It took Sachin Tendulkar 24 years and 664 international matches across the three formats to sign off with 100 international centuries. Virat Kohli has 80 tons in 15 years and 517 appearances. Of all the active cricketers, Kohli is the only one with a shout at overhauling his hero’s extraordinary accomplishment, but does that mean it is a cinch? That it’s only a matter of time before Kohli moves past the man who redefined the art of batsmanship?
Life is not a black-and-white, linear proposition, sport even less so. A little under 15 months back, even Kohli must have been wondering where his next international hundred would come from. Between November 2019 and the beginning of September 2022, he tilted at the windmills numerous times, but went without a three-figure knock for 1,020 days. Then, he registered his first Twenty20 International century, against Afghanistan in the Asia Cup, and the proverbial floodgates have opened again.
In the 14 months since his unbeaten 122 in Dubai against Afghanistan, Kohli has smacked nine further tons, two in Tests and as many as seven in 50-over cricket, including three in this World Cup alone. If this isn’t a second wind, then nothing is. Again, this is no guarantee that the hundreds will keep coming, that he will keep closing in inexorably on Tendulkar.
Of the various things that go into this process, the most influential from a Kohli perspective is drive and ambition, intensity and hunger. For long now, Kohli has shown scant regard for records and milestones. He isn’t obsessed with numbers and statistics as much as with doing his bit for the team, contributing to the side’s success. He won’t chase history with the same single-mindedness as, say, Kapil Dev did nearly three decades back when he set off in pursuit of Richard Hadlee’s record 431 Test wickets (at the time). For Kohli, records are a byproduct of his pursuit of excellence; statistical milestones will not be his motivation.
Also Read: All of Virat Kohli’s 50 ODI centuries
Kohli is 35, he has been playing for the country for more than a decade and a half. Closer to the end of his career than its beginning, it’s inevitable that he will have to prioritise. He has a young family, and while cricket holds him in its clinch, it doesn’t consume him. Cricket isn’t his be-all and end-all, but you wouldn’t guess that, given his intensity and will to win when he is out in the middle, either with bat in hand or haring around energetically in the field, whipping up a storm while playing the conductor to the orchestra that is the huge crowds at Indian grounds.
It’s probable that Kohli has played his last T20I – he hasn’t represented the country in that format since the World Cup in Australia 12 months back – and that he might gradually phase himself out of 50-over cricket. By the time of the next 50-over World Cup in 2027, Kohli will be closing in on 39; it’s not unlikely that those entrusted with taking Indian cricket forward will soon start looking at the future. Whether Kohli figures in that future, so far down the line, is open to question. He is without a doubt the fittest cricketer on the planet today, but whether that will translate to being able to compete with younger men on an equal footing four years hence is anyone’s guess.
If there is one format where Kohli will dig his heels in, it is the five-day game which he backs passionately. India have a fair amount of Test cricket lined up – a two-match tour of South Africa beginning next month, followed by a five-game showdown against England at home from January. After hosting Bangladesh and New Zealand for five Tests combined between September and November next year, India will tour Australia for five Tests towards the end of 2024. Over a 13-month period, India will play 17 Tests. All other things being equal, Kohli will figure in all of them, unless he wants a break.
Twenty hundreds to draw level with Tendulkar looks a fair distance away now. There was a greater sense of inevitability when Kohli reached 70 centuries in November 2019, but the three-year drought has been a huge setback to those egging him on towards 100 hundreds. Ten of those in the last 14 months is a windfall but will Kohli be able to sustain this bull run? It’s a question that will be debated furiously at airport lounges and bars, at press boxes and board rooms; it’s also a question Kohli will insulate himself from, because that’s not how he is wired.