On March 2, 2008, Rohit Sharma was playing his 13th ODI for India. It was the first game of the tri-series final against Australia in Sydney. He made 66 that evening, an innings that confirmed why most everyone was getting all giddy about Rohit. He had already featured prominently in India's 2007 World T20 triumph a few months earlier. A couple of weeks before this game, he was sold for US$750,000 at the first IPL auction, off a base price of $150,000. And now here he was, scoring runs in Australia when it still meant something to score runs in Australia.
Like on so many before it, on this particular evening Sachin Tendulkar had written his name, but no matter: Rohit's time was coming. He was already a world champion, and days later he would become part of India's first tri-series win in Australia - at 20, his shoulders were being broadened to carry those billion hopes and aspirations.
Meanwhile in a time zone not very far away and on the same evening as that first final, Virat Kohli was leading India's U-19 team to a World Cup win. He had had a big tournament and there was some buzz around him too but Rohit was already the made guy.
Years later, in a disarming interview on Gaurav Kapur's YouTube show Breakfast with Champions, Kohli would speak of that time, when he was a contemporary of Rohit's but in his shadow. They were born 18 months apart, had made their first-class debuts four months apart and their List A debuts a week apart. Naturally he had heard about this young genius Rohit that everybody was name-checking. And he was curious because he wasn't being talked about in the same way - partly because he was still in U-19, for example, Kohli had gone for only $50,000 at the IPL.
Then he saw Rohit bat on TV at the World T20, shrank back into his sofa and resolved not to wonder any more why he wasn't seen or valued the same way: "When you saw him play, you understood what people were talking about." He didn't have a second more than anyone else at the crease, Kohli corrected Kapur, he had one and a half more.
The IPL was about to change things forever, not least for Rohit, poised between becoming the next Tendulkar and the first Kohli.
For however unknowable he must be and however many fathoms deep the real Kohli might live, other batsmen often bring out in him a glimpse of what appears to be real (as does a good confrontation). You've probably seen footage of Kohli's reaction to that old-school MS Dhoni six at The Oval against Australia: he stopped dead after starting for a run, stood as awkwardly as he has ever stood on a cricket field, before looking round to Dhoni. "Oh teri… b****d" is my non-lip-reading guess - or hope perhaps - of what he said, fanboying, because millions probably did the same.
This happens with Kohli often, so his summoning of awe at watching Rohit is believable. More importantly it is relatable, because we have all shrunk back into our sofas watching Rohit. Such a moment comes nearly every game he bats. Just in the game before that Oval one, against South Africa, for instance, there were two shots off Kagiso Rabada in the eighth over, not only great shots in themselves, but two that were knife jabs into the bubble of tension India's chase found itself in at the time.
The second - a thunderous square cut - was lesser only because it wasn't the first and the first was a pull: Rohit leaning inside the line of a shortish ball and pulling it off just above his waist for a flat six over deep square leg. The little swivel maintained his balance though he looked, for all the world, at the point of impact like he might overbalance and tumble over. He never does, and neither does he have a pull shot - he has a pull playlist. He can pull anywhere in an arc between long-on and a very fine square leg. He can pull length balls, short balls, slightly short balls, back-of-a-length balls. He can pull off his front foot, his back, off a little side step, short-armed, with full extension, deflect a pull off the bat, smash one off it, like Ponting, like a West Indian. It's dependent on him entirely, whether he wants to pull, and not dictated by the bowler.
But to home in on the pull is to risk ignoring so much else. An example from a different format, from the first morning of the Adelaide Test last December. India struggling at 66 for 4. Cheteshwar Pujara scoreless at one end for an eternity, and Pat Cummins bearing down on Rohit with the rich legacy of Australian fast bowling past and its historic dominance of subcontinent batsmen.
"Kohli's cheeks and jaw are a sculptor's dream; Rohit's cheeks are like my ten-month-old's"
One hundred and forty-three clicks an hour, wide, yes, but short enough of a length to make driving the less smart, more difficult option. Rohit, nearly outside the crease already and on his mark, Rohit with a light half-step, get ready, and Rohit with another slight step, go: tock, six over cover. Massive gap between bat and pad, head not close to being over ball, feet looking textbook despite not being near the ball at all. Put all the potential responses to this delivery from all the batsmen in the world to one side: maybe one leaves it (at that score especially), one punches it off the back foot through - not over - cover, maybe many play it far squarer, with horizontal bats. Then put Rohit on the other.
