendulkar the opener, it is 3.6.
This comparison can be expanded to consider all ODI cricket in a player's era (the period from his ODI debut to his ODI retirement, where applicable). A century was scored once every 19.9 innings by players other than Kohli in the top seven in matches Kohli played. But since Kohli's ODI debut on August 18, 2008, players in the top seven overall have scored hundreds at the rate of one every 23.5 innings. This tells us that matches involving India during this period have been slightly easier arenas in which to score ODI centuries compared to the average ODI in this period. By comparison, ODI hundreds have been scored equally easily in matches involving Amla and during the Amla era more generally.
Richards' record in both tables suggests that matches not involving West Indies were marginally easier arenas for the production of ODI hundreds during the Richards era. This is readily explained by the overwhelming firepower of the West Indian bowling attack. West Indies conceded only 11 centuries in 1415 innings to opposing players batting in the top seven during the Richards era. Two contrasting openers - Geoff Marsh and Krishnamachari Srikkanth - are the only players to do it twice.
ODI centuries have become generally more frequent. In the majority of matches in which Kohli scores a century, at least one other player scores one as well. Tendulkar was the only centurion in 65% of the matches in which he scored a century. Amla and de Villiers have both made hundreds in the same ODI innings five times. This has some effect on their low numbers. But they are contemporaries of Kohli and the trend of hundreds coming increasingly often in matches where others also score hundreds holds in their case.
Overall, 42% of all ODI games in the 2010s have seen at least one hundred. By contrast, only 24% of ODIs in the 1980s featured at least one hundred. In the 1990s this figure increased marginally to 28%. In the 2000s, 33% of all ODI games featured at least one century. Run-scoring has become significantly easier in the middle overs, thanks to changes in ODI playing conditions, such as the use of two new balls and restrictions on field settings between overs 15 and 40, that have been tailormade to enable quicker scoring in this part of the innings. Improvement in cricket bats has also been a factor. All this explains, at least in part, the increase in century-making by middle-order ODI players.
The numbers suggest that Tendulkar and Richards were superior to their contemporaries in a way that Kohli, de Villiers and Amla are not. Richards' average and strike rate compare favourably to those of the present era. He was, without serious dispute, the supreme limited-overs batsman of his era. He scored at nearly a run a ball at a time where five runs per over was a winning scoring rate in most ODIs. Other batsmen made ODI hundreds in that era: Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes had made 16 and 11 respectively by the time Richards retired; Geoff Marsh, Graham Gooch, Dean Jones, David Gower and Zaheer Abbas seven each. Gooch, Marsh, Haynes and Greenidge had strike rates between 57 and 65 runs per hundred balls faced.
Abbas had a short career of 60 matches, during which he made seven hundreds and scored at 84 runs per 100 balls faced. The difficulty of assessing short careers is illustrated well by his case: five of his seven hundreds came in a ten-month period between March 1982 and January 1983, including three in a series against India.
The player with the closest claim to being Richardsesque in this era was arguably Dean Jones. He scored at 76 and averaged nearly 50. Unlike in the present era, hundreds from middle-order players were rarities in the Richards era. Jones and Gower were the quickest-scoring middle order bats, and they scored 15 runs slower than Richards
The claim that Tendulkar was similarly superior to his contemporaries is probably open to greater dispute. Tendulkar first opened the batting for India in March 1994 and made the role his own for the next 18 years. His record as opener during this era is unmatched. No other opener comes close. Adam Gilchrist, Sanath Jayasuriya and Virender Sehwag surpassed him when it came to scoring rates, but they failed significantly more often than he did and averaged 12 to 15 runs less than Tendulkar's 48.3. Any player who approached his consistency sacrificed scoring rate. The speed and certainty of Tendulkar's run-making at the top of the ODI order were unrivalled in his day. That he achieved these figures over a period of 344 games against multiple generations of bowlers points to the sheer mastery of his batsmanship.
Interestingly, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Shane Watson and Amla have produced runs at a comparable rate to Tendulkar in the list linked above (here again). All three played in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Amla's numbers are arguably superior. He made nine hundreds in only 54 innings during this period. But if you look at Tendulkar's record between 2008 and 2012, it is easily comparable to those of Amla or Dilshan. Even in his late 30s, when he was arguably past his prime, Tendulkar could keep pace with the finest specialists of the day. In his prime, Tendulkar was a class apart.
In the present decade, in which Kohli has made 29 of his 30 hundreds in 173 innings, Amla has 24 hundreds in 132 innings, and de Villiers has 20 in 124. David Warner has 13 hundreds in 87 innings, Quinton de Kock 12 in 85, Shikhar Dhawan 11 in 89, Joe Root 10 in 87, Ross Taylor 14 in 109, and Rohit Sharma 13 in 119. It is early in his career, but Babar Azam has racked up five hundreds in his first 31 ODI innings. Every major team seems to have at least one player who could potentially post numbers like Kohli has.
The same could not be said of teams in Tendulkar's era, especially once Tendulkar began to open the batting. Kohli has a strong claim to being first among equals, but the numbers do not support the idea that he is a class apart from his ODI contemporaries in the way that Richards and Tendulkar were from theirs. Today's ODI batting numbers look impressive, but they need to be considered in context. When many players achieve similar numbers, the best numbers in this set are not exceptional.