Home / Opinion / Master Blaster or Master Laster: A revisionist look at Sachin Tendulkar’s career

If there is one realm of human activity that is ripe for data journalism, it is cricket. You could say it is a sport invented with the express purpose of giving employment to statisticians. And yet statistical yardsticks that are used to evaluate a player’s value or achievements have failed to keep pace with the evolution of the game itself. This is particularly strange given the exponential increase in the volume of cricket being played, and the amount of money riding on the game.

For instance, how accurate are career averages as a measure of a batsman’s greatness? Do aggregate stats—such as the number of centuries or fifties scored—obscure more than they reveal about a player’s real value? Does a century made on a flat track against a toothless bowling attack with nothing at stake have the same value as one made while batting with tailenders on a crumbling fifth day wicket against a formidable attack to take the team to an unlikely victory? These are some of the questions raised by Sumit Chakraberty’s Master Laster: What They Don’t Tell You About Sachin Tendulkar, out this week from Hay House publishers. (Disclosure: Chakraberty is a former colleague, and I have been acknowledged in the book.)

Chakraberty, a journalist and cricket writer, starts with a simple question: if cricket is a team game, “not an individual sport like singles tennis," why then are we swamped with statistics that only present personal milestones? Where are the stats that tell us about a player’s value to the team? And how would Tendulkar fare when subjected to a statistical regime that focuses on impact analysis from the team’s point of view rather than individual records? This is one question, notes Chakraberty, that “the scores of adulatory books on him tend to gloss over, happy to sing paeans to his personal milestones."

Still, why pick Sachin Tendulkar to test out new models of statistical analysis? Because, answers Chakraberty, “Nobody else has stats as impressive as his. He is the perfect candidate, therefore, to test the hypothesis that we need new yardsticks to measure the achievements of cricketers, and to separate the contributions that really mattered from those that mostly bulked up a player’s statistical profile."

Master Laster undertakes a more granular analysis of Tendulkar’s performances in the course of his 24-year long international career. Chakraberty marshals not just strike rates and batting orders from years gone by, but also painstakingly dissects every one of Tendulkar’s 51 Test centuries, match by match. He does the same for his six World Cup appearances.

Using an approach that takes cognizance of unique match situations rather than blunt statistical instruments such as batting averages or number of hundreds, he reaches three conclusions, all highly controversial: one, Tendulkar was a selfish player who put personal records above team interest; two, he could not handle match-winning pressure situations; and three, his staggering numbers are more an outcome of his longevity than a measure of his impact.

The statistical googlies that Chakraberty dishes out are bound to make the average Sachin fan see red. But they sure fulfill the promise of the book’s subtitle: What they don’t tell you about Sachin Tendulkar.

For starters, where does Tendulkar figure in the list of top 45 batsmen who have scored 15% or more of their team’s total runs in the course of their Test career? The answer: Nowhere. Predictably, Don Bradman tops the list, Brian Lara is at number three, and Sunil Gavaskar is at number 16. His absence on this list belies the claim often made that Tendulkar’s low impact was because he played in weak teams—for if he had been outdoing his teammates by that wide a margin, he would have figured somewhere near the top in this list of batsmen with the highest percentages of their team’s runs.

Here’s another: In ODIs, India won the match 67% of the time when Sachin scored a century. Sounds impressive? Well, this happens to be the lowest win percentage for any opener or top order batsman. For instance, India won 82% of the time when Tendulkar’s fellow opener Saurav Ganguly scored a century; Australia won 100% of the time when Adam Gilchrist scored a 100. The corresponding win percentages are 93% for Virender Sehwag, 84% for Brian Lara, 80% for Saeed Anwar, and 83% for Ricky Ponting.

More interestingly, Tendulkar’s win percentage dips to 52% for his last 25 ODI centuries, made between 2000 and 2012. His first 24 tons had a higher win percentage of 83%—roughly the same as Lara, Jayasuriya, Ponting and Ganguly. In other words, from 2000 to the present, whenever Tendulkar scored a 100, India lost the match half the time. This is unparalleled in any other player’s stats. What does one make of this?

