This is cricket’s version of Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James in the basketball GOAT debate. Like MJ vs. LeBron, there will be a subsection of fans who will always idolize the first great having grown up with him as the best in the sport. There will be a segment of fans who have never seen the first play, thus drawing them to the newcomer. And there will be a third group that has witnessed both play who will appreciate both, but stay out of any GOAT comparisons.
India superstar batter Virat Kohli scored 117 runs in Wednesday’s 2023 World Cup semifinal win over New Zealand, his 50th one-day international century in his career. Kohli surpassed legendary Indian batter Sachin Tendulkar for the most ODI centuries with the milestone, and he did so at Tendulkar’s home ground in Mumbai with Tendulkar in attendance. Kohli also became the top scorer for a single World Cup tournament, with his 711 runs topping the previous mark of 673 runs set by Tendulkar in 2003.
In the words of the late great Kobe Bryant, the job’s not finished. There’s still a final to be had, with hosts India hoping to secure another title. The country last won in 2011, with both Tendulkar and Kohli featuring in the starting XI for the competition. Both played in the final. Kohli has the chance to win a second World Cup, something very few great players have done. In fact, he would be joined by Australia’s Ricky Ponting and West Indies star Viv Richards as star batters who won multiple titles. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, Kohli may have already surpassed the man he idolizes as a player.
Tendulkar’s longevity likely will protect his overall run record, which stands at 18,426 in 452 career innings. He has 49 centuries, scoring a century every 9.22 innings. His consistency over a long period of time actually rivals LeBron James’ career, even though Tendulkar is the Michael Jordan of this conversation.
Kohli has reached 13,794 runs in 279 innings with 50 centuries to his name. He scores a hundred every 5.6 innings despite going 25 consecutive matches without one during the COVID era. Kohli is also the fastest to reach every 1k run milestone from 8,000 to 13,000 runs, rivaling Jordan’s scoring pace even though Kohli is the LeBron James of this debate.
While Tendulkar has the overall run record, Kohli now holds some important individual milestones over him. There’s also one important aspect where Kohli has dominated the debate and made a name for himself as one of the greats in the sport. That aspect is winning matches while chasing a score.
Chasing a total is objectively harder than batting first. You have some additional pressure of reaching that total while also being fatigued from spending a significant time in the field beforehand. You have to constantly calculate your progress, and there’s a scoreboard to remind you exactly how far behind you are in your endeavor.
Tendulkar is no stranger to the chase, with 124 innings in a winning chase. His true average in those chases is 44.2 (true average disregards not outs) and he’s scored a century 14 times in a winning chase. India have won 53.4% of the time it has chased with Tendulkar in the lineup, which is a pretty good mark. However, that’s nothing compared to what Kohli has done.
Kohli has been part of 96 successful chases, scoring a ridiculous 23 centuries with a true average of 60.27. India has won 63.2% of the time it has chased with Kohli in the lineup, a 10% difference from Tendulkar. There’s a reason Kohli has been called “Chase Master”, and it’s pivotal in this debate.
And there’s little reason to believe Kohli will slow down. Even though he turned 35 this November, he remains one of the fittest athletes in the game and is likely eyeing the 2027 World Cup as his final tournament. That puts Tendulkar’s overall run record in some jeopardy. Can Kohli get there?
Kohli is 173 innings behind Tendulkar, but he’ll be 172 behind after Sunday’s final. If we assume the 2027 World Cup will be his last tournament, Kohli would have to play 43 ODI matches every year to hit 172. Given the schedule, he’d be fortunate to play that many more games combined over the next four years. There’s also some potential for Kohli to be rested more often, which would cost him some games. Here’s a look at what Kohli would have to average per match to reach 18,427 ODI runs to put him one ahead of Tendulkar.
45 matches played: 102.9
50 matches played: 92.6
55 matches played: 84.2
60 matches played: 77.2
As you can clearly see, there’s a huge volume hurdle for Kohli to overcome. It’s not impossible but it’s certainly on the improbable side of things given the player’s age. And even if he is close after the 2027 World Cup, Kohli might ultimately leave that record alone as a tribute to Tendulkar’s greatness.
Sunday’s final now looms large. If India prevail, Kohli will have two World Cup titles and can focus on potentially grabbing a third in 2027. He won’t get involved in any GOAT conversations and will always believe he is second best to Tendulkar, but the numbers do tell a different story. For me, Kohli is the best ODI batter ever even if Sunday’s final was his last match.
There might not be much space for the GOAT debate between Tendulkar and Kohli ahead of the final, with India fans largely rooting for a win over anything else. We can only hope four years from now, Kohli will feature in another World Cup final with his legacy as the greatest of all time secure.