Did Sachin Tendulkar deserve the Bharat Ratna right now? Is he the greatest cricketer of all time? The first, I suspect, is a time-bound controversy, but the second is a debate that will continue forever.

Tendulkar’s diehard fans brook no opposition, thrusting a mountain of statistics to prove their point. The contrarians and revisionists are not without voice either, and have a fair share of numbers to support their contentions.

A polar position in such matters is seriously limiting I believe. Diverse opinions add to the flavour of any discussion, more so in sport. Is Roger Federer greater than Rod Laver, winner of two Grand Slams? Was Muhammad Ali better than Joe Louis? How does Usain Bolt compare with Jesse Owens, Diego Maradona with Pelé?

Go figure.

In cricket, Donald Bradman with a Test average of 99.94, stands on a unique pedestal where batsmanship is concerned. Purely on stats, Tendulkar can be clubbed along with a galaxy of other supreme batsmen—Hobbs, Hutton, Sutcliffe, Headley, Weekes, Walcott, Compton, Richards, Chappell, Gavaskar, Miandad, Ponting, Lara, Dravid—to name a few. Yet, Tendulkar has 100 international centuries which may never be exceeded.

But then again, such debates generally ignore bowlers: those men without whose contribution it would be impossible to win a match. How does one compare these batsmen with say Sid Barnes, O’Reilly, Lillee, Warne, Muralitharan, Akram to determine the best cricketer of all time?

Furthermore, what of Imran, Kapil Dev, Botham, Hadlee and more contemporarily, Kallis, who would find a place in a side any time in the history of cricket with either bat or ball? My personal opinion is that the multi-skilled West Indian Garry Sobers was the real GOAT (Greatest of all Time)—and I can already sense a fresh dispute arising.

What sets Tendulkar apart, however, is the influence he has wielded, not just on the sport, but also society and his country. It was not only about how brilliantly he wielded the bat or the runs and centuries he scored, but the impact he had on the psyche of Indians, whether lovers of sport or not.

Where cricket’s impact on society is concerned, there are many important chapters. How Frank Worrell became the first black man to captain the West Indies thanks to the activism of the Marxist philosopher C.L.R James, for instance, is a story of the negation of racism, not just cricket.

Or, how South Africa were ostracized by the world’s cricketing community for not allowing Basil D’Oliveira, a “Cape coloured", to tour with the England team in 1968-69, which was to play a stellar role in the breakdown of apartheid 20 years later.

But where individuals are concerned, perhaps only two others have dominated public sentiment, expanded the horizons of the sport to the extent that Tendulkar did: W.G. Grace and Bradman. All three defined their own distinctive eras.

Grace is widely acknowledged as the founding father of modern batsmanship. Even more, his charismatic appeal brought spectators in droves to see him play and made cricket the pre-eminent sport in England in the late 19th century.

A long flowing beard, a fairly expanded middle show Grace as some Biblical patriarch rather than a sportsman. The physical appearance was a big draw undoubtedly, but he had a long and productive career filled with some amazing stories and exploits—some surely apocryphal—which captured the imagination of his country and its people.

Grace’s career stats are modest, but his influence over the two decades he played international cricket was quite spectacular. By the time he finished in 1899, cricket had entered its golden age, in more ways than just the exploits of several accomplished players in action then.

The Bradman era, spanning the years from 1928-1948, evolves undoubtedly from his incredible and unrelenting batting achievements that had the cricket world in a stupor of sorts. Never before or since has anybody shown the same prolific, machine-like run-making ability. He will probably remain the eternal benchmark for batsmen.

But the Bradman story had other important layers too: A small town boy making it big, the cutting down to size of the British Empire through sheer sporting skills and perhaps most pertinently, the hope and aspiration he provided to his country in the period of the Great Depression.

The Tendulkar era is different in context and content from that of Grace and Bradman, but matches both in longevity and the grip he has had on the minds of people, cricket followers and otherwise.

There have been some truly great players in this period and some—as mentioned earlier—may have arguably exceeded him in cricketing ability if you still want to get into that discussion. But none was a bigger influence than Tendulkar.

He was the lodestar, the Pied Piper and brought about an explosion in the following and commerce of the sport like never before. How he lived up to the pressure of expectations of a billion-plus people for 24 years, starting as a gawky 16-year-old makes for one of the most compelling stories of our times.

After the gush and emotionalism dies down, I venture that the Tendulkar phenomenon needs serious academic investigation to comprehend in its entirety.

He played out a career, we lived through an age.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters

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