The limitations of cumulative statistical records as a measure of a player’s value are revealed most starkly by another doosra tossed up by Chakraberty: Tendulkar’s Test career (not counting the ongoing Windies series) boasts of a formidable 51 centuries and 67 fifties. How many of these were “scored under pressure in the second innings to win a Test match for India outside the sub-continent?" None. Yet V.V.S. Laxman did it four times and Rahul Dravid thrice.

As he brings every one of Tendulkar’s 51 Test centuries under the microscope, Chakraberty picks his 241 not out in Sydney in 2003-04 as his worst knock from the team’s perspective. The reason: It cost India what could have been its first ever Test series victory in Australia.

India was 400 for 3 at lunch on Day 2. It was expected that we would quicken the scoring rate and declare an hour after tea – the usual practice in such situations—so that the bowlers could have a go at the Aussie batsmen in the day’s last session. But India batted on well into the third day, declared at 705 for 7, and eventually lost a chance to win a match they dominated because they ran out of time.

Observes Chakraberty, “Imagine a Dhoni at the crease with his team on 400 for 3. Would he continue at the same strike rate or hit out until either he gets out or the innings is declared? To carry on playing a risk-free game, when the team is on top and needs quick runs to increase the chances of forcing a victory, is one of the maddening anomalies in team sports like cricket, where personal goals can often be at odds with team requirements."

But Tendulkar knew the match situation. So why didn’t he quicken his scoring rate even at 500 for 3? Well, this innings was crucial for Tendulkar. It was the last match in a series where he had done nothing of note, whereas Laxman, Dravid and Ganguly had all scored centuries in match-saving or match-winning situations. Besides, his manner of dismissal was attracting derisive comment—he had been repeatedly getting out playing on the up on the offside.

So the champion responded in champion style: he completely eliminated cover drives. For a stroke player to shut out one half of the ground takes tremendous amount of discipline, self-control and will power, and players like Lara have on different occasions expressed their admiration for this knock. But such austerity also meant drastically reduced scoring opportunities, which ensured that his scoring rate remained pedestrian right through his innings. But he achieved his objective: a double hundred in Sydney and a vastly improved series batting average.

In a sense, this innings epitomizes the real nature of Tendulkar’s greatness, which was always embedded in a fundamental weakness: his selfish gene. His selfishness, in combination with his tremendous self-belief, commitment to success, and ability to adapt his game to changes in his body, fitness, rules of the game, or format, led to the mega-phenomenon that came to dominate Indian cricket for a more than two decades.

The Tendulkar of the “noughties", for instance, was not the same player who astonished the world with his stroke play in the nineties. Back spasms, tennis elbow, the crack in a sesamoid bone in his foot—they were all serious injuries that may have shortened the career of a lesser player. But Tendulkar was able to retrofit his game to his new set of physical constraints in such a way as to lengthen his career to its maximum.

This could not have been done without thousands of hours of dedicated practice and discipline, a keen understanding of the game, and awareness of his own strengths and limitations. For instance, in the latter part of his career, he cut out the pull shot, even though he was one of the best pullers in the game and it was a key weapon in his armory. He stopped coming down the track to spinners, and developed the paddle sweep to make the bowler bowl a shorter length.

His singular goal was to spend as much of his life at the wicket as possible, and he was willing to make everything else subservient to that goal. If it means, for example, not fielding at the slips in order to protect his fingers from injury, so be it. It didn’t matter that in any team the top order batsmen are expected to man the slips because of their ability to sight the ball early. It didn’t matter that India would have to manage with an inferior slip fielder at the risk of catches being dropped—he would stick to the outfield. And how many times have commentators been kind enough to draw our attention to his strong throwing arm?

Tendulkar’s greatness rests on four pillars: the supreme beauty of his stroke play and the perfection of his technique; the mindboggling amount of runs he has scored in all formats of the game; his impact beyond the boundary as a marketing phenomenon; and his iconic status as an emblem of hope and a source of inspiration for millions in his own country and around the world. Defined by these parameters, his greatness is beyond debate, and Chakraberty does not contest them.

But if you were to ask: Given his stupendous talent, did the Indian team benefit from it as much it should have, the answer is a big no. Lesser talents have consistently had far greater impact on match outcomes for their teams. One may or may not agree with the conclusions of this book, but the questions it raises about the way we evaluate cricketing achievement needs to be debated.

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