Kartikeya Date writes the blog A Cricketing View. @cricketingview
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Should India continue to have a great World Cup, come November 19 there will be a strong case for considering Virat Kohli the greatest ODI batter in history. The consistency, longevity and speed of his run production make him a solid contender for this unofficial title.
Kohli now has 13,437 career ODI runs at 58 runs per wicket and about 94 runs per 100 balls faced. He has been in red-hot form in ODIs in 2023, and at the time of writing, he has 48 ODI hundreds, one short of Sachin Tendulkar's record. He is currently about 5000 runs short of Tendulkar's career aggregate of 18,426 runs and only 797 short of the second-placed batter on that table - Kumar Sangakkara, who has 14,234.
ODI cricket has seen significant run inflation due to changes in rules governing field settings and ball use, apart from improvement in bats and the emergence of the power game. One way to account for this inflation (the average ODI scoring rate in the 1980s was 4.4 runs per over; in the 2010s it rose to 5.2 runs per over) is to normalise the scoring rate and batting average for each player relative to that of their team-mates in matches involving that player.
For example, Rahul Dravid batted 344 times in ODIs and made 10,889 runs at an average of 39.2 and strike rate of 71.2. In those matches, the other ten India players and extras made runs at an average of 31.5 and strike rate of 86.2. Dravid's average was 24.4% better (or positive) than that of the other ten India players, and his scoring rate was 17.4% worse (or negative).
Graph 1: All 60 ODI batters who have at least 6500 career runs are organised by the difference between their batting average and that of the rest of their team, and the difference between their scoring rate and that of the rest of their team in matches involving that batter. All figures are percentages of the rest of the team's figures.
In the graph above, we see the 60 most prolific ODI batters, from Tendulkar (18,426 career runs) to Allan Border (6524 career runs) organised according to their batting average difference and scoring-rate difference. The players in blue make up the bulk of this group - 44 out of the 60, who, like Dravid, were more consistent than their average team-mate but scored slower. The two who were less consistent than their team-mates but scored quicker are Adam Gilchrist and Shahid Afridi (in yellow). There are 14 players (in red) who are both more consistent and score quicker than their team-mates. The large blue dot represents Virat Kohli's record at No. 3, and the large red dot represents Tendulkar's record as opener.
The 14 players who are both more consistent (better average) and score quicker than their team-mates are listed in the table below. This list includes some players who played in relatively weak sides, like Brendan Taylor of Zimbabwe, Shakib Al Hasan of Bangladesh, Arjuna Ranatunga of Sri Lanka, and Chris Gayle of West Indies. Their individual records are not exceptional for their era, but they stand out in their respective teams.
Two players - AB de Villiers and Viv Richards - stand out more generally. By any measure, without bringing longevity into it, these are the two greatest ODI batters in the history of the format. De Villiers and Richards were both nearly 50% more consistent than their team-mates and scored between 11% and 24% quicker than them.
Tendulkar played ODI cricket for nearly a quarter of a century and opened the batting for India for nearly 20 years. His career runs aggregate figure will probably never be approached by another player. The closest active batter, Kohli, is nearly 5000 runs away. Even at today's rate, Kohli will have to play about 120 more ODIs to score those 5000 runs.
Two players - Sanath Jayasuriya and Virender Sehwag - are noteworthy on the table. They are the only ones who are further ahead of their team-mates on scoring rate than on batting average. They, along with Gilchrist and Afridi, made a different choice compared to the other players in the table (and most of the 60 ODI players in the graph).
The numbers of these four players (all openers in the main, except for Afridi, who opened for 3543 of his 8064 runs) point to the essential trade-off between speed and consistency in ODI cricket. There is little threat of dismissal for a batter for large parts of an ODI innings. Field settings are designed to prevent boundaries, and even the updates in the powerplay rules have not changed the tendency of fielding sides to prefer containment. It is exceedingly rare for a fielding side to have more fielders than required within the 30-yard circle; catching fielders are just as rare. The threat of dismissal in ODIs comes from the batter's need to score quickly. The best players are those who score quickly without sacrificing consistency.
Setting aside both Richards and de Villiers for now, both Kohli and Tendulkar excel in particular positions. Tendulkar made 15,310 runs as opener (more than any other player overall), while Kohli has now made 11,316 runs at No. 3, at an average of 61. Even accounting for inflation, maintaining such consistency over 223 innings, as he has done, is a remarkable feat of consistency.
