On 15th April 2011, Sachin Tendulkar hit his maiden and only T20 league century against the Kochi Tuskers on a muggy Mumbai night. This was merely 12 days after he had enjoyed his career’s finest night at the same stadium, winning the ICC World Cup with India for the first time. The crowd just couldn’t get enough of him. He was carried around the ground on the shoulders of a young, upcoming batting star named Virat Kohli – an ex U-19 captain who had displaced senior talents and early talents to claim the No. 3 spot in a star-studded lineup.
With a beautiful quote ("He has carried the nation on his shoulders for 20 years. This is the least we can do."), Kohli had demonstrated that under his consummate professional exterior lay an excitable fan-boy who was carrying his idol and hero on his shoulders. He had lived for this moment – and experienced it very early in his 20s. From now on, this moment would spur him to emulate the legend of Tendulkar.
We all know that Tendulkar took another two years to score his 100th century, and retire painfully in a custom-made Test series against a weak West Indian team. We all know that Kohli then took the baton, literally, and climbed to hitherto unknown heights in limited-overs cricket as well as occasional Test series.
Nobody has screamed about Kohli being the next Sachin. The best part is that his identity is unique, and he has carved out a reputation for himself which is arguably for solid than his idol when it comes to “carrying” the team. He has been doing it with freakish consistency over the last year or so, and has now carried that form into the Indian T20 league – where he has led an unsuccessful Royal Challengers Bangalore side for more than two years.
Hence, almost five years to the day, on 24th April 2016, Virat Kohli scored his first T20 century against the Gujarat Lions (a new franchise, just like the Tuskers in 2011) at Rajkot. It came in 63 balls to Sachin’s 66, and had 11 fours to Sachin’s 12, and just one six to Sachin’s three. Both innings ended on the last ball of the first innings, and both finished on 100 not out. RCB finished on 180/2 and MI finished on 182/2 in 2011. And another conveniently forgotten coincidence: Both were captains, and their teams ended up losing the match. If it was Brendon McCullum and Mahela Jayawardene for the Tuskers, it was again McCullum and Dinesh Karthik for the Lions.
In short, the masters’ centuries went in vain. This has lately also been the story of Kohli’s career. He dragged his below-par Indian T20 outfit through the World T20 Championships to the semis against West Indies. He single-handedly won them games against Pakistan and Australia, and once again slammed boundaries all around the Wankhede against the Windies to help his team score 190/2. Again, just two wickets.
The cynics will observe a disturbing trend here: It crystallized in the way the marauding West Indians went about their chase, and made a mockery of it by depending solely on their six-hitting power. They didn’t bother with Kohli’s hard-run twos and momentum-swinging fours. They didn’t bother finding the gaps – where the sky was available for them. They simply swung, missed, hit and won the game on pure brute power. No amount of ‘smartness’ and ‘fitness’ by Kohli and his running partners could have outscored the basic innate animalistic instincts of big hitters in a format built on them. As much as Kohli had demonstrated that pure, classic stroke-making ability works against Australia a match before that, the West Indians showed him up for what he lacked.
And yes, Kohli – for all his mad ability and consistency – lacks something. He lacks that power – that switch that only a few Indian batsmen (Rohit Sharma comes to mind) have, the ability to change gears into monstrous mode. He isn’t associated with huge hits, but clean strikes and needling gaps. He can’t swing through the line with as much success as some of the game’s most murderous hitters like Chris Gayle, McCullum, Andre Russell, AB de Villiers, Glenn Maxwell and Chris Morris.
And this is not a weakness – in many situations, it is even a strength – for his tendency to read a game and keep the rate going is second to none. But he always needs some kind of support – preferably a guy who can clear the boundary at will. Lately, MS Dhoni has fallen away, and Rohit failed in the World T20s. Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh were shadows of themselves. So Kohli had to play many roles – and couldn’t quite fill all. A marauding Kohli – or a marauding Tendulkar – would have remained not out not on 100, but on 130 or so, and their teams would have crossed 220.
Very rarely do you see a T20 opener scoring a century and their team ending on a total of less than 200 for the loss of virtually no wickets. Something, somewhere, is not right then. The hitters down the order couldn’t come in, and the grafters and builders at the top attempted to basically run the innings. There’s a reason captains try to achieve balance in the middle order – for these situations, where the platform is set. The platform-builders aren’t expected – and shouldn’t be – batting in the final over.
Kohli is a four-hitter. He is a chaser. He isn’t the setter. Tendulkar was the builder too. And sometimes, like in Sharjah, the lone chaser. But he wasn’t a Sanath Jayasuriya or an Adam Gilchrist. In a way, Kohli and Tendulkar are so good in such form that they can’t be dismissed, unintentionally playing into the opposition’s hands by throwing off their own team’s balance. No competitors want to see them batting in the 10th over, but the same competitors wouldn’t mind them batting in the slog overs. They struggle then, because they’ve grown up learning the art of batting, not the poetry of slogging.
Most of the time, they fail to loft the ball until it’s in the slot, and Kohli’s struggle was evident in Rajkot that night. He may have finished on 100, but his team’s score was never going to be enough on a flat pitch. If he had been dismissed for 60, with innovative hitters like Mandeep Singh and Sarfaraz Khan to follow, perhaps RCB would have been 200/6 – still 20 runs more than 180/2.
Which is why, it’s not shameful to admit that even legends have their limitations. Kohli is limited. Tendulkar was always limited. The only difference is – they stretch their strengths and limitations to its optimum possible mass. They do their strengths better than others. Taking the team home with a target in front is one of them, but reaching for an invisible target makes them look like they’re stabbing wildly in the dark hoping for an answer.