The first thing to say about yesterday's superb innings
by Virat Kohli
is that none of Sachin Tendulkar
, AB de Villiers
or Viv Richards
could have played it better. At the moment of the two runs that took him to a hundred, the crowd rose as one to pay homage. Among them was Tendulkar himself, who seemed almost as pleased as Kohli. There was Richards too - lying low in the media centre - who could not help but marvel at the wristy power of Kohli's leg-side play and the dance down the pitch to Tim Southee that set up the most spectacular stroke over wide long-on for six. In the film of Richards' 189 at Old Trafford in 1984
, he does something similar himself to Bob Willis, with the same result. You've got to be good to render this level of bowler helpless.
Kohli first leapt and punched the air before falling to his knees and removing his helmet and gloves. Then, slowly, he rose to his feet as if he were a god waking up to the morning sun, upon which he raised both arms aloft to acknowledge family, friends and the full house. Not far from Tendulkar was David Beckham, with a grin as wide as Garfield, applauding ferociously. David really must get out more. This cricket is a wonderful thing.
Ten days ago it was my privilege to be on the microphone when Kohli went to his 49th hundred
in one-day international cricket. This equalled the number scored by Tendulkar, though the Kohli tally comes from many fewer innings. It was fun that number 49 came at Eden Gardens, where the ecstatic crowd found it barely possible to contain themselves. Me neither. I've long been a fan. I said he was a man who writes his own scripts, which is something of a cliché in sports commentary but very true in Kohli's case, because the timing of his achievements is impeccable.
Yesterday he flew past Tendulkar to stand alone at the summit. "Say it gently," said Harsha Bhogle on air, "Fifty one-day international hundreds!" It is a staggering achievement that sets him apart from all others who have played a game that emerged out of English county cricket in the 1960s and found its place under Kerry Packer's commercial eye in the late 1970s. One-day cricket, played initially over 65 overs per side, then 60, 55, and now 50, has been a staple for the game. Hijacked of late by T20, it needs World Cups
to remind us of its ongoing fascination. Modern audiences have to be persuaded, but the more they look within, the more they will find. To consistently play 50-over cricket well - like, really well - you need a complete game and it is no surprise that the best players of the age in Test match cricket are also the best in ODIs.
Recently, a former international player suggested that Kohli is selfish. Of course, he is. Isn't that the point? Runs and wickets are selfish things; you're on your own, only the fittest survive. The skill is to apply individual pursuit of success to the performance of the team, and no one could reasonably accuse Kohli of doing anything but. The comment came either from history or from jealousy and was almost certainly inspired by the two innings in this tournament where Kohli manipulated the strike for his own benefit: one in Pune against Bangladesh
, the other in Dharamsala against New Zealand
In Pune, KL Rahul, who was at the other end, played for this, ensuring that Kohli had the main chance
and that he, Rahul, didn't score any of the runs his partner needed. It was a riveting passage of play that engaged and excited the crowd. India were winning the game easily and between them, Kohli and Rahul put on a little show that the fans absolutely loved. It was cricket as entertainment and the roar of approval when Kohli smashed a full toss into the stands to win the match and go to a hundred was all the proof anyone needed. Against New Zealand, it didn't work so well and he was caught in the deep for 95. This time the game was a little tighter, though not threateningly so, and he had to force the issue. The cricketing gods don't like that so much.
"Be there at the end," Richie Benaud used to advise. There are 11 of you but someone has to take the responsibility. And the critics call it selfish. Until you keep doing it and winning, and then the game remembers you as a great
Before the Pune game, I travelled to the ground with Dinesh Karthik. Beside the road, thousands upon thousands of fans were buying the blue India team shirts from street sellers. About 80% or more had the name "Virat" on their back, most of the rest were "Rohit". The real greats tend to become known either by their nickname or given name - Jack, Seve, Ernie, Tiger in golf; Viv, Sachin, Brian, MS
, AB, Warnie, and now Virat in cricket. Since the dawn of mass media, hardly anyone on the streets of India has talked about a fellow called Kohli, only Virat.