The graph below shows the record for each player from World Cup to World Cup in their most favoured position. The data used in the graph follows in the table a few paragraphs later.
Graph 2: Consistency and speed in run-scoring for Sachin Tendulkar (as opener) and Virat Kohli (at No. 3) from World Cup to World Cup. 1992-1996 includes matches played from after the end of the 1992 World Cup to the end of the 1996 World Cup. The spans are bracketed by the relevant World Cup years. Tendulkar played his last qualifying ODI in 2012 and Kohli played his first in 2009. Tendulkar opened from 1994 through 2012.
The striking thing about Kohli's record is that he has been consistent. He has either been very consistent (as he was in the 2011-15 phase, the 2009-11 phase, or the 2019-23 phase), or off-the-charts consistent, as he was in the 2015-19 phase. The scoring rate has never been an issue because the run production at the other end matched Kohli's run production. In other words, he was not responsible for providing both speed and consistency to his team.
With Tendulkar, it was a different story. From the time he began to open, till about the 2003 World Cup, he was responsible for providing both speed and consistency to the Indian batting. He did this with extraordinary success. From 1994 to the end of the 2003 World Cup, he made 9416 runs at an average of 50 and a strike rate of 90. No other player approached this combination of speed and consistency. To see how extraordinary this decade was for Tendulkar, consider that de Villiers' run production was 49% more consistent, and 11% quicker than his team-mates' over his 9577 run ODI career, while Tendulkar was 60% more consistent and 11% quicker over a similar number of runs during this period.
The table above considers Kohli and Tendulkar in their best batting positions (No. 3 for Kohli, and opener for Tendulkar). The year spans are from World Cup year to World Cup year, as that is how the record is organised. Readers should note that Kohli did not bat at No. 3 in 2008 (when he made his ODI debut), and Tendulkar began to open in 1994.
After the 2003 World Cup, we saw a different Tendulkar. He was still highly consistent but, especially once he returned from injury in 2006, India had Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who all scored extremely quickly. Kohli's career has been played out in an Indian batting line-up similar to the one Tendulkar played in, especially from about 2006 through 2013. India have had plenty of fast-scoring players, so much so that eventually, even the power-packed Dhoni could afford to sit back and allow others to take chances.
Playing in a strong team narrows the range of challenges a batter faces. But there's not much Kohli can do about the fact that the India side he has played in has always been one of the best two in the world. Nevertheless, it remains the case that for nearly a decade and over 9000 runs, Tendulkar met the dual challenge of being a consistent and quick run-scorer in a way no player apart from Richards did in the history of the ODI game.
When I last considered the question of Kohli's place in the pantheon in an article about six years ago, his extraordinary (but relatively brief) record of about eight years at the time placed him first among equals. In 2023, his longevity places him, without question, among the all-time greats.
Is he the greatest ODI batter of all time? With 48 ODI hundreds (at one every six innings) and over 13,000 runs, Kohli's is an epic career. Given his longevity, Kohli is probably Tendulkar's equal as an ODI batter overall, even accounting for run inflation. But Tendulkar's career lasted nearly a quarter of a century. Kohli would have to play a further 176 ODIs (Richards' whole career almost) to play as many as Tendulkar did, and he would have to make about 5000 more runs to reach Tendulkar's aggregate. But even if he did all that, and matched Tendulkar's longevity, there is still the small matter of that extraordinary decade for us to contend with.
Kohli is a better ODI player than Tendulkar was in the last decade of his colossal career. But from 1994 to 2003, over his first 204 innings as opener, ending in the 2003 World Cup final, Tendulkar achieved heights matched only by de Villiers, and surpassed only by Richards. Are there periods in Kohli's career when he achieved these heights? As the record above shows, needing to score quickly has never really been a challenge for Kohli, because in every Indian team he played in, the runs came just as quickly, if not more quickly, at the other end.
Players who play in ODI teams where their team-mates score at about the same speed can choose more carefully when to take chances than players in teams where their team-mates score slower. In the last ten years of his career, Tendulkar had that luxury because several other players were good enough to take those chances (and in Virender Sehwag's case, made a habit of it). Kohli has always had that luxury. From 1994 to 2003, Tendulkar didn't have it. The record he produced during that decade places him, in my view, one small rung above Virat Kohli in the ODI pantheon.