Virat Kohli's rapid and sustained rise over the last few years has brought inevitable comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar. In less than a decade since making his ODI debut, Kohli has marked himself out by acing the chasing game. He has numbers to go with it: 14 hundreds in successful chases, already level with Tendulkar. Kohli has batted in 59 successful chases, Tendulkar did so in 124.
As with Tendulkar, Kohli's dismissals are greeted with gasps of resignation. When Kohli got out in Delhi and Ranchi, for 9 and 45 respectively, there was that sudden, piercing silence again, one that most Indian cricket fans who grew up in the '90s would be familiar with. The immediate throwaway line has been: it's just like Tendulkar, Kohli gone, India lose. Especially in chases; in 2015, for instance, Kohli scored less than 12 in four of the five ODIs India lost chasing. Is it then a throwback to the era when Tendulkar's failure would inevitably result in India's defeat or is it just an emotional reaction?
There is no doubt India win much more often when Kohli scores a fifty or more in a chase. While chasing 200 or more, India have won 23 of 32 games when Kohli has completed his half-century. When Kohli hasn't reached fifty, India have managed only 20 wins from 44 chases of over 200. In those 20 chases that were won without a big contribution from Kohli, there were 36 scores of 50 or more from other specialist batsmen. Rohit Sharma has scored seven of those.
MS Dhoni, too, doesn't believe India is a one-batsman team, and isn't inclined to read too much into the numbers thrown up because the sample is not large enough for him. "If you see the last one, one-and-a-half years, we haven't played a lot of ODI cricket," he said after India lost to New Zealand by 19 runs in Ranchi. "I can say that the stats actually don't reflect the exact scenario because also at that period I have batted at a different position and our top order was batting brilliantly."
The numbers largely appear to corroborate Dhoni's view. In all ODIs where India have chased since 2014, they have won five games and lost as many when Kohli has scored at least 50. He has scored two hundreds and three fifties in losing causes during this period. In the 17 games that Kohli has scored less than 50, India's record hasn't been too bad: they have won nine wins and lost eight. In the nine wins that came without Kohli making a half-century, Shikhar Dhawan has contributed a century and four half-centuries while Rohit Sharma has struck three fifties. The rest of the batsmen have chipped in with four hundreds and three fifties. Kohli has scored 25.76% (813 out of 3156) of India's top-order runs in successful chases in ODIs since 2014. Dhawan is second on the list with 18.25%.
These numbers reveal that despite Kohli's overwhelming contribution to India's successful chases, the team hasn't been overly dependent on him. However, the numbers don't tell you what happens when India fail despite a Kohli century or fifty. What happens after he is gone?
A good example of how Kohli's dismissal exposes a middle order that isn't well versed in finishing games came in Canberra at the start of the year. Set a target of 349, Kohli and Dhawan racked up hundreds. At 277 for 1 in the 38th over, India looked like they would complete the chase fairly easily, but once Kohli departed within two overs of the dismissals of Dhawan and Dhoni, India's middle order unravelled, with only Ravindra Jadeja getting into double digits.
Similarly in the Rajkot ODI against South Africa, Kohli batted deep but his departure, with 36 required off 29 balls, snuffed out India's chase. When the "Tendulkar-falls-India-lose" era ended, India had match-winners following him: Rahul Dravid, Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh. That Dhoni is not finishing matches now, and that India's two other match-winners in recent times - Rohit and Dhawan - bat before Kohli accentuates the "Kohli-falls-India-lose" impression.
The numbers will tell you India are not over-dependent on Kohli - at least not yet - but the impression they are coincides with their struggle to find somebody who can make his own the slot vacated by Yuvraj. Not even Suresh Raina - good as he has been - has been able to provide that presence consistently. With Dhoni moving up to No.4, suggesting the youngsters need to learn finishing innings by themselves, India's overreliance on Kohli may be more than just a feeling.