Watching Peter Roebuck, former captain of Somerset and currently columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald, shake his head in amazement every now and then during Sachin Tendulkar’s superbly crafted double century at Bangalore probably provoked the scribe to ask him the most asked question by cricket fans all over the world. Roebuck’s reply was emphatic: “Yes, Tendulkar is the better batsman between him and Brian Lara.”
Roebuck’s opinion hasn’t changed for almost a decade. He has consistently held that Lara’s incandescent strokeplay bespeaks a genius, no less. As indeed do Virender Sehwag’s unorthodox and belligerent methods, which have left opponents ruminating on whether life is worth living. Both these batsmen also have two Test scores of 300 and more, which puts them in a different stratosphere. But Tendulkar nudges ahead of all others.
I concur. You can add the names of Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis, Matthew Hayden and V.V.S. Laxman to make up a quorum of modern masters, but his sheer longevity, poise, stability and adaptability in every situation—on and off the field—puts Tendulkar in a league of his own even assuming all other aspects pertaining to batsmanship being equal with others.
Further ratification, if needed, comes from other sources too. For instance, while Tendulkar was notching up his sixth Test double ton on Tuesday, Shane Warne tweeted about him being the No. 1 player in his estimation. Elsewhere, Lara himself was paying kudos to Tendulkar in his own unique fashion; he wanted his son to grow up to be like the Indian maestro.
Powerhouse: Tendulkar’s skills and form have not been affected by the ravages of time. PTI
Perhaps the sell-by date for the “most asked question” had passed in the closing years of the preceding millennium itself when Sir Donald Bradman had likened Tendulkar to himself. If I may be permitted some exaggeration, this sent tremors around the cricket world, causing several million eyebrows to be raised in shock and awe. But in many ways, Bradman’s observation was the clincher.
Indeed, the debate since has been whether Tendulkar is not a greater batsman than Bradman himself. It is a mighty poser, sparked off by Tendulkar’s sensational double century in a One Day International (ODI) against South Africa last year, and fuelled since then by his awesome run in Tests this year, which has seen him score 1,270 runs with six Test centuries. In between, he’s also had a splendid IPL 3 season, establishing his mastery over all formats of the game.
Is it at all possible, can it be that there is a better batsman than somebody who averaged 99.94? I reckon this debate could go on till the end of time, but it must be said that the comparison between Tendulkar and Bradman does not sound as far-fetched as it did, say, even a decade ago. In fact, today this seems more plausible than improbable, never mind the vast gulf in their batting averages.
In a different sort of way, Tendulkar’ s stats are no less mind-boggling than Bradman’s. He has scored the most runs in Tests and ODIs. He has the most centuries in either format too. It is unlikely that he will ever break Jack Hobbs’ record of 199 first-class centuries, but as Roebuck is quick to remind, Tendulkar has made an unprecedented 95 hundreds at the international level, which will take some beating.
The one aspect in which Tendulkar has clearly moved ahead of Bradman is in length of career. Bradman played for 20 years, Tendulkar is in his 21st.
Cricket is not quite as physically demanding as, say, football, basketball or even tennis, and the history of the game is flush with names who played well into their 40s. Wilfred Rhodes played till he was 52, W.G. Grace played his last Test when 50, Jack Hobbs was pushing 48 in his final Test and scored a Test hundred when he was 44.
Tendulkar, in comparison, is only 37. But in terms of workload, he is ahead of most and behind only a few who have ever worn cricket flannels over a century and a half. The number of hours spent on the field apart, the pressures of modern cricket entail far more travel and playing on different pitches and conditions (Bradman, for instance, played in only two countries) so the rigours on Tendulkar—physical and mental—must be seen in that perspective.
Add to this the pressure of expectations of a billion people, and then add to this further his relentless run-making, and you get an extraordinary career that finds few parallels in any sport, leave aside cricket. And he is still unbeaten, as it were, and batting with an aplomb and productivity this year that has seemed to turn the clock back 15-20 years.
At his age, this could only be the second wind that sports medicine experts say sportspersons experience when they are nearing the end of a race or a career—except that when you scan Tendulkar’s playing life, there is no indication at all that the first wind ever ended! So what keeps him going?
“It’s the mind, not body,’’ said Sunil Gavaskar, when I asked him what had finally made him give up the game at 38 after playing for almost 18 years. “During the final phase of my career, I was mentally fatigued, asking myself if I even wanted to be on the field whenever four or five overs were remaining or something like that. Tendulkar is still mentally fresh, loves and plays the game like a 15-year-old. Importantly, he also knows his body well and knows how to pace himself.”
Roebuck endorses this in a different way and sees no reason why Tendulkar can’t go on for four or five years more. “His batting is still immaculate and his appetite for the game and for scoring runs remains remarkably undiminished. Why should anybody else think about Tendulkar’s retirement when this is not on his own mind?”
Considering his double hundred in Bangalore and outstanding form this year, discussing Tendulkar’s retirement is perhaps a puerile academic exercise. When he made his debut in 1989 as a precocious 16-year-old, he was a Boy Wonder. Twenty-one years later, he strides the cricket world like a colossus. His skills and form are unaffected by the ravages of time, his career unblemished by controversy, his stature rising every time he holds bat in hand and wears the India cap. He may not be the captain of the side, but there is no doubting who the most powerful person in Indian cricket—or indeed even in the world—is.
Moreover, Tendulkar provides the game with a sense of righteousness that every now and then it seems to have squandered, especially in the past decade or so.
Some years ago, Bishen Singh Bedi once effusively called Tendulkar the “greatest living Indian”. That sentiment appears to have acquired a truth value today that even the former India captain could not have expected.
Look around you and see if there is a more worthwhile claimant.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org