As Virat Kohli becomes only the 71st cricketer to get to a 100 Tests, he can be forgiven for having mixed feelings about the occasion. Like those ‘Greatest Hits’ albums which can simultaneously celebrate and complete a musical career, big individual landmarks in sport can both cement legacy and uproot relevance.
It is only the rarest of the rare champion who can slip seamlessly into a dignified autumn after an era-defining spring. Which path will be chosen by Kohli, a fiercely focused colossus of the modern game who has lost one crown after another in the lead-up to this milestone?
Since at least early Dec 2014 in Adelaide, Kohli has had the zeitgeist appeal of a leader who has proudly shaped, in his own words, a ‘New India’ comprising a brave breed of home-grown cricketers who have offered hope for Test cricket. If Test cricket is a culture, Kohli has been its world icon.
A feisty, loud bundle of energy on the field, Kohli redefined the team’s approach to fitness standards and pace bowling. His aggression sometimes put people off but as captain, he also played fair and called out those who weren’t.
India won 58. 82% matches under him and Kohli became only the fourth captain ever to win 40 Tests. All this while, he was also batting like a dream, dominating the best bowlers, redefining personal limitations, rising above the self-doubt which often tends to plague the truly great.
Having starved and chiselled himself into shape to become the most improved cricketer in the world in the long aftermath of India’s 2011-World Cup win, Kohli sustained a near-superhuman work ethic which helped him embrace consistency.
When he faltered, like against James Anderson in England in 2014, it merely offered confirmation of his belief that he was still far from perfection, still far from being the finished product.
Kohli would react by going back to the drawing board to tweak his technique, or adopt an even bolder approach, till success against the same bowler, in the same conditions, was a foregone conclusion. It was this missionary zeal for excellence that permeated the Indian team too and perhaps was his greatest contribution.
Between Dec 2015 to Aug 2017, in Tests 41-60, Kohli averaged 64. 14 with 6 tons, his best phase yet. From Nov 2017 to Oct 2019 (Tests 61-80), that average would drop only imperceptibly to 63, and 8 hundreds would flow from his bat. Then came the pandemic and it has been all downhill since then.
As the 100th Test begins, Kohli’s empire lies in ruins and there is chaos and disorder in his career. A few seemingly obdurate on-field decisions, the lack of an ICC title in the shorter formats, the yielding of the WTC crown to New Zealand have all gone against him. In a few tumultuous months, following an unpleasant run-in with the board, the all-weather, all-format captain is now dangerously close to being viewed as a journeyman.
There has been no hundred in the last 27 Test innings. There have been six Test fifties, but a mix of impatience and misplaced eagerness have allowed some errors to creep into his game and prevented the real long innings against some quality opposition. The disappearance of crowds has also zapped this born showman of some fizz.
Going into his 100th Test, Kohli should have been at the peak of his batting powers. Yet from Tests 81-99, he averaged only 38. 73, which dropped to 28. 14 in his last 15 Tests. Now he is merely clinging on to the gold-standard 50-average mark (50. 39). After 99 Tests, Gavaskar averaged 52. 46, Sehwag 50. 89, Dravid 58. 16, Tendulkar 57. 99. Of these, only three could go on to end their careers with an average above 50: Tendulkar (53. 78), Dravid (52. 31) and Gavaskar (51. 12). Where Kohli goes from here will define his legacy.
Luckily for him, Kohli hasn’t really looked in terminal decline, nor out of touch. Just out of patience, out of luck and not totally sorted at the crease at times. Will the fiercely ambitious batter draw a line in the sand in this Mohali Test and set himself some new targets?
Interestingly, no Indian batter, no matter how celebrated, has scored a century in his 100th Test, with VVS Laxman‘s first-innings 64 against Australia in Nagpur in 2008 being the highest.
Now that’s something for Kohli to aim at.