Raghu Srinivasan

Is Virat Kohli the Greatest of All Time ODI Batters?

And who might even be able to catch up with him?

Image Courtesy of icc-cricket.com

As someone who grew up with Sachin Tendulkar, I’ve always had an enormous amount of respect and appreciation for the man and his achievements. Some might say it borders on worship but they would be exaggerating. Only slightly. I have resisted the Virat “King” Kohli craze for years because "in my heart" I knew Tendulkar was - and would always be - the greatest. In fact, it was only when Tendulkar (who made his international debut at age 16) began breaking some of Sunil Gavaskar’s records only after getting to age 25 or 30 that I grudgingly began to appreciate how formidable Gavaskar himself must have been to have set records that took the great Tendulkar so many years to break.

On Nov 15th 2023, Kohli scored his 50th ODI century in the 2023 Men’s Cricket World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. With that, he surpassed his childhood idol (and former team mate) Tendulkar’s record of 49 ODIs centuries, a record that itself looked like it would stand forever. In fact, Tendulkar’s record lasted for over a decade, which is impressive in and of itself.

This latest record is an accumulative and longevity record - as opposed to say youngest to get to 100 or fastest to get to 100. Given this, I decided to set aside my inner Sachin fanboy and look at their numbers. How do these two stack up against each other? Is Kohli now the new GOAT or is Tendulkar still numero uno? They have both played a lot of cricket and have left a long “paper trail” and we can have a fun and productive dive into the data in trying to answer the question. We’ll start with some common metrics and then look at a couple uncommon ones. Let's get started!

First, it’s telling just how far ahead of the rest these two are: not only are Kohli and Tendulkar #1 and #2, the third on this leaderboard of ODI centurions is Rohit Sharma who is far, far, behind at 31 centuries. The next SIX are all retired. David Warner at #10 is the next closest active player with 22 ODI centuries. Sharma and Warner are both already over 35 years old at this point so the only real challenge to Kohli’s new record is likely Babar Azam. Azam has only 19 centuries currently but at age 29, he has time on his side.

Centuries obviously get the greatest attention but what about 50s? In many cases, a key 50+ score that didn’t quite make it to a hundred is what wins the match. So let’s look at the half centuries. From this standpoint, Tendulkar is back on top with 96 half centuries. Kohli is a distant 10th on the list with 71. Kohli will almost certainly get into the Top 5 by the end of his career though Tendulkar is still substantially ahead and will be hard to catch. But given how fit Kohli keeps himself it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he will someday get to 96.

Next, let’s look at averages: again, Kohli with an average of 58.69 beats everyone but Shubman Gill with a 62.97 average. Gill however has only played 43 ODI innings to date. It will take a lot of good batting to keep that 60+ average for the 279 ODI innings that Kohli has played to date. If Gill keeps it up at his current level though, he might end up with almost 35 ODI centuries. Azam is at #3 with an average of 56.72. If Azam keeps up his current level, he is on pace to get to 42 ODI centuries. Tendulkar, with an average of 44.83 ranks 24th. Fitness is key here too - for Gill or Azam to play at their ‘current level’ for the next 10 years, it’s not just a matter of cricketing talent but also the willingness and ability to stay fit. Kohli is the Tom Brady of Cricket as far as fitness is concerned!

Unlike in test matches, how quickly a batter scores is far more meaningful in ODIs. How does Kohli’s strike rate stand up? Among the top 10 century-getters, Kohli is #1 with an SR of 93.62. The only ones in the top 10 higher than him is AB de Villiers with 101.09 at #7 and Warner at #10 with 97.2. Among half centurions, Kohli is again #1 with his nearest rival being the distant #16 Adam Gilchrist with 96.94. On an absolute ranking of SR however, Kohli ranks only 13th.

And here is a particularly impressive and surprising stat. In terms of total career ODI runs scored, not only is Kohli #3 on the list, almost everyone else in the Top 10 - in fact the Top 35! - has now retired. Only Rohit Sharma at #12 is giving him some company but otherwise Kohli is majestically alone as he pursues #2 Kumar Sangakkara who he will likely catch and #1 Tendulkar who is waiting atop this summit.

Now for the less common measures. Absolute numbers are well and good but skew towards those with more opportunities. One way to ‘normalize’ these records is to scale them with the number of matches played so that people who played a decade or more ago who had fewer opportunities to play or from non-top-rung countries who play less cricket aren’t unduly penalized. What would the leaderboard look like with this innings-per-century metric factored in?

Well, Kohli would still be effectively #1 with a century every 5.6 times at bat. Dawid Malan is technically #1 as he scores a century every 5th ODI at-bat but he has only scored 6 centuries in 30 ODIs - so it’s hard to argue that he’s in the same league as Kohli. The only one within breathing distance for this metric that has scored a substantial number of ODI 100s - say 20 plus - is the (now retired) South African Hashim Amla who scored 27 ODI 100s at an average of a century every 6.6 innings. Tendulkar needed almost 10 at-bats per ODI century. Babar Azam has scored his 19 ODIs in 114 at-bats meaning a century for every 6th time at-bat.

Let’s look at one more - admittedly non-standard - metric. I call it the conversion rate. How often does a batter, having reached 50, convert it to a 100? A batter that has 2 50s and 2 100s has a conversion rate of 50% because of the 4 times they got to a 50+ score they made it to a 100+. By this metric also, Kohli is #4 with a conversion rate of 41.3%. The #1 and #2 are Daryl Mitchell (54.5%) and Dawid Malan (46.2%) but they have only played about 35 games each and scored only 6 centuries each. #3 is Calum MacLeod (43.5%) of Scotland with 13 50s and 10 100s - quite impressive. One does wonder what the Glaswegian MacLeod could have accomplished if he was born just a 100 miles south, in England! Kohli is especially impressive given that in that three year run of ‘bad form’ circa 2019 to 2022, Kohli got to fifty 22 times without once converting to a 100.

Ironically, unless Kohli has another ‘bad patch’, he might never reach Tendulkar’s 96 50s simply because he’ll convert more of them to 100s. As problems go, it is a wonderful one to have!

As much as data takes the emotion out of these analyses, a lot of what the greats bring to the game is more than just sporting talent, it is also how well they conduct themselves. For example Gary Lineker the former captain of the English Football (Soccer?) team did not get a single yellow or red card in ANY type of game for his entire career. Similarly, Tendulkar was famously unflappable and let his bat do all the talking. Kohli on the other hand has a face more emotive than a Kathakali dancer’s and is frequently more excited than the bowler when a wicket falls. Most mere mortals walk when clean bowled but when Moeen Ali did exactly that in the Chennai test match in 2021, Kohli was so stunned that he reality-distorted the umpires into questioning their own eyes and reviewed the obvious - and confirmed it too! Kohli has also picked up some criticism for being a bit of a record chaser. On the other hand he brings a level of intensity and commitment that has on the whole been a big plus for the team. But at this point we are veering back into the subjective, how-I-feel aspects between the two and should stop.

What’s the final word? Kohli has scored more hundreds than anyone and not only has he overtaken Tendulkar, the rest of the world is way behind. Kohli scores his centuries more often than almost anyone in that top strata. He will likely end his career as #1 or #2 on the 50s list. He will likely end with a Top 3 average and a Top 3 strike rate among the top century getters. And most ominously for oppositions, once he gets to a 50, he converts that to a 100 more often than almost anyone else in the world. The verdict is in: Kohli is the GOAT of ODI batters.

Who, if anyone, can catch up to Kohli? At this point, the only person who seems like they have a realistic shot at it is Babar Azam. It is way too early to speak of Shubman Gill. We shall see in 5 years.

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