Is Virat Kohli the best One-Day International batsman of all time?
He’s got 31 centuries in the format, more than anyone bar Sachin Tendulkar. And gotten there in less than half the innings that Tendulkar took to get to 49 hundreds. Ricky Ponting, the man Kohli just went past in the list, had 30 tons in 365 innings. Kohli’s played only 192 innings so far. He’s certainly the most sought after cricketer in the world at the moment. Luckily, cricket isn’t played much in East Asia. Otherwise, Kohli might have just been tempted to chuck the game and start a religion, because he’d have about 40% of the world’s population worshipping him in adoration. Because he chose his 200th ODI to not only become the second highest century-maker in the format, but to also get to 8888 runs. And in Chinese numerology, the number 8 is considered auspicious. Four 8s, that’s even more auspicious.
Kohli will turn 29 in less than a fortnight. At this point, it looks fairly certain that he has at least a decade left in the game. Given 10 more years in the game, it would be extraordinary if he didn’t score at least 19 more centuries in ODIs and thus reach a minimum of 50 overall, one more than the 49 that Tendulkar got. Kohli has made the bridge between that mark looking unshakeable when Tendulkar retired to its fall looking inevitable now.
Whether he can get the 9538 runs needed to get to Tendulkar’s ODI mark of 18,426 runs is trickier. It will mean Kohli has to continue to set the pace that he has, on average, maintained since his debut in 2008. Always assuming that India continue to play ODIs with the same frequency too.
But all of this – centuries, aggregates, even averages and strike-rates – are not enough by themselves to determine Kohli’s place in the pantheon of the elite. How can you compare his career to Tendulkar’s, when Tendulkar played his cricket in an era when 250 was a winning score? And how do you account for a Viv Richards, whose aggregate numbers have been dwarfed by several who came after, but who was so far ahead of his peers that he’s recognised as perhaps the greatest one-day batsman ever? And then how do you set Richards’s scale of dominance alongside Tendulkar’s incredible longevity of excellence? And where do you place Kohli in all this? And then how do you account for AB de Villiers or MS Dhoni, who bat lower down? Or a Hashim Amla, who seems to quietly break every ‘quickness’ record that Kohli sets?
If you think reading ahead will give you the magic answer to this, spoiler alert: It won’t. It would have been nice if cricket had evolved tools to make seamless comparisons across eras and time-frames, but as of today, there exists no reliable method to do this. That doesn’t make cross-era comparisons any less fun, though, so we just have to use our imaginations and willingly suspend disbelief.
You can compute by how far Richards, Tendulkar and others have outstripped their peers by looking at prevalent top-order averages and strike-rates during each player’s playing span. That will only serve as a very rough estimate, though. For one thing, this group of men, or any similar group that contains ODI cricket’s common-consensus elites, haven’t batted at the same number as each other, which is a significant factor in limited-overs cricket. For another, there will be a natural tapering off the higher you go. Richards scored at a strike-rate of 90.20 when his era average for the top six was 65.46 – outstripping his peers by a whopping 37.80%. But that does not necessarily mean that had Richards played in the era of de Villiers, he would have been scoring runs at a strike-rate of 110.44, the equivalent 37.80% bump above the peer strike-rate of 80.14 during de Villiers’s playing time.
For being ahead of his time, Richards has no parallel, but it’s reasonable to suppose that outstripping your rivals doesn’t follow a linear pattern, and can’t be a straight transfer across eras. Strike-rates have risen across the years, but the higher they go, the less chance there is of them going higher still. In other words, it’s easier to go from 70 to 80, than it is to go from 90 to 100.
Still, since being number junkies is an essential part of cricketing fandom, here is a table comparing the men most likely to figure in any ODI all-time great discussion with how much they top their peers by.
|Avg||S/R||Peer Avg||Peer S/R||Avg %||S/R %|
|AB de Villiers||54.06||101.07||33.92||80.14||59.41||26.12|
*Peer stands for batsmen from No. 1 to No. 6
*All stats updated till October 24, 2017
As stated earlier, the only thing this table shows with certainty is that Richards was the batsman most ahead of his time in ODIs, the man who outran those in his era by the most overwhelming margin. Whether playing relatively fewer matches made it easier or tougher, who can tell. Whether being nearly 38% quicker when the average run-rate among the top six didn’t even touch four is a more worthy feat than being 26% quicker when the average run-rate among the top six is touching five an over (like for de Villiers), who knows. What effect did playing in an all-time great team have on Richards versus playing in a middling one on Tendulkar, who can compute.
Coming to the original question of Kohli’s place in this elite of elites – it’s enough to say three things with certainty: 1. He belongs in that rarefied group; 2. He is likely to score more centuries than anyone else in ODI history; 3. He should end up as at least among the top two run-scorers in ODI history.
Make of this what you will and place him where you will in the pantheon. For myself, I’d say he’s on track to end up top of the heap. Because of the manner of his getting runs, because of the impact he’s had on the format itself, because quantitatively his numbers will be hard to argue with, and because he would have sustained a higher level of excellence for a longer period of time than anyone else. Of course, I’d have to add the mutual funds caveat: Current performance is no guarantee of future success, batting for absolute all-time-greatness comes with cricketing form risks.