A lot of modern ODI cricket is mundane, mind-numbing and bloated. The new white Kookaburra has stopped swinging, two balls means there is no reverse, the batsmen have become bolder and bolder with their big bats, the pitches flatter. You basically take the new balls and wait for them to become old for a semblance of a contest between bat and ball. In some ways, what traditionally qualify as bad pitches - slow and low, not conducive to aggressive bowling or batting - make for the only interesting bilateral matches. And a ridiculously high percentage of ODI cricket is still bilateral in the time of T20 leagues. In such times, for any batting record that involves an aggregate, accumulation, it has to absolutely obliterate the incumbent for it to be noticed.
Just like Virat Kohli has done. It had to be this staggering for it to be celebrated. He has reached 10,000 ODI runs in 205 innings, beating the long-held record, 259 innings by Sachin Tendulkar, by 54 innings. He has taken 20% off the leader. Imagine if Roger Bannister had run the mile in three minutes and 12 seconds.
Kohli has gone from 9000 to 10000 in just 11 innings. In the year 2018, he has been dismissed for under a score of 50 only twice. And he has done all this in a fashion you would scarcely accuse Kohli the person of: quietly, predictably, even inconspicuously. He is not exhilarating in the way that Tendulkar was, that little boy under a helmet dancing down to Glenn McGrath and hitting him over his head. It is like Kohli has forever been in the mode that Tendulkar was in in the second half of his ODI career. He is not dazzling like AB de Villiers, choosing to play well within himself, choosing plain old runs over dropped jaws.
There is a nice little incident from the Delhi nets before Kohli had become an international player. If you want to be a mentally strong player, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh are the two best places to grow up in. No youngster gets through without early bullying and ribbing. There was this one day when Kohli was defending balls correctly in the nets. It was, after all, preparation for a first-class match. The Delhi bowling coach, though, chose to mock him.
"Kya din aa gaye hain, aaj kal Kohli bhi defence kar raha hai." [What days, even Kohli is defending]."
It was not a tribute to Kohli's attacking skills, but a taunt at how he was trying to be a polished player all of a sudden. The next two balls went miles. Everybody took notice, the bowling coach applauded, everybody had a laugh, and Kohli went back to batting properly.
Kohli's ODI career is a bit like an extended version of that riposte in the nets. He is surrounded in world cricket by batsmen who do more incredible things more regularly than him. Chris Gayle hits the biggest sixes, de Villiers is way more creative and attractive, closer home Rohit Sharma scores double-hundreds, but day in and day out, Kohli keeps scoring the runs, no matter the opposition, no matter the conditions, no matter the match situation. Sometimes a match situation calls for the breathtaking, and he switches gears. Sometimes conditions require a calculated risk or two, and he does that.
Eventually, though, Kohli almost always returns to batting normally and efficiently. Kohli's ODI batting is a long pursuit just to fall back to that efficient mode and then do it for long enough to win. If the asking rate goes out of control, hit two fours and go back to this mode. If the pitch is turning, just make statement against the spinner and come back to this mode. No finishing school installs this calculator in the heads. It comes from batting with and absorbing everything from the likes of MS Dhoni and Tendulkar.
It is like he is saying, "I have all the shots all the other guys play, but I won't play them unless absolutely necessary because they give the opposition a chance to get me out." And he knows that in today's ODI cricket, it is near impossible to get him out if he doesn't take risks. Sometimes it seems he is almost challenging himself to score runs without falling back on the risky option. For that he trains hard and has adopted a suitable lifestyle.
To see what he is actually capable of, watch Kohli when he has reached his hundred and is batting in the last few overs. Just like he did in the innings that he notched up the 10,000. Having lost both the big hitters, he made sure he would bat till the end. Having sweated a lot, running 62 of his first 102 runs plus the ones he ran for his partners, he opened up in the end. Almost effortlessly he hit four sixes in his last 17 balls. These were not big sixes, but none of them was ever in doubt. Even in hitting sixes, he was using optimum amount of energy. The message was clear: I could have done this earlier too, but I owed my team and myself a long innings.
That, and longevity, separates Kohli from the man who most closely resembles his style. Hashim Amla holds the records for being the fastest to each landmark from 2000 to 7000. Two of these records belonged to Kohli before Amla smashed them. They both bat similarly: setting themselves up to bat through an innings, eliminate early risk and yet maintain a high strike rate. Kohli, though, has a gear in which he can match T20 hitters. And also Kohli has reached 10,000, and is nowhere near the end whereas it is doubtful Amla will last long enough to reach the mark.
Kohli is only 29. The last ODI great from India before Kohli, Dhoni, is going to play a World Cup at the age of 38. It is scary to imagine if Kohli can retain his fitness and hunger till the 2027 World Cup. No ODI record might be safe if he does so. Like a drug, we will seek higher and higher highs. Already his hundreds are risking becoming a case study for whether brilliance can be boring. Then again, there are at least two World Cups, possibly three, left for Kohli to attain those higher highs and complete his ODI career.