Once, while waiting to interview players at the end of a match, Ian Healy and I watched Virat close out a one-dayer. He finished it with thrilling back-to-back boundaries and I asked Healy how good he was. "I think he's the best player I've ever seen, or will be if he goes on like this." Ah, but you once said that about Tendulkar. "Yeah… but now I've seen Kohli."
Along with Barry Richards
, Tendulkar has been my favourite batter. Technically sound and with something of David in him, against a thousand Goliaths. Yes, Sachin spread a little magic wherever those on-dives perforated field settings and exasperated bowlers. As if it were yesterday, I recall Perth in 1991
and Merv Hughes' looks of astonishment as this boy with a bat took him to the cleaners. Sachin adapted his near-perfect technique for the shorter formats of the day and began taking everyone to the cleaners.
Hard on Barry's heels came Viv, who did that as a matter of course. In the 60-over game, with full size boundaries and precious little interest from umpires in wide bowling, armed with the bats of the day, Viv averaged 47 at a strike rate of 90. He played far and away the greatest one-day innings of the era when he tore into England that day at Old Trafford to rescue West Indies from 102 for 7 and carry them to 272 for 9. With Michael Holding he put on more than 100 for the tenth wicket, of which Holding made 12. Viv finished unbeaten on 189 and West Indies with a huge margin of victory.
There are a number of incredible one-day batters who, for a time, have owned the game and demanded comparisons with Viv. I don't think it's a worthwhile exercise, given how vastly different cricket has been in each of its eras. When one-day cricket began, three an over was the go-to for most of the innings. Anything above four an over by the end was chunky. Then the boundaries came in and the bats improved. Then T20 changed the parameters of performance and unimaginable strokeplay caught bowlers off guard and had them running for cover. After which, two new balls - one from each end - and the tightening of field restrictions granted batters a canvas that was hard to miss.
All we can do is to relate what we see. De Villiers had the most flair, Brian Lara the cruellest cut, Chris Gayle the most power - just (Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist gave the Universe Boss a good run for his muscle). There was the impish Javed Miandad, the swashbuckling Virender Sehwag, the calculating Kumar Sangakkara, and the ruthlessly efficient Ricky Ponting. It took Rohit Sharma
time but eventually he worked out how to outclass everyone. The best of Rohit is the best of batting.
And yet, even Rohit doesn't get the job done like Virat does. Hence the shirts. Ask the people, the people know. Virat isn't the national hero by coincidence. His consistency and professionalism are recognised every bit as much as his vibrant personality and commercial appeal. The people know that he wins games for India. Fact. That's the stock, the share price and the currency to trade it, all in one.
Let's cut to the chase because it's there, in the chase, that Virat hits the pedal. Perhaps he learnt about taking it deep from MS, from the master. Virat bats time as much as he bats target. If he's in, the opponent has a problem, and Virat himself knows that better than anyone. He has made 27 of his 50 hundreds in the chase
. That's a wowzer stat. Next best is Sachin with 17
. Sachin's tally came from 452 innings; Virat's from 279. Do the math. Virat averages 65.4 batting second, next best is AB, about nine runs behind, and breathing down his neck is the underrated Michael Bevan.
If you chase like these guys do, you have ice in your veins. Ask anyone who's had a hit. The real clarity, the sheer bloody-mindedness and the true test of self-belief comes in the chase. "Be there at the end," Richie Benaud used to advise. If only. Being there at the end means taking the responsibility. That in itself is beyond many a cricketer. There are 11 of you but someone has to take the responsibility. And the critics call it selfish. Until you keep doing it and winning, and then your country calls you a hero and the game remembers you as a great.
Virat is good at home, averaging 60.9
. Virat is good away from home: worst average anywhere (Sri Lanka) is 48.9. I know! It's a laugh. Anyway, he has passed Sachin and has a way to go yet. Can you imagine him at another World Cup? More in-your-face, full-on Virat. I can. They won't catch him. No one. Whatever obsession and sacrifice add up to is the reason.
So if the question is who is the greatest ODI batter, it can only be one of two. The two who most dominated their time. Both have, or had, V Power. Viv and Virat. Take your pick. Yesterday all India voted for Virat. That's a lot of ground to make up, even for Viv.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator