The real battle any sportsman fights on his path to greatness is an inner one. Can Kohli be the best Kohli possible? © Getty Images

The real battle any sportsman fights on his path to greatness is an inner one. Can Kohli be the best Kohli possible? © Getty Images

It is just as well that there is so little overlap between mountaineering aficionados and cricket fans. For otherwise, Virat Kohli’s attempt to lead Royal Challengers Bangalore to the top of the heap of the Indian Premier League, on May 29, 2016, may well have been compared to Sir Edmund Hillary’s fabled first ascent of Mt Everest, 63 years earlier, to the day.

After all, Kohli’s dazzling run of the last couple of years have invited comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar, Sir Viv Richards and a whole range of others in between. Why, when he went past 900 runs in this season of the IPL, the achievement was paralleled with Sir Don Bradman’s 973 runs scored in the 1948 Ashes.

What is it about cricket that makes journalists who report the game, commentators who call it live on television and radio, and fans who watch in living-rooms, cafes and bars draw comparisons at the first possible opportunity? While it is human nature to not merely compare, but look for similarities – almost the first comment that comes to an infant is whether he or she looks like mum or dad, despite the fact that it’s hard enough to distinguish one baby from the next at birth – is there any real merit in doing so?

When Kohli is compared to Richards, Tendulkar or Bradman, it does no one a great favour. For starters, there is little parity in the circumstances in which each of these undoubtedly outstanding practitioners of batting made their runs. Pitches, conditions, opposition, rules and regulations, formats of the game and the state of their own teams have varied so dramatically that simple numerical comparisons are almost worthless.

Comparisons of aesthetic approach, of aggression and demeanour are less stressful, but equally dangerous for, from afar, it is next to impossible to decode the intent of any of these men, their mindset, the things that shaped the way they played or even the factors that combined to make them the men they were.

And yet, knowing all this to be true, why is it that we cannot resist the temptation to compare?

It is entirely possible to celebrate Kohli, his mastery over the run chase, the purity of his strokeplay, the clarity of thought in assessing conditions and situations, the nous in reading a bowler’s line of questioning, without wondering whether he did one of these things like Richards or another like Tendulkar. It is entirely reasonable to expect Kohli to statistically match, or even surpass, some of those who came before him, but that does not necessarily make him their equal, or them inferior in any way.

The one common thread among all great sportsmen, across arenas, is that the opposition becomes meaningless beyond a point. The real battle any of them fights on his path to greatness is an inner one. Can Kohli be the best Kohli possible? Can he do everything in his power to ensure that quest for excellence does not dim, the pursuit of self-improvement continues unchecked?

It is entirely possible to celebrate Kohli, his mastery over the run chase, the purity of his strokeplay, the clarity of thought in assessing conditions and situations, the nous in reading a bowler’s line of questioning, without wondering whether he did one of these things like Richards or another like Tendulkar. It is entirely reasonable to expect Kohli to statistically match, or even surpass, some of those who came before him, but that does not necessarily make him their equal, or them inferior in any way.

With every passing generation, there will be people who do things more efficiently than those that went before them. This is only a byproduct of evolution. This means that centuries will be scored in fewer balls, more runs will be amassed in a single innings, and if there was a bit more parity between bat and ball, wickets taken for less and overs sent down more economically. The fate of most milestones in cricket is no different from the timing for the 100M dash, which keeps getting bettered year after year.

In that sense, very few things that are achieved in sport actually fall in the category of something that has not been done before. Numerically, it may not have been achieved in the past, but in spirit, each achievement is only an iteration of something already set down.

Having begun with Hillary, it’s worth listening to the words of another mountaineer, the incomparable Reinhold Messner, one of the great alpinists of all time. Messner, who was the first man to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen, and also the first on all 14 8000-metre peaks, should know a thing or two about getting to the top. “A climb is only there for me. When I climb up a wall, there is a line, before, during and afterwards. It’s like a teacher writing on a blackboard with chalk, only this line is lived by me. But afterwards, you see nothing on the wall. I see my line in my inner eye. It is a huge design, may be the biggest paintings we do on the highest mountains. But we leave nothing,” says Messner. “The next generation can come and they don’t see a line on Everest. The biggest possibility is to create nothing. The something we create is nothing, so when the next generation comes, the world is still empty and they can fill it up. I believe we reinvent the world in each generation. We live life step by step, and at this moment, the steps in front of me are real, but soon, the wind washes away my footprints.”

While this philosophical approach may be beyond the articulation of most modern cricketers, the best among them live it unwittingly. If Kohli put his hand on his heart, he would admit he does not want to be the next Richards or Tendulkar or Bradman, with all due respect. He’d rather be himself, and blaze his own trail in the footsteps of the titans that walked before him.