Virat Kohli Or Steve Smith – Who’s The Greatest?

Rembrandt or Michelangelo? Lobster thermidor or chateaubriand? It’s nice to have both but sometimes we have to choose. And today the person putting you under pressure is me – the unsympathetic editor of this cricket blog. I’m here to make you choose between Virat Kohli or Steve Smith, the best two batsmen in the world. Talk about the agony of choice.

Although Kane Williamson and Joe Root are very fine players, Virat Kohli and Steve Smith have separated themselves from the pack in recent times. Kohli has just made an unbeaten 254 against South Africa in Pune, and Steve Smith was gobsmackingly brilliant during the Ashes series in England. So which one would you choose? There’s just a solitary point between them in the rankings so it’s not an easy task.

The first thing to make clear is that this debate isn’t about aesthetics. It was about watchability then Kohli would win hands down. He’s a far more attractive batsman and crowds flock to see him like bees to a honeypot. Instead I want you to name the batman you’d most like to have in your team – in other words, the batsman who would score the most runs and win you the most games.

If it comes down to pure productivity (and one ignores the controversies) then Steve Smith might be your best bet. His average is ten runs higher in test cricket (an astonishing 65 compared with Kohli’s 55) and his record away from home is better too (60 versus 46). However, averages aren’t everything. In fact, the two batsmen are very close in a lot of ways:

Both players are 30 years old with just six months separating them. Both players have scored approximately 7,000 test runs – Smith has 6973 and Kohli 7054. And just to round things off both players have made exactly 26 test hundreds. Uncanny eh?

However, there’s one statistic in which Kohli comes out on top. And it’s quite an important one too – just ask Joe Root. The Indian skipper has an amazing conversion rate that’s second to none: 26 hundreds to 22 fifties. Smith’s record isn’t bad at all (26 hundreds and 27 fifties) but not even Australia’s best batsman since the great Sir Donald can match Virat for capitalising on a good start and grinding the opposition into the ground. No wonder India are big favourites to complete their whitewash of South Africa in Rachi next week.

The number of double centuries that Kohli has scored compared with Smith also demonstrates his superior ability to make his opponents suffer: Kohli has a whopping seven double centuries to his name whereas Smith has just three. It’s worth pointing out, however, that six of Kohli’s double tons came at home in India, whereas two of Smith’s three were made away from home. The former Aussie captain has also scored 199 in the West Indies.

There is another area, however, where Smith has a slight edge: consistency around the world. Smith averages over over 40 in every single test playing country other than Bangladesh (where he’s only played two games). Kohli, on the other hand, has struggled a bit in both England and the West Indies where he averages 36.

Steve Smith has also been slightly more consistent year after year. After struggling somewhat in his first three years as a test cricketer, Smith has been absolutely prolific with no fallow periods. Kohli, on the other hand, took to test cricket a bit faster but has endured – although ‘endured’ is probably too strong a word – a few more disappointing series here and there. He had a difficult summer in 2014 and a relatively quite time in the summer of 2015 and the winter of 2015-16 too.

However, thus far all we’ve talked about is test cricket. ODIs and T20s haven’t come into it. That’s fine if all you care about is the pinnacle of the game, but we can’t ignore that fact that 50-over and 20-over World Cups are very much a thing. In fact, they’re a very big thing indeed in modern cricket.

It’s no secret that when it comes to ODIs Virat Kohli is a class apart. His record is clearly better than Smith’s and it isn’t even close. Kohli averages an amazing 60 in 239 ODIs with the small matter of 43 centuries. Just let that sink in for a while. Smith, on the other hand, averages 41 with 8 centuries. This puts him way behind both Williamson (48) and Root (52) as well.

Virat’s T20 record is also breathtaking. He averages 50 in 72 games with 22 half centuries. Smith, meanwhile, is lagging behind with a paltry average of 22 and just 2 fifties. For Kohli to be this prolific in the shortest form of the game is absolutely sensational. If you think T20 batting is just a mixture of luck and happy hitting then think again. Kohli’s consistency proves it’s anything but.

So then, my pedigree chums, it’s time to make your decision. Will it be Virat Kohli or Steve Smith? Will it be the Australian with his historically high test batting average or the dashing Indian who excels and entertains in all forms of the game? It’s a tough one ladies and gentlemen. And there’s no right or wrong answer.

