Kohli vs Tendulkar: stats don't reveal the whole picture

Worthy successor
Virat Kohli (right) broke Sachin Tendulkar's record to become the fastest to reach 10,000 ODI runs. Photos: AFP

The second match of the ongoing One-Day International (ODI) series between India and the West Indies at Visakhapatnam was significant for the fact that the match ended in a tie. But for most of the fans of the game in India, where the focus is still on individual achievements, the match would hold special relevance as Virat Kohli achieved the landmark of 10,000 ODI runs in this game. Though Kohli had played an unusually restrained innings of 157 not out and had kept his natural attacking instinct under check for most part of of this knock, this did not dampen the enthusiasm of his fans, who celebrated the event with gusto.

One piece of statistic which started doing the rounds immediately after Kohli reached this milestone was the number of innings that he took to reach there. He took only 205 innings to score 10,000 runs and is the fastest to do so, eclipsing the record held by Sachin Tendulkar, who needed 259 outings to the middle before he could get there.

The debate

So the question that popped up on the minds of most persons was - is Kohli better than Tendulkar? This query would have been unthinkable some years ago and would even be considered as sacrilege but Kohli’s current form with the bat and the way he has been rewriting record books have prompted a debate on this topic.

Since the source of this discussion is from statistical data one has to first study this to get the facts right. It states that Kohli reached the milestone in 213 matches, at an average of 59.62 and he scored 37 centuries and 48 fifties in the process. Tendulkar, on the other hand, took 266 matches, scored 42.63 runs per innings and struck 28 hundreds and 50 half-centuries. While Kohli had a strike rate of 92.51, Tendulkar lagged behind at 86.52. Thus, the statistical information available would indicate that Kohli is indeed ahead of Tendulkar in all vital components that defines batsmanship in limited overs cricket. It is only in the area of man of the match awards, where Tendulkar had 38 as against 30 by Kohli that this trend has been reversed.

But do statistics tell us the whole tale? In the first place, limited overs cricket has undergone a drastic change during the period since 2005 when T20 cricket made its appearance in international arena. The game has changed considerably tilting the scales markedly in favour of batsmen. High-scoring matches are invariably the norm and crowds who flock to the stadium prefer to see more sixes and boundaries than close contests between the bat and ball. Curators who prepare pitches which do not yield runs at the rate of a run per ball are frowned upon by the administrators. When Tendulkar played in his first ICC World Cup in Australia in 1992, totals in the range of 250-plus were considered to be difficult to chase; however, the last edition of the tournament held in 2015 saw sides setting up and even chasing 300-plus targets. Thus, Kohli, who made his debut in 2008, has played his entire limited overs cricket in conditions and pitches more conducive to batting, than what was in existence when Tendulkar began his career almost three decades ago.

This brings us to another interesting piece of statistical detail. During the period from 1989 till 2011 when Tendulkar scored his first 10,000 runs in ODI cricket, the average strike rate of other batsmen was 71.91. This would show that Tendulkar had a strike rate which exceeds that of his compatriots by almost 15 percentage points.

On the other hand, the strike rate of batsmen during the time when Kohli compiled his 10,000 runs is 85.99, giving the Indian skipper an advantage of only 5.5 percentage points. This would serve to indicate how much ahead of his contemporaries Tendulkar was as well as to underline the fact that scoring faster is much easier during the present era.

The next aspect is even more important and pertains to the position occupied by Tendulkar in the batting order in the Indian side. During his initial years in international cricket, Tendulkar used to bat in the middle order, at positions from No. 4 to 6. It was during the tour of New Zealand in 1994 that he managed to coax the team management to allow him to open the innings, after which he rarely left his place at the top of the batting order till he retired from the game. If one removes the 66 innings he played in the middle order from the calculations, it would be seen that Tendulkar’s average score per innings moves up to 47.62 and his strike rate also climbs to 89.60. Opening the batting gave Tendulkar more time in the middle and also gave him the opportunity to take advantage of the field restrictions in place during the initial overs to score runs at a faster pace. Kohli, on the other hand, has batted at No. 3 or 4 in the order mostly, which has ensured that he was not denied either of these benefits right through his career.

Over-reliance on Tendulkar

Another point mentioned in the comparison was with regard to man of the match awards where Tendulkar scores ahead of Kohli. This stands as clear evidence to the extent to which the Indian team depended on Tendulkar during the last decade of the twentieth century. He used to carry the expectations of the entire nation on his shoulders every time he used to walk out to the middle with the bat in his hand. It is not that expectations are any lesser for Kohli, but present day Indian side in limited overs cricket has many players who possess the required competence to share the burden of responsibility along with their captain. The presence of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Rohit Sharma etc has made life much easier for Kohli than it used to be for Tendulkar during the period when he made his first 10,000 runs.

Even as we come to the come to conclusion that it is not fair to compare the exploits of Kohli and Tendulkar with the bat, there are areas where each of them have proved to better than the other. When it comes to bowling, Tendulkar, with his 154 scalps and two five-wicket hauls, is streets ahead of Kohli, who has not shown much of an inclination for turning his arm over. On the other hand, Kohli has shown that he is better equipped to handle the pressures and challenges of captaincy. Tendulkar’s reign as national skipper was not a happy or successful one while Kohli has, despite the occasional setbacks, shown that he has a penchant for leading the side. Both Kohli and Tendulkar are brilliant fielders and it is seldom that one has seen either of them drop a catch or caught unawares on the field.

To sum up, Tendulkar and Kohli are both colossuses who straddle the world of batting in international cricket. Tendulkar was the first cricketing superstar from India and he grew into a national icon, worthy of being emulated and even worshipped. Kohli’s career is on the upward trajectory and at this juncture he is in such brilliant form that he appears capable of rewriting all the existing records. However, it remains to be seen whether he can withstand the physical and mental pressures associated with playing the game at the highest level for a long time and until he does that comparisons with Tendulkar would lack credibility.

It should be remembered that Tendulkar is held close in the hearts of a billion plus population not merely for the records he broke and reset, but for giving the nation the confidence that we can stand up and emerge as the best in the world. Hence comparisons based on statistics would only serve to bring an idiom to mind - “Statistics are like bikini suits; what they reveal is suggestive but what they conceal is vital.”

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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