The question is being asked and comparisons are beginning to be made in earnest. Is Virat Kohli indeed better than Sachin Tendulkar? Before we even attempt to answer the question, let us examine whether Kohli is the perfect batsman or someone who seems to have attained perfection in a particular period of time. When we speak of perfection, we only see it in a subjective way as we have come to know it rather than the empirical description of that term, which possibly no human being has really achieved, though Don Bradman came close to that magical average of 100.
The purple patch Kohli has struck over the last two calendar years plus the beginning of 2018 would seem to suggest he is the perfect modern batsman with none of his peers remotely close to achieving what he has done. There are shortcoming too — he has not figured in a significant overseas Test series victory yet, not beyond Asia anyway. Even so, it is clear as crystal that Kohli is batting in a zone all his own, leaving contemporaries way behind. Even then, there are weaknesses. Like the number of times he nicks when drawn forward to play balls outside the off stump. In that narrow space around the off stump, he is not yet a perfectionist, his technique not as tight as Tendulkar’s. But the weakness, which tends to show he is human after all, is representative of how much has to progress technically if he is to carry this patch into England where the moving ball tends to test him to the hilt.
Back to the comparison. Yes, he is better than Sachin in the matter of placing his team in more winning positions more quickly. This is because he makes his runs at a clip and does not slow down too much when nearing landmarks like centuries, which was a particular weakness of Sachin. But then he was from the Mumbai school of batsmanship. Kohli is more evolved as he is being as much challenged as Sachin was in 2000 of being the team’s premier batsman around whom the team prospered or collapsed.
The difference lies in Kohli’s even strike rate around big innings whereas Sachin’s record would show certain flatness around landmarks and in progressing quickly after passing them. I tend to agree with Kapil Dev that Kohli will prove the greater match winner because landmarks don’t bog him down. This is not to belittle a batsman who made a century of centuries and set the bar so high as to have made us believe for some time that no human would clear it even in the fullness of time.
We nurse healthy doubts now about Sachin’s mount collection of 100 centuries being unsurmountable because there is a batsman who threatens it, even dares us to predict that he could make 100 ODI hundreds at his present rate of acquisition. His South African safari sported a ‘kill’ rate that would have made the big game hunters seem distinctly old fashioned. His remarkable run of form has been unprecedented, which is what may have made Sourav Ganguly make the definitive statement last week that Kohli has surpassed Sachin.
Kohli arriving on the big scene to challenge the world record breaker is not such a bad thing for Indian cricket. Look at it this way —who would be prouder than Indians if Kohli were to surpass a century of centuries by getting past Sachin? Indian cricket needs record breakers around whom the batting and the team revolves. Only once in history did we have a fabled batting line-up and that was for a decade and more after 1996 when Ganguly and Dravid made their Test debuts and Laxman soon became a fixture to make it a Fabulous Foursome along with Sachin.
Comparisons across eras are particularly odious. We must accept the fact that the quality of international bowling is not as high today as it was in the time of the Fab Four. And even in their time the bowling quality was, perhaps, not as high as when the West Indian pace quartets were hammering batsmen around the world with an intensity of pace that was truly awe inspiring. Modern fast bowlers may be fitter and capable of bowling consistently quicker across spells through a Test match day. But how many pace attacks would have been good enough to be placed alongside the four who played the World Cup final in 1983 - Marshall, Holding, Garner and Roberts?
In the final analysis, it might just be right to say that Kohli is currently poised to overtake Sachin. But, over the longer haul, he has to sustain his run of consistent form to prove himself to be the best performing batsman in the history of Indian cricket. In one sense, he has already far overtaken Sachin and that is in being a champion performer across three formats. He is a more evolved modern batsman and he has a stupendous strike rate in all formats to show he is the best all-round batsman in word cricket ever, a place Steve Smith has not even aspired for.