There is no greater measure of a world-class player than a “rival” fan admitting to his/her greatness. In Virat Kohli’s case, I’ve been that rival fan for years now. I’ve spent my 20s admiring Rohit Sharma – an unusual choice, I know, but there’s no bigger pleasure than watching Rohit in full flow. Even purists put down their swords and gape with their mouths open. So, I am a Rohit Sharma fan, and that hasn’t changed since 2007. Therefore, when someone like Virat Kohli comes to the crease, I’m not always very happy. It’s almost always at the fall of an opener, which in some cases is Rohit Sharma. The face of Kohli walking out is often accompanied by the face of Rohit scrunching up his nose and berating the sky for a silly mistake.
And it’s almost always after Rohit has played a suicidal shot despite being in terrific form. And then, when I begin to watch Kohli bat – and accumulate, crave, drive, count and straight-bat balls to all parts of the field (I believe Kohli has half the talent, but double the drive) – I grudgingly, enviously come to terms with the fact that Kohli is perhaps the greatest limited-overs batsman of our era. This takes some “humble pie” moments, often after Rohit throws it away, and Kohli takes the innings forward the way it should be taken. It’s like watching Sachin Tendulkar discover that risk-free accumulator mode in his third coming (between 2008 and 2011); they almost always never disappoint, which can be mighty disappointing for fans like me. Don’t get me wrong – I want India to win, I always do – but watching Kohli do it time and again only makes me dream of how it could have been Rohit instead. And it should be, at times.
But Kohli’s failures are never really failures – they’re just the result of a human reminding us that he is human – but Rohit’s failures are always lost opportunities. Because he always looks better than others at the crease, until he decides to be otherwise.
Nobody plans an innings like Kohli. Just when you thought Rohit had mastered the ODI format – and he has shown signs of mastering the modern-day opening role (see yourself in, lash out in the end) – Kohli has mastered a format he was least likely to outshine Rohit in. After all, it’s Rohit who has tasted repeated IPL success as a player and captain of Mumbai Indians (and in 2009, Deccan Chargers), and it’s Rohit who hit the scene running in 2007 as part of India’s T20 World Cup winning squad. His half century against South Africa followed by his cameo against Pakistan in the final was the difference, as the 20-year old captured imaginations. Kohli, often, even now, looks out of sorts in domestic T20 matches, and his RCB team never really go the distance despite being buried with superstars. But on the international stage, in stark contrast to Rohit (who somehow can’t quite come to terms with the opening role in T20 internationals – he bats at three or four in the IPL), Kohli discovers some kind of wonder mental state, where he believes he can never fail. He brings the classical habit of pacing an innings with technique and timely understanding back into T20 cricket, which is why he ends up at the crease whenever India chases down a score. He is a master of chasing down the moderate 150 scores when nobody else can even stand at the crease, and looks to be playing a different game on a different pitch.
Take, for example, his recent 55* against Pakistan in another crunch World Cup game. As Maxwell later noted on Twitter, the 55 was worth 237 on the Eden Gardens’ rank turner. I know nobody who is personally an all-out Kohli fan – I wonder if he has diehard fans (because he is too great and too predictably reliable; fans like unpredictability) – but I found myself texting my friends in a bittersweet manner while he went about constructing yet another famous innings: “Does he not get tired of being so good?”
When India was 21/3, Kohli had played barely four balls. Wickets fell around, which, nowadays, almost make you feel like that what he needs to make him look great. He always takes up the challenge when wickets fall around him. Pressure boosts his energy because it gives him a definite target. His numbers in this format border on the verge of insanity. But it’s the way he consistently provides stability to a shaky Indian top order in testing conditions – the way he makes me look away because of how perfectly he does it, the way he makes me feel like screaming “you’re the best! I GET IT” – that sets apart Kohli from any other Indian batsman I’ve ever seen. It’s the way he rotated the strike, and found boundaries at will at the best moments, the way he found gaps in the field irrespective of who bowled to him, the way he eased the pressure with an uncharacteristic sweep shot, followed by his wristy flicks and wristy drives and wristy everything. He didn’t seem to play out dot balls, and if he did, he’d get a double off the next ball to keep things in check. He plays exactly as he wants to play, and revels in doing it against the run of play. He counterpunches right when the bowling side thinks they have it covered.
The truth is – Kohli is cricket’s Rafael Nadal (when he was at his peak), incredibly efficient, perfectly freaky and beautifully strategic, while Rohit is forever striving to become cricket’s Roger Federer.
One has succeeded, the other hasn’t – and possibly never will.