However, since I’m the one who’s put you in this quandary, it’s only fair that I reveal who I would pick if I was only allowed one batsman to build my team around. And that choice is … Gary Ballance.

Just kidding.

James Morgan

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  • Solution: Kohli bats at three in your Earth vs Mars squad and Smith at four (with on current performances Rohit Sharma and Mayant Agarwal opening the batting) – no 5 is open (probably Williamson), while Stokes bats at no 6 as fifth bowler, wicketkeeper at 7 and four frontline bowlers

  • A team needs to have XI players

    Are you asking us to pick a team of XI Kohli clones, XI Smith clones, XI Williamson clones, XI Root clones etc ?

    • This is getting complicated! No I just want to know whether you’d choose Smith or Kohli if you could only have one of them. The rest of the team doesn’t matter at this point :-)

      Imagine if there was a player draft and you had the first pick (and you assume the team after you will pick the player you don’t). Would you go with Smith or Kohli?

      • If I was Rajasthan Royals and looking to save money than I would pick Steve Smith

        In 50 over cricket Kohli

        In test matches, Kohli in the sub continent
        Steve Smith outside

  • Kohli hands down as an all format player. In fact considering all formats, I would comfortably say Kohli >> Williamson > Root > Smith. Williamson edges out Root because of his better test conversions. The fact that Steve Smith is negligible in T20s makes his situation worse. The maniac that he is in test cricket is commendable but Virat Kohli with minor compromises against the lateral movement in tests in England is phenomenal when it comes to all formats.

    The only and only doubt if any, would be that he couldn’t win the world cup in his peak in two opportunities. Smith was crucial in 2015 victory at home and Williamson-Root technically tied the world cup and performed decently. If Kohli could win us a world cup, it would have been a checkmate deal.

  • I’m only really interested in test cricket, and Smith clearly has the edge. Remember he didn’t even start as a specialist batsman, but a no8 chosen for his spin bowling. He still doesn’t even look like a great batsman – he looks as though you should be able to get him out the way he always looks to play to let. But you never do – except with the odd no ball.

    There’s another way of looking at conversion rates / big hundreds. Smith almost always gets a decent score, which can be more valuable than the occasional massive innings. For the same reason I rated Tendulkar and Dravid ahead of Lara.

  • Test Cricket = Smith
    White Ball = Kohli
    All formats = Kohil

    Root is waaaay down on Williamson who in turn is way down on the two above.

  • Smith would be my choice in test cricket as he’s had to play a lot of pressured innings with the Aussie top order almost as fragile as ours in recent years. Kholi comes in after reliable openers have softened up the bowling and plays a lot of his cricket on the flat beds in India. I can’t see him emulating what Smith did in this years Ashes, though I was surprised to learn that his last innings was his highest in tests, as I expected he’d made a few bigger than that.
    However in white ball you’ve got to go for Kholi as he can dominate in a way Smith’s fairly awkward technique doesn’t allow him to.
    It’s cricket’s version of footie’s Ronaldo v Messi debate. You can make a case for both but as they are completely different kinds of player it’s difficult to compare the two. Smith would be the clinical Ronaldo whilst Kholi would be the creative Messi.
    Just in case there’s sensitive types reading this, cheating and tax avoidance don’t come into it.

  • In a draft situation where I can get only one of the two it is definitely Kohli. Similarly if I was in charge of a county and looking to sign an overseas player, and both were available I would sign Kohli, as a better multi-format bet. I have developed the original train of thought that this post provoked in me in a post of my own: (it comes immediately after the main section of the post).

  • James, if Gary Ballance wasn’t available, then I would pick Steve Smith for my Country/County, if it was a red ball only contract.
    But if it was for all formats, then Virat Kohli would be my choice.

  • Kohli edged it over all formats not by much. But I’ll put him first because he is anti The 100 and wouldn’t play in it even if the Indian Board allowed it. Money aside not sure why Smith is playing it, not his game by a long way.

  • I dislike the term ‘greatest’ in this context as it leads to implications that are not necessarily true. However, for test cricket I keep a table which measures the number of centuries scored per innings played as I think that is an effective way to measure the engine room of a balanced test side. Openers rarely figure for obvious reasons but do play an important role in setting the stage it should be noted.

