One has established himself as an all-time, all-format great. The other, six years the junior, is well on his way to doing the same.
One is part of a five-member club with 10,000+ runs in men’s T20s; no one in this elite group has a more consistent runs-per-innings return than him. The other is the leading run-getter in the format in the last five years, by some margin; since the start of 2017, he has 6,000+ runs – the next entrant on the list has 5107.
Both have a lot in common: top-order batters, with world-leading consistency, and gorgeous strokeplay.
At the moment, another commonality unites them in a week where the minds of millions in the subcontinent are focused on one big event scheduled for 24 October: they will lead India and Pakistan when the neighbours collide in their T20 World Cup opener in Dubai on Sunday.
How do Virat Kohli and Babar Azam stack up with each other in T20 cricket? Let’s take a look.
Kohli Ahead by Far, Babar Making Quick Strides
Kohli, by virtue of his longer playing stint, has a sizeable lead on the run tally – Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Shoaib Malik, and David Warner are his only companions in the 10k+ club – but Azam’s returns per game, were he to maintain it for more years, should see him join the club in the not-so-distant future.
Azam began his T20 journey in late 2012, but had only batted 34 times till the end of 2016. By this time, Kohli had stamped his class on the format – he had been the Player of the Tournament at two World T20s, a feat no one else has achieved in the history of the competition.
Kohli has been the faster scorer of the two in T20s; until the end of 2018, Azam was yet to find the greater gears in the shortest format (more on that below).
The one department where Azam is clear of Kohli – or any other batter, for that matter – is the consistency of churning out big scores. With a 50-plus score every 3.8 innings, Kohli himself is among the best on this parameter; just that Azam does so every 2.9 innings. Of the 316 players to have batted at least 100 times in men’s T20s, no one else has taken less than three innings for every score of 50 or better.
Focusing on internationals alone, Kohli and Azam have identical returns per game – but the gulf in their scoring rate is wider, with the Indian making half a run more every over than the Pakistani
One's a Chaser, the Other a Run-Setter
Sticking with T20Is only, one point of distinction between the two lies in the innings-wise split: Kohli is the master of the chase; Azam is an ace run-setter.
Kohli’s returns batting first are far from middling – his average knock when India take first strike is 30 runs off 21 balls. But his performances when India chase are of mythical proportions: he scores 47 runs per innings – an average of 83.76 – while still maintaining a scoring rate of 8.23 per over. He has 18 half-centuries in just 37 innings batting second; unsurprisingly, India have won 29 of these games – and have never lost a T20I when Kohli has remained unbeaten in a chase.
Azam returns 41 runs per innings batting first, and 37 batting second, but his steady approach (combined with a bowling attack that excels at defending totals) enables Pakistan to enjoy better returns than India when they set targets: Pakistan have won 21 out of 32 games batting first with Azam in the XI; out of Kohli’s 47 innings batting first, India have been victorious in 25.
Virat in T20s
The one thing that is beginning to look clear is that Kohli the T20 batter is a force in decline.
The soon-to-be 33-year-old’s T20 career can broadly be broken into four phases: 2007-2010, when Kohli, quite like the format itself, was trying to establish himself; 2011-2015, when he started blooming into one of the best; 2016-2019, when he was, for the longest time, the best in the business; and the last two years, where he has found the going tougher than at any stage since he was established in the world game.
No look back at Kohli’s career is complete without offering the rightful pride of place to 2016 – a year when Kohli touched batting immortality. In T20s that year, Kohli’s ‘average’ knock saw him score 56 runs off 38 balls. He amassed 1,614 runs in just 29 innings, the second-most for any batter in a year (Gayle made 1,665 runs from 36 innings in 2015); he crossed 50 in 18 of those 29 innings, the most 50+ scores for any batter in a year; he averaged 89.67, the highest for any batter with 500+ runs in a calendar year.
It was, without exaggeration, quite Bradmanesque. Kohli continued to be prolific for the next few years, until the end of 2019. In this period, Kohli was hitting a 50+ score every three innings; his scoring rate during these four years was nearly 0.8 runs per over greater than what he’s managed through the rest of his career.
2019, incidentally, was the year Azam’s T20 batting began to fully blossom.
