Monday, Jan 22, 2018 | Last Update : 11:39 AM IST
Virat Kohli and Steve Smith, both 28, have taken the challenge head-on and carved out their places among the all-time great captains.
I don’t know any game which entails such a severe and prolonged strain on the skipper, but, like the master of a ship he must exercise control and accept the responsibility,” wrote Sir Donald Bradman in his renowned book, The Art of Cricket. No team sport asks more of its leader on and off the field than cricket in its purest form. Other games may make greater physical demands of its exponents but five consecutive days of intense competition creates unbearable levels of mental and emotional stress. Virat Kohli and Steve Smith are two cricketers who have taken the challenge head-on. The two flagbearers of the modern game are not only in the form of their lives, but have also carved out their places among the all-time great captains.
The year 2017 saw Kohli and Smith, both 28, lead their respective countries to milestone victories. Kohli slammed back-to-back double tons to guide India to their ninth consecutive series win in December, while Smith helped Australia regain the prestigious Ashes with his brilliant double-century in Perth.
Fans in India may not have seen Smith at his best save in a rare IPL innings or in a rarer Test win in India which his Australian team achieved before going down in the series to Kohli’s all-conquering team on its famous home run of nine series on the trot.
But when it comes to Test cricket around the globe, not even Kohli has been able to keep pace with the Aussie who is the third fastest to score 6,000 Test runs, behind only the incomparable Don Bradman and Garfield Sobers.
In 60 Tests (all stats as of January 1, 2018), Smith has scored 5,974 runs at an average of 63.55. Kohli, who has played 63 Tests, has scored 5,268 at an average of 53.75. Since January 2016, Smith averages 74.34, scoring 2,384 runs in 22 Tests. Having played a similar number of Tests in the same period, Kohli has scored 2,274 runs with a slightly better average of 75.80.
The most intriguing piece of statistics is where these two cricketers figure in the elite list of 27 captains who have scored more than 3,000 runs. The average of Smith (76.31) and Kohli (67.44) are next only to Bradman’s astonishing figures of 101.51.
Their Bradmanesque streak of form quite predictably triggered a debate over who’s the better of the two. And many former players leaned towards Smith in the Test arena while labelling Kohli as the best across all three formats of the game.
No wonder Smith’s fabulous batting has even made his opponents sit up and marvel at it. “One day teams will need to talk to Smith prior to a Test match and settle down on a number that both parties agree upon,” tweeted R. Ashwin suggesting that it’s impossible to stop Smith from scoring big. Smith’s Ashes form was so immense as to bring that comment from the offie who has had quite a few trysts with the free-scoring Aussie who thinks nothing of stepping across his stumps to whip the spinners to the on-side.
Both batsmen have a penchant for scoring big hundreds. Since 2016, Smith has blasted 10 centuries and Kohli nine. Of Smith’s total of 23 tons, 13 have come on home turf, three in England, three in India and one apiece in New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean. Half of Kohli’s 20 hundreds have come at home. He has found Australian soil most to his liking away from India thus far, scoring five centuries there.
As spin wizard Shane Warne recently pointed it out, the hole in Kohli’s CV on the Test match stage is in England where the swinging Duke ball had the Indian in trouble in the only series he has played there so far. Kohli struggled miserably throughout the 2014 series in England, scoring just 134 runs in 10 innings for a 13.4 average. Despite not having a solid technique closer to the textbook style that Kohli possesses, Smith holds a clear advantage, having scored 953 runs in England at 43.31 from 23 innings.
“To me a great batsman has to have made a hundred in three key countries: in England, against the Duke ball on seaming and swinging pitches; in Australia, on our fast-paced, bouncy tracks against the Kookaburra ball and, of course, in the dust bowls of India, on pitches that spin and spit,” said Warne.
Smith is, however, no match for Kohli in ODIs. Having already scored 9,030 runs in 202 appearances, Kohli’s average of 55.74 puts him on top of the list, way ahead of Sachin Tendulkar. Experts feel Kohli is on course to scale the ‘Mt Everest’, which is the record of 100 international centuries set by the Little Master.
Also, Kohli’s chances of achieving a rare triple of occupying the No.1 spot in all three formats are a lot brighter although he has considerable work to do in South Africa to overcome Smith who is marching on in every innings towards Summit Bradman.
Former India captain Ajit Wadekar said Kohli has an insatiable appetite for runs across formats. “Virat is made of a different mould altogether. He doesn’t like losing. He is a tremendously attacking cricketer. The present-day game requires that type of a cricketer because without that you won’t be able to attract the crowd,” Wadekar said.
Smith has come a long way from an obscure player who made his debut as a leg-spinner against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010 to be in a tight race with Kohli, who has always been considered a premier batsman, for the honour of ‘the greatest of the most modern era’.
There is a striking similarity in the way the careers of Kohli and Smith have panned out, especially after taking over the captaincy as stand-ins in the same series — during the Australian summer of 2014-15. They both scored centuries in their first match while leading. Kohli made three-figure scores in each of his first three innings and Smith made three centuries in his first five. Since then, both have gone on a relentless run-fest. Both bat at No.4 in Tests and average well above 50. While the Aussie is ranked No.1 in the computerised performance ladder, the Indian is breathing down his neck.
Out in the batting crease, they present a contrasting study. While Kohli does everything by the book, the fidgety Smith is at the other end of the spectrum with his idiosyncratic style. He walks right across his crease, bats with a very dominant bottom hand and yet makes up with an amazing hand-eye coordination.
Former Australian batsman Dean Jones says the elements of classic technique associated with Kohli’s perfectly side-on batting is a treat for the connoisseur. “Some of our guys are front-on and their back-lift is bad. They are getting away with all that as they play on flat tracks in Australia these days,” Jones told this newspaper.
There are a few others who are leading by example as premier batsman-captain like Joe Root. But Smith and Kohli are way ahead on the scale. While Kohli wears his emotions on his sleeve, Smith would like to pretend that he is the poker-faced Aussie traditionalist as captain, but he fails often as his face betrays the disappointments if his bowlers stray. Smith may not be in the same class when it comes to exulting in triumph but then Kohli can be said to carry the bigger burden of a billion cricket fans among his countrymen. Kohli, with his brand endorsements and more valuable IPL contract, is the richest cricketer in the world at the moment. However, Smith earns more through a retainer. Smith is paid $1.469 million a year by CricketAustralia, while Kohli gets approximately $1 million as salary from BCCI.