Beginning a cricketing article with numbers is possibly the driest way to talk about greatness. Taking those numbers from the Twenty20 format is a red-carpet invite for ridicule from those who contend that cricketing immortality cannot be achieved over a slog-fest, 20-over contest. True enough, the deeds in whites and in one-day colours usually have greater appeal, depth and posterity value.
But I’m going to throw some numbers down here anyway. One set of numbers, in two parts. First, there’s 90*, 59*, 50, 7, 49, 56*, 41*, 23, 55*, 24, 82*, 89*.
Then, there’s 75, 79, 33, 80, 100*, 14, 52, 108*, 20, 7, 109, 75* (… to be continued).
625 runs in the first set, 752 so far in the second – and of course, you know where this is going. In Twenty20 matches – international and IPL – in 2016, Virat Kohli has 1377 runs from 24 innings (10 not outs) off 956 balls. It’s unthinkable that a man who has batted all those innings in the top three, half of them opening, stays not out over 40% of the time. And I led with that particular stat because the conventional ones are just insane – an average of 98.36 and a strike-rate of 144.04. Is that even allowed in T20 cricket?
Most outrageous of all, Kohli seems to sincerely believe that forget being the best batsman in the world, he’s not even the best in his IPL team. And there’s a good case for him being right. Although, if you ask AB de Villiers about it, as several anchors have after yet another one of their bowler-crushing duets, each contends the other is the greater one. And they even sound honest while saying it.
AB de Villiers or Virat Kohli? The man who can make bowlers irrelevant, or the one who can make situations irrelevant? The maestro who creates symphonies at the crease, or the master who builds monuments during a chase?
The era we’re living in was supposed to be the age of AB de Villiers. For sheer talent and ability to hit three shots to every ball, there is none to match him. But through a force of will that overrides even his considerably dextrous batting gifts, Kohli has gate-crashed the party.
It’s Gandalf and Albus Dumbledore on the same side, Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot fighting crime together, Mark Knopfler pairing with David Gilmour to find the last word in music, or PG Wodehouse co-writing the greatest book ever authored with Douglas Adams. It just doesn’t happen in the real world. It doesn’t even sound like it could work sometimes – how will Knopfler’s soothing baritone and melodious fingers go with Gilmour’s deep music? Can Wodehouse’s old-world charm exist on the same page as Adams’s manic humour? We will never know, of course. What we have in the flesh is this pairing. They have transcended from fantasy to reality, and that is enough.
Rahul Bhattacharya once called the Rahul Dravid-VVS Laxman batting partnership in Test cricket a jugalbandi, two classical solo musicians performing duets in whites. The Kohli-AB show in IPL 2016 has been the jugalbandi of cricket’s newest format, like unexpectedly discovering a strain of Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain in a Bollywood item number. Don’t get me wrong – item numbers are peppy, catchy, very hummable. And they are popular. But when you find the man who can not only catch the rhythm of a popular song but bring a classical repertoire into it, you’ve reached the end of the rainbow. And in IPL 2016, there have been two of them.
By a most remarkable coincidence, they’re batting on the same side. To no one’s surprise at all, they have batted mostly together – because when you have one man who has made it his life’s mission that ‘no bowler shall pass’ and another who seems to think the 22-yard strip in the centre is his personal kingdom to do as he pleases – well, they are going to bat together a lot.
It’s the fan’s ultimate fantasy come true. We never got to watch Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara bat together in a previous era. There was the ‘Pondulkar’ pairing that had Ricky Ponting and Tendulkar coming together for Mumbai Indians – but while that was great for nostalgia, it wasn’t as good for Mumbai’s chances. Kohli and de Villiers are the two premier white-ball batsmen of the time batting together and living up to their reputations. It’s Gandalf and Albus Dumbledore on the same side, Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot fighting crime together, Mark Knopfler pairing with David Gilmour to find the last word in music, or PG Wodehouse co-writing the greatest book ever authored with Douglas Adams. It just doesn’t happen in the real world. It doesn’t even sound like it could work sometimes – how will Knopfler’s soothing baritone and melodious fingers go with Gilmour’s deep music? Can Wodehouse’s old-world charm exist on the same page as Adams’s manic humour?
We will never know, of course. What we have in the flesh is this pairing. They have transcended from fantasy to reality, and that is enough. They could be born from the ashes of dragons and the blood of White Walkers, but they are of this world, in this time. It’s rare to find two of the best coming together, rarer still to see them do justice to being the best in the world together.
But whose time is it? De Villiers has the more outrageous shot-making, the kind that makes every other person on the planet go ‘How did he hit that?’ Kohli has the greatest ability to look at pressure in the face and flick a contemptuous, if imaginary, cigarette in its eye. The best of both came together against Gujarat Lions in a fashion that would have been called an assault if it wasn’t just so darn pleasing to eye and mind. From the moment de Villiers came out, he was batting in a different game, on a different surface than even Kohli. Slow pitch, slower bowlers? No problem, de Villiers just got his swing and timing spot on to deposit even spinners deep into the stands. Those back foot drive-punches over and through covers were the most jaw-dropping but staying inside the crease and sweeping into the top tier was equally impressive.
And then there was Kohli. Ego eschewed completely, watching de Villiers do his stuff, building all the while like a time bomb that would explode. And when the detonation came, it was all geometric. Straight bat making classical arcs – by itself and to the ball that travelled. No matter what they say, both men know – they must – that they are at the top of their fields and no batting feat is actually beyond them. For Kohli to then not even think of trying to match his partner’s shot-making when he wasn’t as comfortable as de Villiers was, to have the certainty that he could not only do it later, but do it his own way, spoke of a mind so completely in command of the situation, the match could have been captioned ‘written and directed by Virat Kohli’.
Whose time it is, therefore, is a question as arbitrary and without meaning as asking if the chicken or the egg came first. Against Gujarat, de Villiers came out marginally ahead. Against Kolkata Knight Riders in their very next match, Kohli put the finishing touches to another joint masterpiece. Another day, another time, they could both share it equally. Whatever, and however they do it, they will be far ahead of the rest of the pack in white-ball cricket. Their international deeds had cemented that long ago, their IPL magic has merely confirmed the fact.
In the match against Kolkata, Kohli split a webbing and was briefly off the field before coming back on with his left hand taped up. ‘He bleeds’, the universe was reminding us. ‘He’s still human’. Not too long back, that was exactly how we thought of de Villiers in trying to reconcile the man with the superman feats.
So as a minor concession to humanity, they bleed. But good luck trying to find any human weakness in their batting.