15 November, 2023 will go down in cricketing history as a golden day as a batsman for the first time ever reached 50 centuries in One-day Internationals.
The day will go down in Virat Kohli’s career as the platinum day as he achieved that record in front of his idol Sachin Tendulkar, one of his all-time favourite players, Vivian Richards, his wife Anushka and football great David Beckham at a packed-to-the-brim Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. However, more importantly, his hundred in the semi-final against New Zealand, steered India into their fourth ICC ODI World Cup final.
Kohli’s place in the pantheon of world’s cricketers is safe and secure. Even if he decides to retire at this stage -- with 80 international tons under his belt to Tendulkar’s 100 -- he will still go down in the annals of the game as an iconic cricketer of his generation and someone who captured public consciousness.
“I couldn’t be happier that an Indian broke my record. And to do it on the biggest stage -- in the World Cup Semi-final -- and at my home ground is the icing on the cake,” Tendulkar tweeted after Kohli broke his record at the retired cricketer’s home ground.
Having turned 35 just ten days before his 50th ODI century, Kohli is racing against time to catch up with his mentor Tendulkar’s 100 international centuries. At present, this puzzle -- whether or not Kohli would eventually emulate Tendulkar -- remains the biggest area of interest in Indian cricket.
Tendulkar had scored his 49 ODI tons in 463 matches while Kohli took just 291 matches to get one better than him. But the numeric comparison ends there. Tendulkar, a naturally gifted cricketer, had a huge advantage over all his contemporaries, and even generations before and after him, as he made his ODI debut aged 16 years 238 days while Kohli began his at 19 years 287 days.
Tendulkar was also fortunate that he received the crucial backing of the then all-powerful chairman of the selection committee, Raj Singh Dungarpur, and unconditional guidance from his family, particularly from elder brother Ajit. No other cricketer in 50 years and more received such strong backing from the selectors, though Tendulkar lived up to their expectations and exceeded it.
On the other hand, Kohli didn’t have such privileges, comparatively speaking. He had to fight his own battle in Delhi’s cricketing circle, where each one is always ready to pull the other down. His dogged determination and a strong will to succeed helped him overcome the hurdles and he has gone on to carve a niche for himself.
So, if all the aspects of the cricketing journeys of Kohli and Tendulkar are compared, the Delhi batsman has come up the hard way.
Some people might still not realise or understand the sheer weight and significance of Kohli’s 50-ton record, but in several ways it is no less important than Tendulkar’s. While Tendulkar set a high benchmark, Kohli has shown the audacity to go one better.
In Good Space
Kohli now finds himself in good space. In terms of achievements, he has broken many records. And these days, every time he takes guard, he breaks some or the other record. His current numbers are, anyway, mind boggling -- 26,478 runs in 517 international matches. He has 10,925 runs in 143 first-class matches. Any cricketer would be proud of these fantastic numbers. But Kohli is a perfectionist and ambitious. So, he is expected to play as long as possible, and there is nothing wrong in it. And, if in doing so, he breaks some more records of Tendulkar, so be it.
After all, Kohli is no Mark Taylor, who as Australia captain declared himself overnight at 334 not out in a Test against Pakistan in 1998. He did that partly out of respect for Sir Donald Bradman, whose highest score was the same, when, as captain he could have continued and aimed for 400. Going by his nature, Kohli is unlikely to show that kind of reverence to any player or his records when he comes close to breaking them.
Confident, Relaxed, Mature
When Kohli led India to the 2008 Under-19 World Cup and he and his teammates indulged in some theatrical celebrations, Bishan Singh Bedi was furious. He didn’t approve of the type of merriment they indulged in in Kuala Lumpur. Then, his middle finger gesture in Australia and other similar didn’t endear him to the connoisseurs of the game.
However, Kohli has matured over the years, and seems a far more evolved man, and simultaneously he has been piling up runs in both Test and ODI cricket (he seems out of favour with the selectors for T20Is). And he has either started believing in destiny or his faith in destiny has consolidated since the controversy over captaincy vis-à-vis him and Rohit Sharma erupted a couple of years ago. He has said a couple of times that one gets only what was preordained, no matter how much effort one makes.
This thinking seems to have given Kohli a lot of mental peace. And this is reflected on his new-found confidence on the field. He had always been confident and brash, but his changed belief in destiny seems to have improved his batsmanship, too. On the field, he smiles more now, without losing his intensity and aggressiveness. In a nutshell, his batting and fielding, which is perhaps sharper now, shows his coming of age.
Kohli has lost none of his aggression or his trademark celebrations with advancing age. But he seems more evolved now. His smile-and-make-up gesture with Afghanistan speedster Naveen-ul-Haq during an India-Afghanistan World Cup game in Delhi on 11 October was the latest example of his maturity. During the IPL, Kohli and Naveen exchanged a few words after a Royal Challengers Bangalore-Lucknow Super Giants match in Lucknow. That led to LSG mentor Gautam Gambhir -- who as KKR captain once had an on-field fight with Kohli -- and some other players jumping into chaotic scenes at LSG’s home ground, the Ekana Stadium in Lucknow.
After May, Kohli and Naveen came face to face for the first time in the World Cup match in Delhi. While Kohli was about to complete the formalities of a one-sided Indian win, Naveen was booed while fielding in front of the ‘Virat Kohli Pavilion’ at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in Delhi. Kohli gestured to the spectators not to do it. This move won hearts, and after the match Naveen and Kohli smiled, greeted, hugged each other. Naveen acknowledged that he and Kohli have kissed and made up, so to say.
On other occasions, Kohli has shown his friendly face to Pakistani players off the field and even presented India’s ODI blue jerseys to captain Babar Azam and others. While in football, players exchanging shirts is commonplace, Kohli doing the same assumes significance, especially when he and Pakistanis mingle.
Kohli showed his humane face again when people on social media trolled his teammate and pacer Mohammed Shami on some issue. He quickly came to the defence of Shami when almost all the other Indian cricketers remained indifferent to Shami.
Ever since Kohli was forced to give up Test captaincy, after having resigned from the T20 captaincy, he has changed as a person while his batting again blossomed. He has overcome the supposed drought of centuries, since scoring his 71st international ton against Afghanistan during the T20 Asia Cup in 2022 in Dubai.
And while fielding he has remained a livewire, taking sharp catches while smiling, dancing to songs being played on public address system in stadiums, clapping, and indulging with spectators, and at times offering suggestions/advice to captain Rohit Sharma.
(The writer is a journalist based in Delhi and has covered cricket for three decades. He tweets at @AlwaysCricket)