    Currently Smith (4.77) is ranked third and Kohli (5.31) fifth with 26 apiece; Kohli having batted fourteen more innings than Smith. Bradman (2.76) is of course top, Headley (4.00) second, Walcott (4.93) fourth and Sutcliffe (5.25) fifth. Sutcliffe was an opener so a herculean effort really.

    As Tendulkar has the most innings and centuries, extrapolating how many these players could have theoretically achieved if they had Tendulkar’s longevity is also interesting. Both Smith and Kohli are still on course to overtake him!

  • Apropos records, there are 3 which will never be beaten:

    In order
    1 Jack Hobbs 197 first class centuries
    2 Dennis Compton’s 3816 and 18 centuries in a ist Class season
    3. Jim Laker’s 19 Test wickets in a match -v- Australia 1956

    Don Bradman’s record average in test matches is unlikely to be beaten .

    Technically, it’s possible for a bowler to take 20 wickets in a Test Match

    I have my own actual at the match viewing achievement . How many can make the same claim?

    I saw the great Wally Hammond play his last innings in England -v- India at the Oval in 1946 (25 not out!)
    I saw DCS score a 100 between lunch and tea at Lord’s in 1947
    I saw DGB score 100 against Surrey at the Oval in1948

    • At the opposite end of the scale I saw England make 71 at Old Trafford in 1976 and 46 at Port of Spain in 1994, their lowest scores at home and away respectively against West Indies

    • Good memories there Ron.
      Not as long ago as you I saw Richards and Greenidge hit almost 200 in a session for Hampshire at Edgbaston, admittedly with a short boundary on the members side, which was covered with high netting before the match started, so people could sit and watch in relative safety.
      To balance this I also saw Warwickshire score almost 200 in a session against Yorkshire, again with a short boundary, but uncovered seating area. Carrick and Cope bowled for the entire session, bowling almost 40 overs between them, as Kanhai and Whitehouse filled their boots.
      We did have Jameson opening for us, as destructive as Roy at his best, I saw him hit a couple of pre lunch hundreds, peppering the Hollies stand with holes in the rafters that are still there to this day.
      The most amusing batting record at Edgbaston was the seasonal target practice Allan Lamb persued against the cockerel weather vein mounted on top of the scorebox. Though I never saw him hit it I witnessed a number of near misses and there were many bets taken at the ground whenever he came into bat. I remember Andy Lloyd bowling his donkey drops at the fag end of a Northants innings so Lamb could have a serious go and 4 of the 6 deliveries went over the score box but failed to hit.

  • Thank Marc. Whilst in memory lane I played my first game of cricket for the school under 13 side against a secondary school 1st XL with two 15 year old opening bowlers. My brother asked me how we got on and I told him we lost. How many did I score. Well. I scored half the runs…both of them. Mind you, it would have been 4 but my snick through the slips didn’t reach the boundary due to the long outfield grass! Later towards the end of my playing career, I was playing for a village in Berkshire against another village. We were bowled out for 52 and at tea they were 49 for 2. I asked the captain to put me on so that they could hit a 4 and then have a beer match after tea. The tea lady was his mother so off we trooped. After tea, our opening bowler, a young medical student who had bowled innocuously before tea, suddenly became inspired. and took all the remaining wickets for 2 runs. Somehow the bowler at the other end only conceded 1 run amid the carnage by his partner so it ended up as the only tie in my 40 Years of school and club cricket. Oh, and I’d pick Smith for a Test Match.

    • Great stuff Ron, it’s what club cricket is made of. Personally, my best club cricket memory was finishing top of the bowling averages one season, though I was by trade an opening batsman. I bowled one spell, when 3 of out top 4 were all on holiday, of 13 overs for 16 runs and took 3 wickets imitating Tony Grieg, so I mixed up spin and seam off the same run. Still not sure why the ball came out so well, but I was never asked to bowl again outside of the nets. We even managed to win that game, though ironically, due to my exertions in the field, I was put down the order and never got to bat, though whilst fielding at long leg, not a position I was used to, I had to climb up an apple tree to get our ball back from a neighbour’s shed roof.

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