Azam's Picking Up Pace in T20s
Until 2018, Azam had never scored more than 7.50 runs per over through a calendar year (barring 2013, where he only batted four times). After getting very few T20s in his first five years in the game, he started making himself a regular presence in all his teams through the weight of consistent returns over 2017-18.
Ever since, he’s further upped the consistency levels – but more vitally, made a significant improvement to the rate at which he scores his runs.
A soaring Azam, along with a dipping Kohli, skew the recent form book heavily in the Pakistan captain’s favour. Do bear in mind their respective ages: Kohli’s slide began after he entered the 30s; Azam’s rise started in his mid-20s, conventionally believed to be the age where batters start hitting their prime (Kohli was 28 when he enjoyed his surreal 2016).
Virat vs Babar: Last Two Years
Two things stick out when you look at the last couple of years in Kohli’s T20 batting: the scoring rate is at an all-time personal low, and while that generally tends to coincide with batters assuming a more ‘grafting’ role as they enter their late years, it’s not as though the scores are in line with what you expect from anchors.
Kohli has crossed 50 ten times in 44 innings since the start of 2020 – not bad at all for the average batter, but this is not an average batter. It’s his worst conversion rate over any two-year spell of his career post-2010.
Azam, in this duration, has taken his already world-leading rate of scoring 50s to an even higher plane, crossing the landmark once every 2.1 innings.
A deeper examination of the numbers reveals two glaring areas for the Indian skipper: runs have completely dried up for Kohli in the middle overs, and against spin.
Batting in the Middle Overs
There have been contrasting turns of fortune for Kohli and Azam when it comes to batting in the middle overs in T20s.
From 2011 till the end of 2019, Kohli had a scoring rate of 7.99 between overs 7-16, and he found a boundary every seven balls in this phase. Since 2020, he’s meandered at less than seven per over, and takes more than 12 balls for every boundary he hits in the middle overs.
Azam, before the start of 2020, used to score 7.44 per over in this phase, with 8.8 balls per boundary. He’s found gears high enough to operate at 8.46 per over ever since, and finds the boundary every six balls.
Kohli does come into his own if he lasts until the death overs – he is among the best in the world between overs 17-20 in the last two years – owing to his still supreme ability against fast bowling.
The squeeze in the middle overs is a direct function of his waning powers facing spin.
Facing Pace and Spin
Forget Azam and his breathtaking brilliance of the past couple of years and compare Kohli with his own former self, and it still makes for telling reading.
Through his decade of dominance from 2011 to 2019, Kohli accumulated 7.88 runs per over against spin, hitting a boundary every seven balls – he’s now taking twice as many deliveries to find the fence when facing spinners.
It’s not even as if there was some marginal, steady decline over the latter part of those nine years that suggested this was coming; in the two years immediately preceding this falling-off-the-cliff, Kohli was still scoring 7.45 per over versus spin, with a boundary every eight balls.
The biggest bane to the once Batman is a tool readily available to most teams in the world today: leg-spin.
This was a bowling type Kohli feasted upon through his reign over T20 cricket – from 2011 to 2019, he averaged 56.39 while tonking right-arm leg-spinners at 8.97 runs per over, with less than six balls per each hit to the fence.
Ever since? The average remains solid, at 59, but Kohli is now scoring 6.63 runs an over against leg-spin – and taking 14 balls for every boundary.
In T20Is over this period, teams have preyed on this weakness: nearly 27 percent of all deliveries Kohli has faced in T20Is since the start of 2020 have been bowled by leg-spinners, and his returns are a humbling 98 runs from 97 balls, out thrice.
It’s an area each opponent will look to exploit at the World Cup, starting with Azam’s Pakistan on Sunday.
A T20 World Cup Debut for Babar
The hope – for Kohli, for Team India, for anyone rooting for India – is for Kohli to be able to channel anything like his World Cup self for this, his first – and only – T20 World Cup as captain.
Only three players have more runs in Men’s T20 World Cup history; no one has more scores above; of all the players to have featured in at least two editions, no one comes even close to his batting average of 86.33 (second-best, prior to the start of the 2021 edition, is Michael Hussey – at 54.62).
Azam, on the other hand, is featuring at the T20 World Cup for the first time.
Experience is stacked on one side; recent form is loaded in the other’s favour. Their performances won’t necessarily define Sunday’s contest, or indeed the campaign that their teams go on to have. But it’s a subplot everyone will be keeping an eye on.