Pitting present-day heroes against past legends is something sports fans devour on. It can be both entertaining and intriguing even though the contest is being played in the mind and not on the field. Former Australia legspinner Shane Warne has now revealed his bowling plan for modern-day batting great Virat Kohli, who cracked consecutive centuries earlier this week against Australia, to inch closer to Sachin Tendulkar's all-time record of 49 ODI centuries.
Warne built his reputation by thinking and bowling aggressively. He wanted the batsman to know he was coming to get him, thus making the contest engrossing. So how would Warne bowl to Kohli? Would he attack him?
Interestingly, Warne said he would not. He says it's a mistake many teams make by bowling to Kohli on the stumps. "I think the one thing you need to do with Virat, which is one thing teams don't do enough of, is take away both sides of the wicket," Warne told ESPNcricinfo at end of the MCC World Cricket committee meetings in Bengaluru on Saturday.
Warne explained exactly why he thought bowling defensively to Kohli gave teams more chances of keeping him quiet. "If you're going to bowl to Virat Kohli, you either bowl at leg stump and protect the on side, or you bowl wide of off stump and you protect the off side. You cannot bowl at the stumps, because he can hit you both ways. So, I think you've to take out one side of the field. Protect just one side of the field, that's how you bowl to very good players."
To make it more interesting, Warne even presented an example of how he would plot Kohli's fall if he were to actually bowl to him.
"I'd be bowling wide of off stump and letting him try to cover drive with a slip, short cover and some protection out there. So then it'll be very hard for him to get it over the leg side. That's what I'd be trying to do and hopefully get a little bit lucky and he mis-hits one."
We will never know whether Warne would have succeeded against Kohli or not, but at present, Kohli seems to have a plan for all plans against him as he charges towards more records day by day.
Since the start of 2016, Kohli has amassed 3985 runs in 59 ODI innings, and his average (88.55) and strike rate (99.52) are even more impressive than his overall career numbers. Next on the list is Rohit Sharma with a tally of 3292 runs, average of 63.30 and strike rate of 95.66.
While teams have tried to bowl to Kohli the way Warne would like, wide outside off, they have bowled at the stumps an appreciable number of times too. Since 2016, bowlers have bowled outside off or wide outside off to Kohli 64.95% of the time, while 31.01% of all deliveries have been on the stumps. Kohli's average to balls outside off or wide outside off has been 85.76 - marginally lower than what he has averaged otherwise in that period. His strike rate for those deliveries has been 95.99, again slightly slower than the rate he has scored at in that period.
In the current series, however, Australia have bowled only 51.15% of deliveries outside off or wide outside off to him, perhaps for good reason. He has not been dismissed off any of those deliveries and scored 160 runs off the 133 balls bowled in those areas. The only time Kohli has been dismissed in these three ODIs is off balls on the stumps, where he has been dismissed thrice while scoring 98 off 99.
Warne also weighed on the topic of whether Kohli was the GOAT in cricket, even better than Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, two modern-day greats the Australian had called the greatest batsmen during his playing career.
After the third ODI against Australia, Kohli now has 10,816 runs in 225 ODIs. His average (60.08) and strike rate (92.95) form a combination that is in uncharted territory, as is his rate of scoring centuries - 41 in 217 innings. Kohli is already 10th on the list of highest run-scorers in ODIs, with ninth-placed Rahul Dravid (10,889) within striking distance.
Earlier on Saturday, Warne even tweeted he was "contemplating" whether Kohli was better than Tendulkar and Lara.
I just got asked if I thought @imVkohli is better than @BrianLara or @sachin_rt— Shane Warne (@ShaneWarne) March 9, 2019
Let me think about that and come back to you I said. @ivivianrichards to me was the best batsman after Bradman, but in modern times mmmmm. Tough one ! Thoughts followers whilst I contemplate ?
"I got asked the question last night and again this morning: is Virat Kohli the best player in one-day cricket? Is he better than Tendulkar, is he better than Lara? I'm still thinking about it, I'm still trying to work that out.
"The one thing we can say is I don't think we have seen anyone dominate one-day cricket like Virat Kohli has. The best player I saw - [Don] Bradman's the best so he doesn't even come into the equation - but Viv Richards is the best player I saw. As a player, playing against them, Lara and Tendulkar were the two best players that I bowled to.
"You know records are different in different eras and it's very hard to judge. All you can judge is how a player is in their era, and Virat Kohli is so far ahead in one-day cricket than everybody else - in hundreds made, especially while chasing - that sets him apart from everybody else that is playing. But is he as destructive as someone like Viv Richards was? And then you look at Lara and Tendulkar and how good they were… so I'm still working that out. Working out whether Virat is better than all of them, or just as good, or not quite as good. It's an interesting topic and debate that's fun to have with your followers on social. I'll come up with an answer very soon."
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo