Apart from the overall superiority of the team, there are individual battles which help to lift the quality of the sport, and also add a bit of spice to it. If Sachin Tendulkar versus Brian Lara was a subject of animated debates among the previous generation of cricket fans, discussions of Virat Kohli versus Joe Root are beginning to take place now.
In different continents, playing in different time zones, this week the two batsmen held centrestage. The 27-year-old Kohli gave ammo to his fans with a double hundred in the tiny Caribbean Island of Antigua. As if inspired by his close rival’s feat, on the next day, the 25-year-old Root fired an equally impressive 254 at Manchester against Pakistan.
Marvelous in their last innings, both are classical batsmen with sound technique and shots all around the wicket. There’s no better sight than Kohli leaning forward to caress the ball through the covers while Root can take your breath away by standing tall, and, with vertical bat, easing the ball away through extra cover.
Javed Miandad, rated among the premier batsmen of the 1980s, doesn’t hesitate to call them the top-two batters in the world.
“I look at the performance of the player not the reputation. They have to go and get the runs and leave everything on the people to decide who is number one,” states Javed Miandad when HT called for his opinion.
“Both have unique qualities and are the two top players of the world now. They are key batsmen for their respective teams and it’s very difficult to rank them. When they are on the wicket you look forward to watching them,” observes Miandad.
The former Pakistan captain sees shades of himself in Kohli. “Kohli is aggressive and has matured quickly. He enjoys batting under pressure, and takes the team’s pressure like I used to for Pakistan and bat according to the team’s need… when to play fast, slow or waste time. Similarly, Kohli can change the game, he has the quality and can play shots all over. He is a dashing player.”
As for Root, the former Pakistan captain admires his great hunger for runs. “Root is very hardworking, and has tremendous powers of concentration. He simply seems to love batting and can occupy the crease for long hours.”
In the modern era, the challenges on batsmen are more for they have to prove themselves across three formats. Test cricket, one-day cricket and Twenty20, all put different demands. Test cricket tests the batsman’s temperament and skill, T20 cricket demands lot of power hitting and quick thinking.
Kohli and Root are among the rare breed of batsmen, who can be proud of the way they are switching gears and playing styles. There’s little to separate the two in the longer format of the game in the last two seasons, but in the limited overs, Kohli has set the benchmark.
After 42 Tests, Kohli is averaging in the mid-40s and has 12 hundreds (Antigua was his first double hundred). Playing in his 44th Test, Root is averaging 50 plus with 10 hundreds (including two double).
This year has mainly been about T20 cricket and Kohli has been spectacular. Root doesn’t have the runs to match the Indian captain, but he has given enough proof of his potential in the format. If Kohli was spectacular at world T20, Root took England to the final.
It’s Kohli’s record in the ODIs which Root will find difficult to match. The Indian has played almost 100 games more and has raced away to 25 centuries while Root is stuck on eight.
India’s former middle-order batsman and captain, Dilip Vengsarkar says: “Kohli is best in the world and Root is not very far behind. Root is very effective but not as classy as Kohli. Kohli dominates and it makes things easier for other batsmen.”
It’s mainly about how you play in different conditions, and fare away from home. For Kohli, the double hundred in Antigua was important because he had struggled in the Caribbean in his debut series, so this was a way to prove himself. Now, the one test he has to pass is England. Kohli has got runs in Test cricket everywhere but had flopped on the 2014 tour against the England pacers.
“Kohli should spend a year or two in England playing county cricket. It benefits every batsman. He has to adapt now in England,” advises Vengsarkar, who had given Kohli the first break in the Indian team during his time as chairman of selectors.
Former head batting coach at India’s National Cricket Academy (from 2010-13), Dinesh Nanavati says their ability to map the conditions and the bowling attacks sets Kohli and Root apart from the rest.
As an example, Nanavati, a Level C coach, analysed their double hundreds this week. “Against West Indies both Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane fell as they played too early and the wicket was slow. On the same track, Kohli decided not to play certain shots and prospered.
“That day (during his innings of 254) the first shot that Root played was a backfoot drive through covers, which was great, which showed his ability to judge the wicket very quickly.”
The former Saurashtra batsman though rated Kohli ahead of Root. “The two look a notch above everyone. Root is very good in Tests and ODIs but has not done as much as Kohli in T20s. Kohli is successful in all formats and has the extra burden of captaincy.”
Miandad, though, says comparisons are futile because it’s difficult to judge unless the two are playing in the same team, in the same conditions. “They should be made to play on different surfaces, from turning to seaming to bouncy, against four top quality bowlers.”
Kohli versus Root has all the makings of the next great contest for the mantle of the world’s best batsman. And, with Root earmarked for England’s captaincy, after Alastair Cook, it’s going to add to the rivalry!