Since T20 cricket entered our lives a little over 15 years ago, there have only been a handful of players who have been consistently successful across all three formats. Virat Kohli has done more than that. More than simply being good enough to represent his nation across Tests, ODIs and T20Is, Virat has dominated them, setting up shop as arguably the best player in the world in all three formats at various points – so is there anyone who can match him as the world’s greatest multi-format player?
The five-day game is the one format over which Virat has demonstrated slightly less mastery, but that’s far more of a testament to his performance in the one-day games than a slight on his displays in Test cricket. Over the course of 91 Tests, he has accumulated 7,490 runs at an average of 52.37 – that is good enough for 27th on the all-time list, and has him higher than names like Ponting, Gavaskar and Richards. Only three active players to have played at least 20 innings boast a better average; Kane Williamson, Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. Virat has also managed to accumulate 27 centuries in that time, which is equal 17th of all-time and the equal most of all active players alongside Smith.
For a long time, Smith and Virat were widely agreed upon as the best two Test batsmen in the world. Smith probably had him shaded for much of that time prior to his involvement in a little misdemeanour in South Africa, while nowadays Williamson, Labuschagne and Joe Root could all consider themselves a part of that same discussion. Essentially, this is to say that, despite our claim that Test cricket is his weakest format, Virat has been well and truly in the discussion for the best Test batsman in the world for many years.
The same cannot be said, however, for ODIs and T20Is, simply because there is no discussion to be had.
Few would argue against the fact that Virat Kohli is in the conversation for the greatest ODI player of all time. His statistics speak for themselves; in 254 matches, he has scored 12,169 runs at an extraordinary average of 59.07 and has done all this while striking at 93.17. Virtually all other batsmen pale in comparison. In fact, only ten players in history to have played at least 20 ODI innings have even managed to average in excess of 50, and half of those have played less than 80 games.
One player tops him on the list of highest ODI averages – Ryan ten Doeschate – but for all his ability, the Dutchman wasn’t exactly scoring his runs against the same class of opposition as Virat. Among all other players, just one gets even close to Virat for production – that man is Pakistan’s Babar Azam, who is incidentally currently ahead of the Indian captain for the number one spot in the ICC rankings.
Indeed, Babar is a fantastic batsman, and for the past two years has undoubtedly shaded Virat in this format of the game. In 2019, the most recent full year of international cricket, Babar averaged 60.67 at a strike rate of 92.39. In a similar number of innings, Virat was comparable, averaging 59.87 at a strike rate of 96.36. The past two calendar years have been disrupted and have seen minimal games played, but Virat has nonetheless not been at his best – averaging a comparatively low 46.67 in 12 innings. Babar has only played six innings in that time, but those six games have been enough to put a gap on Virat in the world rankings – he’s averaged 89.8 and been striking at over 100.
These two have put a gap of their own on the rest as the best two 50-over batsmen in world cricket, but for all of Babar’s ability he does not yet have nearly the runs on the board (literally) to be ranked alongside Virat. Perhaps he will one day, but Virat is averaging nearly 60 over the course of 245 matches, more than triple that of Babar, meaning he is undoubtedly the most accomplished active ODI player in world cricket.
T20I hasn’t been around for nearly as long as the above two formats, which is why we can say with much more certainty that Virat is its best ever batsman. The numbers defy belief. Often, combining the average and strike rates of the best batsmen in this form of the game gives you around 150 – for example, someone might average 30 with a strike rate of 120. Virat averages 52.65 at a strike rate of 139.04. Combine those and you get a lot more than 150.
No other current player is close to this production – Dawid Malan averages a little over 50 at a slightly better strike rate, but he’s only batted in 24 innings compared to Virat’s 84. Babar Azam is again competitive here, but his average of 47.33 is more than five less and his strike rate is also considerably lower. After that, as the graph below shows, there are a couple of guys averaging around 44 in fairly minimal games, and no one else is averaging over 40.
You’d be forgiven for thinking some of the other batsmen in the top 10 for T20I average might have a better strike rate than Virat – for the most part, they don’t. In the above graph, only Dawid Malan, KL Rahul and Aaron Finch score faster than Virat, despite the fact that he scores significantly more runs.
Something you may have noticed throughout the course of this discussion is that most of his closest competitors in each of these forms are all different. Babar Azam is right there with him, albeit in a shorter period of time, in the 50-over game, and is also an elite T20I player, albeit not at the same level as Virat, but his average of 44.2 in Test cricket is significantly inferior. No one else even warrants a mention in two of the three formats.
Perhaps the only player in history who has gone close to replicating what Kohli has achieved is a man from South Africa you may have heard of named AB de Villiers. AB was at his best in the 50-over game where he averaged 53.5 at a strike rate over 100, and he also averaged over 50 in Test cricket. As a T20I player he was revolutionary and played some of the most memorable innings in the format’s short history, but despite that he averaged just 26.12 – less than half that of Virat.
AB is renowned for his extraordinary talent and ability to play all three formats of the game at a high level, and yet still he falls well short of Virat in one of them and is at best on par in the other two. It is perhaps in this comparison that Virat’s dominance is most evident – even against arguably the most renowned all-format player in history (himself aside), Virat comfortably reigns supreme.