It is said that when Arjun and Karan finally faced each other on the seventeenth day of the great war, the winds stopped blowing and the oceans stopped flowing. Their soldiers – a million men on either side – dropped their spears and swords to the ground, unable to divert their eyes from the warriors.
The sight of the two circling chariots was so wondrous that the universe paused. Angels left their heavenly abode. Floating down to the land of ordinary men, they too watched breathlessly as salvos were effortlessly fired and just as easily parried.
That battle thousands of years ago turned into legend and then into myth. Bards sang about how such fierce rivals will never be born again, not knowing that they would be proven wrong.
Mortal men and women in our world, equally ferocious and ambitious, regularly drive each other on towards greatness. A sporting arena is our Kurukshetra; sporting heroes are our demigods.
Rivalries in sport
Rivalries are the benchmark of human achievement and nowhere is that reflected better than on a sporting field. Federer and Nadal have pushed each other on for more than a decade. Ali and Frazier settled scores in a boxing ring, while Palmer and Nicklaus fought for a place in history on the golf course.
The sport may be different but the sentiment remains unchanged. “If you can do this,” every hero says to his peer, “I can do it better.”
However, cricket is a team sport and its performances are more nuanced. Eleven players win a match together and another eleven lose. But for the tallest among them, every defeat is still his own to bear. Every team has a player upon whom its victory depends more than the others.
Batsmen. Captains. Competitors. Rivals.
Players with extraordinary skill
They are both gifted men, with unmatched skill in their craft. Outswingers that flummox lesser batsmen hit the middle of their bats and they can spot a googly before it leaves the bowler’s hand. Their talent is extraordinary.
In fifty-odd Test matches each, Kohli and Smith have scored 16 and 17 centuries respectively, while Tendulkar only had 11 at this point in his career. Smith has a better Test average and the Indian leads in the one-day format.
Many records have already been broken while others are within reach. Recognised by the cricketing fraternity as the best of their generation, magic is expected every time they step on the field. They rarely disappoint.
When you are that good, you can sense it in your bones. Every night you hear a voice reminding you that the universe can bend to your will. It spurs you on, and pushes you to the summit. It implants within you a desperate craving for success.
Kohli and Smith, too, must hear that nightly reminder in their ears. Born within eight months of each other, they currently stand as equals at the top of the sport, but the urging whispers forbid them from being satisfied. To claim the history books as their own, they must rise above their closest rival.
Leading from the front
In the next few years, they are expected to face each other repeatedly. Along with being fascinating players, they are also leading their teams now and perhaps that is where this battle will be decided. One of them will cross the seas every two years and mount a challenge on the citadel of the other.
No Indian team has ever won a Test series in Australia. The Australian team didn’t win a single Test match in their last three trips to the subcontinent for the Border-Gavaskar trophy.
Both Kohli and Smith take every defeat personally. Test victories, away from home, are precious diamonds they both dearly desire.
When the Indian team visited Australia the last time, Kohli wasn’t the captain but he still batted like a champion. With a century in either innings of the first Test match at Adelaide, he laid down his marker and ended with an impressive average of 86.5 in the series.
Smith, though, was not to be outdone. He remained not out in either innings at Adelaide and scored a century in each of the four matches. His average was an astonishing 128.16.
If every chapter in this tale is similarly adorned, the bards may need to write new songs.
A decade of promise
As the Australian team arrives in India, it is Kohli’s turn to defend his fortress. Through the rest of their careers, this see-saw battle will cover every facet of the game.
They will set the fields and choose the bowlers. Men will be positioned like pawns on a chess board, sometimes to defend and at other times to attack. Both are excellent fielders and will, no doubt, place their own selves in the most important positions.
Will they take a one-handed catch and turn the face of a series? Will they leave a bowler on for too long and let the opposition settle? Will they score a double century and press for the kill or will they lose concentration and give up their wicket?
Will batting form desert them at the moment they need it the most?
These questions swirl through our minds unanswered and like those battalions on the fields of Kurukshetra, our ordinary lives must also pause as we stand witness to this great rivalry.
One man’s success will drive the other. They will set limits for each other and surpass them. If fate doesn’t cheat them with a threatening injury, records will be rewritten.
Every time they walk onto the pitch, there is so much promise. How lucky we are to have a share in their disappointment and their jubilation! How lucky we are to feel this sense of anticipation!
Dear Virat and Steve, we are ready. Let the battle begin.Published 14 Feb 2017, 17:02 IST