When Virat Kohli and Babar Azam bat, chores and duties are set aside and people let themselves be enraptured by the two willowed virtuosos practising their craft. The devotion of watching them is matched only by the commitment both these batsmen have for their batting, pure and almost innocent in its essence. When they shake hands or hug or talk about each other, the virtual world goes berserk.
From teammates and former players, fans or even those unstained by cricket-fixation, are compelled to comment, tweet, troll or debate, or somehow leave their digital footprint on the lives and careers of two of the greatest batsmen of their times.
— Quetta Gladiators (@TeamQuetta) August 24, 2022
Though the cricketing rivalry of India and Pakistan is long and chronicled, arguably the most passionate in the game, the narratives sometimes veering beyond the boundaries of a cricket field, no two cricketers from either country has ever been subjected to such relentless comparisons, or their greatness examined and scrutinised, with as much passion as has been the case of Kohli or Babar.
There were of course greats from both countries who have played in the same era, and encountered each other more frequently than they do now, like Kapil Dev and Imran Khan, or Sunil Gavaskar and Zaheer Abbas, or Sachin Tendulkar and Saeed Anwar, or Anil Kumble and Saqlain Mushtaq, but none of them were pitted eye-to-eye as direct rivals, or equals, or competitors to the greatest of their trades of their times.
The non-prevalence of an aggressive social media world could be one of the reasons. Another could be that historically, there was little premise for direct comparisons. Pakistan’s fast bowlers were always a few notches ahead of their Indian counterparts, the latter had better batsmen than spinners. So comparisons were skewed, and the plot-lines always projected the contests between the two countries as India’s batsmen versus Pakistan fast bowlers. Sachin versus Akram, Sehwag versus Akhtar. But now it’s Virat versus Babar—who of these two would stamp their greatness would be the central thread of the Asia Cup fixture between India and Pakistan in Dubai on Sunday, though there are a raft of others who could influence the game.
So much so that to discuss Kohli and Babar has become an obsession. To count their runs, calculate their averages and strike-rates, to rattle out their feats, to belt out their match-winning knocks, to describe the strokes they play and they do not, to pick their flaws and failures, to measure the beauty of their strokes.
Sometimes, these roll onto unhealthy levels too, like when Kohli’s fans celebrate when Babar fails, or the other way around, or the vitriol they spew on social-media platforms. Almost like cricketing versions of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But unlike in tennis, or any other individual sport, the debate cannot be settled counting head-to-heads. In the case of Federer and Nadal, even those comparisons are inconclusive.
It’s the extraordinary paradox of this game—how two individuals transcend the team sport and do so time and time again. It isn’t simply a case of counting their runs or success. If that were the attraction, then we must drag Joe Root into the conversation, for he and Babar have been the two most in-form batsmen around in the last two years. The trio of Kane Williamson, Steve Smith and Kolhi have fallen off their peaks.Therein lies another contradiction of Babar-Kohli comparisons. Babar’s career is on the ascent—he is only 27, the conventional peak years ahead of him. At 34 years of age, Kohli is now well into the twilight of his career, coincidentally enduring the worst slump of his career.
So a comparative study of the pair must deal with Kohli being almost seven years older than Babar. Kohli was scoring hundreds for fun when Babar was still learning the game and it is likely that Babar will keep scoring hundreds for several years after Kohli has hung up his bat.
Far from the world of frantic supporters, Babar has maintained that Kohli is not a competitor but a yardstick, someone he looks up to as inspiration rather than as a rival. “I watch his [Kohli’s] batting and the way he bats in various conditions, and try to learn from them,” he had once said. On another occasion, he had said: “I do not just copy Virat Kohli, but I really follow him. I dream of becoming like him. Some people compare me with Virat, while there’s no comparison as I am just in the beginning. I feel that I cannot be just like him, but it can be closer to his instinct of playing.”
There was a sense of fan-boy worship, but whatever Babar thinks of himself or Kohli, the former’s batting has evolved to such an exalted level that comparisons with the best are as inevitable as they are irresistible.
They both illustrate the inevitable combination of an inherent gift with an insatiable drive to excel. There is no single ingredient that creates greatness, just as there is no single definition of greatness.
The best is to enjoy them as they are, undiluted by comparisons or caught up in a meaningless hyper-nationalism. Like you would enjoy two different genres of music.
Babar’s qawwali to Kohli’s bhangra, but in distinct ways each transports you to a blissful world, as only music can. Batting, at the level Babar and Kohli operate, is indeed music. And Sunday could be that day when their music could fill the stands of a stadium in the middle of a desert, whirl into the drawing rooms of a million houses and flicker on the smartphones of a few million more spread across the world’s time zones. The cricketing world is waiting to be paused, just as the virtual world is waiting to go wild.