In the foodchain of international batsmanship, they are the two dominating predators striding the field, colossi whose ravenous appetite for runs result in exploits that cruelly diminish others’ honest efforts. Steve Smith and Virat Kohli are dominating the game like few others (and those few are undisputed legends) have done—with every innings of one being compared threadbare with the other, the scales tipping this way or that after each passing game.
“I thought Kohli was the best batsman I’ve ever seen because of the way he plays in all forms, but Steve Smith...that’s another level,” Justin Langer had said after Smith’s twin centuries in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston, Birmingham. It took two exemplary innings for the former Australia opener and current coach to rate his compatriot the best.
After Smith’s triumphant return to Tests since the heartbreak of a yearlong ban, normal service resumed in the Kohli vs Smith debate too. It had to—496 days since his previous Test innings, Smith picked up where he left off, scoring 144 and 142 in hostile conditions to help his side register a 251-run win. In the drawn Lord’s Test, the 30-year-old hit 92. He didn’t bat in the second innings after concussion brought on by a Jofra Archer bouncer. Smith sat out the third Test at Headingley. Despite that, it took him only three innings to reclaim the top ICC batting spot from Kohli in Tests. Smith had the No. 1 ranking in December 2015; Kohli took over the spot in August 2018, when Smith was out of action.
Smith’s recent exploits—a staggering 774 runs in seven Ashes innings at a Bradmanesque average of 110.57—have left cricket’s classiest windbags blundering for superlatives. Comparisons with Kohli are inevitable—indubitably, they are the two best players of the modern era.
Yet, both Smith and Kohli had humble beginnings to their Test career. Smith’s leg-spin (the skill that earned him his international cap) didn’t inspire confidence; Kohli didn’t set the stage on fire either. They showed their true colours soon. Kohli marked his arrival in Tests with a sublime century in Adelaide—the lone batting sparkle during the disastrous tour of Australia in 2011-12. Smith was axed from the Test side for two years before being recalled for the India tour in 2013. On a spinning track in Mohali, he scored 92—an early glimpse of the stellar stands of today. A few months later, he hit his maiden century against England at the Oval.
As Smith and Kohli fashioned aureoles of near-invincibility, two others—Kane Williamson and Joe Root—came into batting prominence, so that an exclusive club of ‘Fab Four’ gained currency. Yet batting statistics are forever in flux, and currently, Smith and Kohli have pulled far ahead of Williamson and Root. While the Englishman and the New Zealander are modern exemplars of the art of batsmanship too, their conversion rates (from 50 to 100, expressed as a percentage of innings) in the past five years (23.52 and 43.33 respectively) aren’t as impressive as that of Smith (51.16) and Kohli (59.38).
If a quality batsman is to be judged by his overseas exploits, Kohli and Smith, again, stand apart from the brightest of bat-wielders. After a stupendous tour of England in 2018 (593 runs with two tons) Kohli had a sub-par series in Australia in 2018—282 runs in four Tests with a century. However, his magnificent record Down Under isn’t marred much. In 2014-15, he had scored 692 runs in just four Tests. Also, Kohli averages over 71 in New Zealand. Smith’s away performances—need we asseverate—have been remarkable. He averages 59.55 in England, 131 in New Zealand, 41.1 in South Africa, 60 in India and 41.16 in Sri Lanka.
Chetan Sharma, former India fast bowler, said if he had to pick just one for Tests, Smith would have a slight advantage over Kohli. “At the moment, I would say Smith is a step ahead of Kohli,” Sharma tells Outlook. “His (Smith) unorthodox stance, the way he shuffles across, it looks as if it wouldn’t be that difficult for a bowler to get him out, say LBW. But his hand-eye coordination is superb, like Virender Sehwag,” he marvels.
While the rivalry between Smith and Kohli for the tag of ‘the best batsman in the world’ has flared up with Smith’s redoubtable display, Sharma feels their consistency should be an example for players like K.L. Rahul. “There’s healthy competition (between Smith and Kohli). It is an inspiration for upcoming batsmen,” says Sharma. “Rahul got seven fifties in a row. But had he converted them into centuries, he wouldn’t have been dropped. This is where he can learn from Kohli and Smith.”
Curently, Kohli and Smith sit supreme on all batting parameters. Distinctive, widely-praised styles with a full repertoire of strokes, fable-like fecundity breeding immaculate numbers…why, do we exaggerate when we state that they are the fabbest of the four?
First Test Century: Eight Tests to score his first
Runs in Tests (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 4,927 runs in 88 innings.
Centuries in Tests (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 19 centuries, 13 fifties
Average in Tests (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 58.65
Performance as Captain: 18 centuries with an average of 61.19
Centuries in Winning Cause: 11 of overall 25 centuries have propelled India to a victory
In SENA (Aug 2014-Sept 2019; SENA: South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia): 18 games, 1,886 runs @ 53.88, with eight centuries and six fifties
In subcontinent (including UAE): 2,654 runs @ 64.73 in 28 Tests. The 30-year-old has scored 10 centuries and 5 fifties
Conversion Rate (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 52 Tests, with a conversion rate of 59.38
First Test Century: 12 Tests to score his first
Runs in Tests (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 5,612 runs in 86 innings. *England Test skipper Joe Root has also crossed the 5000-run
Centuries in Tests (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 22 centuries, 21 fifties
Average in Tests (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 75.83
Performance as Captain: 15 centuries, averaging 70.36, before the yearlong ban for ball-tampering
Centuries in Winning Cause: 18 of overall 26 Test centuries led to victory
Performance in SENA (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 35 Tests and scored 4,290 runs at an average of 84.11 with 17 centuries and 16 fifties
Performance in subcontinent (including UAE): 11 Tests in Asia, scoring 1,039 runs at an average of 49.47 including four centuries and as many fifties
Conversion Rate (Aug 2014-Sept 2019): 48 Tests, with a conversion rate of 51.16
*Stats till fifth Ashes Test (September 15, 2019)