Babar Azam vs Virat Kohli: Comparing batting greatness at similar stages

While India skipper Virat Kohli is already a great of the game, Babar Azam is crafting his legacy
Babar Azam vs Virat Kohli: Comparing batting greatness at similar stages
Babar Azam is now the number 1-ranked ODI batsman, ending India captain Virat Kohli's long reignImage source: The Bridge Chronicle

Virat Kohli’s three-and-half-year reign as the No.1-ranked One-Day International (ODI) batsman came to an end last week. Babar Azam displaced him from the top spot after a sensational batting display in South Africa.

Babar led Pakistan to a 2-1 win in the ODI series in South Africa earlier this month, where he amassed 228 runs at 76. Meanwhile, Virat Kohli led India to a 2-1 victory against England last month, scoring 129 runs at 43. A dip in the Indian captain’s form has helped Babar’s climb to the steep ladder.

Babar has now entered an elite list of Pakistani batters to attain the top rank in the ODI format after Zaheer Abbas (1983), Javed Miandad (1988) and Mohammad Yousuf (2003).

The achievement means a lot to Pakistan cricket that has been under the shadow of their illustrious neighbours and arch-nemesis India in the recent decades, struggling to re-invent their pristine past.

Worse, even before the dreadful coronavirus dawned upon humankind, a generation of Pakistani stars played their home matches in empty stands, under scorching heat in the alien lands of Arabia as the administrators slogged to convince the world that it was safe.

Since the terror attack on the Sri Lankan side in 2009 at Lahore, Pakistan has seen very little international cricket on their soil. It’s never easy for a side to keep up the momentum in international cricket by playing very little at their home.

Barring the start of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and their England sojourns in 2016 (Pakistan became the No.1 Test team for a brief while) and 2017 (Champions Trophy win), in recent years, Pakistan had little to celebrate in their most-loved sport.

Beating the odds, Babar’s artistic batsmanship is now a new chapter in the annals of cricket. He is an inspiration to many batters across the globe, and his success has now drawn comparisons with his Indian counterpart, Kohli, a man who has kept defying limits in this sport.

The comparison finds its foundation in their set benchmarks in terms of consistency through their conventional batting styles. It’s not just about the volume of runs they score; it’s also about their alluring styles that make jaws drop.

The turn of the decade saw Kohli bagging the ICC Player of the Decade Award. Younger to Kohli by six years, Babar may end up repeating the feat by going on to own this decade.

The comparison at this stage is unfair but quite irresistible.

Virat Kohli vs Babar Azam – Overall Batting Record

Virat Kohli | Age 32 years, 5 months

Babar Azam | Age 26 years, 6 months

Looking at the overall numbers, there’s no doubt that the much more experienced Kohli has set high standards of batsmanship, which Babar is trying to attain. While Kohli is already a great of the game, Babar is crafting his legacy.

But what do their recent numbers say?

Virat Kohli vs Babar Azam since 2019

Virat Kohli

Babar Azam

We can see why Babar is making the buzz for the right reasons.

If we take a cut-off of 1,000 Test runs during this period (from 2019), only Kane Williamson (73.52), Marnus Labuschagne (66.81), Rohit Sharma (64.37) and Steve Smith (63.85) have averaged more than Babar in Test cricket. In ODIs, Babar is unparalleled in this category.

However, Kohli has dominated more in T20Is. Babar recently scored his first T20I ton and significantly worked on his strike rate.

How good was Virat Kohli after the same number of matches as Babar Azam?

Babar Azam

Virat Kohli after the same number of matches that Babar Azam played

It’s tough to put one over another because the above matches in Kohli’s charts across formats came at different junctures in his career.

Though Babar averages more in Tests at this point, he has a solitary century outside the subcontinent. In contrast, Kohli by now had dominated opponents in the tough terrains of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Five out of the eight hundreds by Kohli had come away from the subcontinent.

In T20Is, Kohli dominates the numbers, but he was a more mature batter by the time he played his 51st match. Almost 29 then, he had won two Player of the Tournaments in the T20 World Cups and had hit his peak. Though Babar has dominated the T20I Rankings for a while, he’s still peaking in this format.

In ODIs, Babar is a clear leader, but Kohli played his 80th match as a 23-year-old. Though his numbers reflect good consistency, he was yet to hit his peak and become the batting monster he eventually became. Therefore, a comparison of similar ages will give us a more holistic picture.

Virat Kohli vs Babar Azam at the age of 26-and-half

Babar Azam

Virat Kohli at 26 years, 6 months

The numbers are comparable in T20Is. By now, Kohli had a World Cup Player of the Series title to his name. India not playing enough T20Is didn’t help his cause. Kohli had already captained Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in four IPL seasons.

Kohli is undoubtedly ahead in Tests. Like Babar, Kohli had also become India’s Test captain by now. Apart from a poor England series in 2014, he mastered every condition and every attack, successfully slipping into the void left by Sachin Tendulkar in the Indian batting line-up. Kohli also has the edge when it comes to the 50 to 100 conversion rate.

Though Babar has been better with conversion rates in ODIs, Kohli’s numbers can be considered equally good. By 26, Kohli had played almost twice the number of ODIs that Babar did and had equalled Sourav Ganguly’s century tally to be India’s joint second-highest century-getter in the format.

Also, Kohli made his debut in a different era and at a much younger age, and therefore, the strike rate is commendable. Not to forget, by 26, Kohli had won an ODI World Cup and Champions Trophy, where he made sizeable contributions.

***

Despite the talent, it took a while for Babar to become a household name in the cricketing fraternity. He achieved so with his grace and consistency. For Kohli, the challenge was to create a mark for himself amid the plethora of Indian superstars. Like Babar, Kohli also achieved it through consistency and hunger.

Even into his 30s, Kohli’s willingness to be the best version of himself sets him apart. There’s no compromise on fitness, and there’s no room for complacency. There’s only the hunger.

Babar is off to a dream start. Ranked sixth, first and third in Tests, ODIs and T20Is, respectively, he’s currently ranked ahead of Kohli in both the white-ball formats. While Kohli heads to the mid-30s, often considered the final phase of one’s career, Babar, at 26, has his best batting years ahead of him. Stepping up as a Test batter with better conversions and meaningful contributions overseas, as well as emphasising on fitness, can go on to sculpt Babar’s legacy as Pakistan’s greatest willow-wielder.

Meanwhile, the cricket in the subcontinent can pause on the Kohli vs Babar debate, cherishing and celebrating the fact that two of the most diligent and finest batters ever are from their regions and have coinciding careers.

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