Shot of the day? No. Shot of the year? Keep going. Shot of a lifetime? Not if you're Rohit, but yes if you're not Rohit. The shot that beats amnesia? Yes. Kohli had already gone by then, but up in the dressing room you can imagine him, mouth open, shrinking back into his seat. Kohli owned every inch of that Test series and the entire Australian summer and Rohit would only play one more Test, but this here was a solitary but immoveable flag on a moment Kohli couldn't own.
The most viral piece of content from that summer was the video of Kohli netting. Once you've clicked on it, it's impossible not to watch all the way through. A wonder of editing yes, but the wonder of Kohli the batsman too - it's an award-winning short if somebody wills it to be.
The internet is home to a few videos of Rohit netting as well. They're not winning an Oscar anytime soon. They are art, though, in the overall lightness of the way Rohit moves, on his toes, skipping, easing into his movements like he's Muhammad Ali and doesn't want to scar the sanctity of the earth beneath him. Kohli is far from inelegant. But when he moves, he's claiming incontestable ownership over two of the classical elements found in cricket: earth and wind.
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On the field Kohli is as one would imagine Kohli is off the field: with intent, alive equally to threat or opportunity, sans doubt. Rohit comes alive not at the crease, but almost only at the moment of impact between bat and ball - that extra half-second, you see. At the non-striker's, Kohli will be in constant motion, twirling his bat, looking around, air-shotting, talking to his partner, pointing something out. In so many of Kohli's movements and actions it is possible to recognise the front foot modern India is parked on in this world. Rohit is not exactly in repose, but he could be lost in thought, perhaps in his own world - not knowing that Kohli owns that world.
India chose to send Rohit to the press conference before the game against Australia. Kohli came to the press conference after the win. The contrast was unmistakably perfect: Rohit a rougher, more organic presence, a man who accepts mornings aren't always great; Kohli more manicured, born ready and waiting, to own the day, morning, afternoon or evening. Kohli's cheeks and jaw are a sculptor's dream; Rohit's cheeks are like my ten-month-old's. Kohli, who had a swig of what was probably some very healthy shake, looks like the Novak Djokovics of this world are the physical ideal to strive for. Rohit is not fat but invariably finds himself floating around the edges of conversations about who in cricket might be fat.
Kohli's eyes are so fierce - and they need to be, to take in all the attention of the world, all of the glare, and stop it dead when he wants to. Rohit's eyes serve no purpose other than, presumably, to help him see a cricket ball really well. Kohli is hyper-articulate, with a gift for conversation. Rohit is not; not to that degree anyway. Kohli's contribution to the match was to make everyone forget about it with his plea (was it a request, or even a demand?) to Indian fans to not boo Steve Smith, Kohli won the day. Rohit hit an unremarkable fifty few will remember.
As much as they are bound together by their contemporaneity, one inescapable way to look at Kohli and Rohit is by their being bound together by these contrasts. You could, if you wanted, see tension in it. Rohit liking a tweet that could be seen as a dig at Kohli (but which he later un-liked), for example. Or through the brief ruckus created by a story last year that Rohit had unfollowed Kohli on some social medium (either he never did, or one unfollowed the other, nobody is sure). Or from the natural equation of being captain and vice-captain and the deputy coming with a body of opinion that says he is the better captain (and body of work, having led sides to four IPL titles, a Champions League title, and most recently, the Asia Cup). On the other hand, there has been no bigger backer of Rohit in the Test side than Kohli.
If there was any tension, its core would be the batting: that they aren't just the two best batsmen in the side but that they are one GOAT and one great who could've been GOAT (that Test record...); that if you drew an imaginary line from the end of India's Fab Five era (Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly), you could place Rohit on it, whereas Kohli would be the endpoint of that line by being the sum total of all their genius.
Before that game against Australia, Aaron Finch casually put forward the opinion that Steve Smith was the best batsman in the world across formats. Rohit was asked to respond to that proclamation later, the questioner leading him on in the expectation that he would plump for Kohli. Rohit turned the question back to him: this keeps coming up, it will keep coming up, and it is up to the media to decide.
Is it probably reading too much into it to imagine Rohit might, momentarily, have thought to answer with his own name, or does he accept that he is a beautiful white, fluffy cloud passing through in the brilliant blue sky of Kohli?