In the Age of King Kohli, Have We Stopped Looking for the “Next Sachin”?

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In the Age of King Kohli, Have We Stopped Looking for the “Next Sachin”?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I

n the 1990s, nearly every kid who picked up a cricket bat had a single idol at whose altar they worshipped – Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. So peerless were his skills, he attained divine status, coming to be known as the God of Indian Cricket. Indian fans especially, were his most faithful supporters, so much so that the saying “When Tendulkar scores well, India sleeps well” was coined. He broke records like politicians break election promises, and at the peak of his powers, seemed truly irreplaceable.

How quickly we forget. Today is Tendulkar’s 46th birthday, and while it took a few generations of cricketers before he was considered the equal of Don Bradman, Sachin’s position of GOAT is already being threatened by a player with whom he used to share a dressing room – Virat Kohli. Kohli was 19 years he made he made his debut in the Indian side. Eleven years later, he is not just the current Indian captain and number one batsman in the world, he is also considered by many to be a legitimate contender to Tendulkar’s legacy as the most gifted player to take the crease for India.

The numbers don’t lie. Kohli was faster to reach 10,000 runs, his batting average is higher than Tendulkar’s at 59.52 as opposed to Tendulkar’s 42.63, and he has greater success converting his 50s into 100s. He’s already looking like a better candidate to catch up, and even overtake Sachin’s record for most centuries. Even Ricky Ponting, who at one point was locked in competition with Sachin to break Sunil Gavaskar’s record of most Test centuries, never seemed to come as close as Kohli is now. With each passing series, as Kohli grows in confidence, it starts to seem like Sachin set records only so Virat could come along and smash them.

Of course, there are mitigating factors to be considered when evaluating the performance of these two once-in-a-generation talents. Tendulkar apologists will be quick to point out how the present game is much more batsman-friendly, giving Kohli the advantage, and how the bowling attacks of today are toothless compared to Tendulkar’s opponents – all-time greats like Wasim Akram, Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, and Allan Donald. But even accounting for these intangible influences, just the fact that Kohli has risen so high that he is even mentioned in the same breath as Tendulkar is nothing short of phenomenal.

Tendulkar left behind giant shoes to fill, but Kohli laced them up before he could even take off his socks.

As mentioned earlier, before Sachin, Don Bradman was considered the gold standard of batting in cricket. Bradman retired in 1948, nearly 30 years before Tendulkar was even born. In the period between these two legends, batsman of the highest calibre, like Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar carved out their own legacy, but Bradman remained untouchable until Sachin came along. But it’s only been six years since Sachin’s retirement, and Kohli’s already been considered the heir-apparent for a few years now.

Tendulkar left behind giant shoes to fill, but Kohli laced them up before he could even take off his socks. Bereft of their beloved God, Indian cricket fans were quick to appoint a new messiah. The transition is interesting, given how different their playing styles are. Both were defined by prodigious talent, but while Sachin was soft-spoken, with flourishes of genius doing his talking for him, Kohli is combative and aggressive, equally so whether he’s dancing down the pitch for a drive or sledging the opposition. And while successfully captaining the Indian team is probably the one feat Tendulkar was unable to pull off during his career, Kohli seems to be handling that job quite well (though the same can’t be said of his stint as the skipper of Royal Challengers Bangalore).

Some would say that comparing the two is a futile exercise, that we should simply appreciate our good fortune at getting to witness two players of such high calibre forge their sporting destinies one after the other. Even Kohli, when asked to comment on the comparisons, has said, “Please don’t compare me to the man who is the reason why I started playing this game.” I’m inclined to agree. Despite growing up as a die-hard Tendulkar devotee, I’m happy that Kohli has ably assumed his position as Team India’s franchise player. In the Tendulkar vs Kohli debate, the only true winners are the fans and the future of Indian cricket.

Tendulkar, through no fault of his own, was dangerously close to becoming Indian cricket’s albatross. The shadow he cast was so large, that the nation mourned his retirement and wondered about how we would find “the next Sachin”. But Kohli’s ascendance has set Sachin’s legacy free. We can now fully appreciate Tendulkar’s genius career without worrying if we’ll ever find a suitable replacement, thanks to Kohli. Because he proved that what Indian cricket needed wasn’t “the next Sachin”, but the first Virat Kohli.

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