Home >Opinion >Tendulkar versus Kohli: Are Sachin fans living in denial?

New Delhi: Virat Kohli’s superlative knock of 82 from 51 deliveries against Australia has reopened the “Virat Kohli versus Sachin Tendulkar: Who is better?" debate, not least because Kohli’s Sunday innings is being compared with one of Tendulkar’s in Sharjah, also against the Kangaroos, back in 1998. Before proceeding further, let’s get one thing out of the way. A comparison between Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar is unfair for many reasons. Two great players ought not to be compared, especially if they have played across two different eras (albeit with a slight overlap in this case) against different oppositions, with frequently changing rules of the game and even more rapidly transforming “cricketing mindset". The advent of the T20, among other factors, has completely changed the notion of a good scoring rate, expanded the range of strokeplay and is constantly altering the boundaries of the possible.

But so what? Even if a comparison is unfair, it does not mean it is unpopular. We all love comparisons. We happily do it, even flauntingly, when the outcome favours our favourite cricketer. We refrain from comparing only if the scales are tilted unfavourably against our own favourites. Even then, we sneak into the record books and try to find out that one piece of statistic that makes our case stronger. If we are successful in our pursuit, the discovered statistic has a veneer of objectivity to it; if not the statistics are no more than a product of subjective realities of the ever-changing game of cricket.

So the big question: Are Tendulkar fans living in denial? Since we now know that subjective circumstances matter as much as cold statistics, isn’t it true that Kohli is a much more complete player than Tendulkar? Doesn’t Kohli revel in chases, high-pressure situations and big games—the very vulnerabilities of Tendulkar? Didn’t Tendulkar open himself to the charge of playing for personal milestones rather than the team? Of course, the charge may be completely phony but devotees of the “cricket god" have to realise that this phony charge is not even contemplated against Kohli.

Well, Tendulkar was always vulnerable—in the fourth innings of the Test match, while chasing a big target, in the finals of tournaments, any other crunch game or pressure situation you can conceive of. At the same time, Tendulkar has been the highest scorer in World Cups—the biggest cricket extravaganza of them all—by a good margin. His 103 not out in Chennai against England in 2008 is one of the finest fourth innings centuries of all times. His back-to-back scores of 117 not out and 91 in the two finals at Sydney and Brisbane respectively won India the Commonwealth Bank Series in 2008. And one can make a pretty long list of spectacular performances where Tendulkar brought India close to victory and his departure from the wicket was all it took to change the game on its head. After all, Tendulkar was an opener, not a finisher. Kohli isn’t a middle-order batsman, he comes in at number three. But he finishes the game with a mechanical ease which puts human frailties—so pervasive all around him—to shame.

Yes, Tendulkar was vulnerable but those vulnerabilities completed Tendulkar. As much as his backfoot cover drive and leg flick, his failures, his vulnerabilities and his injuries rounded up the Tendulkar “myth". A genius is known more by his failures than by his successes were the kind of tropes used to justify Tendulkar’s greatness amid all his failures. Think of all the tales that are usually recounted about Tendulkar. For instance, a bleeding nose did not stop him from despatching the lethal Waqar Younis to the fence. Then there is the inevitable reference to his puny frame—the picture of a man just 5 feet and 5 inches pulling a bouncer from Andrew Caddick—a foot taller—over the roof at Kingsmead, Durban during the 2003 World Cup.

Yes, there was a Tendulkar myth. It is not a coincidence that he earned the sobriquet of “cricket god"—just like some characters in mythologies do. And this was a particularly Indian mythology. Just like maryada purushottam Rama had flaws, Tendulkar had his own. The Tendulkar myth was a product of what India was enduring during the times he played. Economic liberalization, the rise in incomes, the proliferation of television sets. Two myths became popular on the TV—one was the series on the great epic Mahabharat produced by B.R. Chopra and other was the Tendulkar myth. While the former was drawn from India’s traditional culture and values, the latter was an urge of a rapidly changing India to fashion their future on a global scale as Tendulkar was doing on the cricket field. And Tendulkar lasted much longer than the TV series.

I once wrote on my Facebook timeline: “Don Bradman had a better average, Brian Lara played longer innings, Rahul Dravid was more reliable, Viv Richards scored much faster and Gary Sobers was a more complete cricketer. None of them made a poor nation feel rich the way Sachin Tendulkar made India feel." Or, as Harsha Bhogle once said: “If Sachin plays well, India sleeps well." The Chennai century mentioned above came days after the mind-numbing terrorist attacks in Mumbai—better known as 26/11—that killed 166 people. When the nation is wounded, who else you expect to apply the ointment but the god?

It is extremely important to make two points here. One, the Tendulkar myth is not exactly a reference to a Tendulkar with feet of clay. It is merely to point out his incompleteness which paradoxically completed him. While the nation cheered his successes, the nation wept for his every failure. This lent a sinuosity to the phenomenon, an incertitude about his performance that kept one hooked, desperately wishing and praying for him. He cultivated a sea of believers—and his imperfection was as much a factor here. Perfection is monotonous and deprives the fan of the sinuosity and hence the journey which the performer-fan traverses together seems incomplete.

Two, myths are not inherently fictional or superstitious. Myths are not even futile. On the contrary myths are important for the evolution of any society. As Sanjeev Sanyal puts it in a different context: “Mythology is civilisational memory—the memory of ideas, philosophical debates, the deepest fears and greatest joys of a people. Any civilisation that no longer cares for its myths will soon wither and die." Kohli also believed in this Tendulkar myth. He acknowledges every other day that Tendulkar is his idol, and he also gets emotional talking about him. He carried Tendulkar over his shoulders after the World Cup win in 2011. He bowed down to Tendulkar the other day after completing his 50 against Pakistan in the Eden Gardens.

All the vulnerabilities notwithstanding, Tendulkar stands heads and shoulders above Kohli as far as Test match record is concerned. A standard benchmark that I use to separate the good from the great in Test matches is the average mark of 50. Kohli fails to make this cut and, like many old followers of the game, I believe that Test matches are the true test of a player’s character. While Kohli’s record, so far, in limited overs international is more impressive than Tendulkar’s, that may also simply be the result of different eras in which the two played. I don’t find an equivalent of a Glenn McGrath, Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne in today’s game. Bowling standards have depreciated as meatier bats have come in and the ropes have been pulled inside. Despite this difference between eras, for Kohli to overhaul Tendulkar’s number of runs in one-dayers will require more than 1,100 runs every year if he plays for 10 more years. Even if he lasts another 13 years—by which his age will cross 40—he will have to make close to 900 runs every year. To put this into perspective, Kohli has scored approximately 950 runs every year since his debut in 2008 and he has been in red-hot form virtually all this while.

Kohli looks more conventional a cricketer than Tendulkar. While Tendulkar had all the shots in the coaching manual, he also pioneered a few on his own. The paddle sweep and the upper cut come to top of the mind. And he apparently played the “helicopter shot" before Mahendra Singh Dhoni made it his own. Kohli mostly sticks to the manual. That his great contemporaries like AB de Villiers play all kinds of unorthodox shots has not tempted Kohli. Probably Kohli prices his wicket much more than either de Villiers or even Tendulkar. And that is the reason he has been able to finish matches from the position of number three.

Kohli’s consistency—especially in limited over matches—is enviable. Though he has a long way to go to catch up with Tendulkar, the latter was not as consistent for a longer duration anytime during his cricket career. But Tendulkar debuted in a very mediocre team. To win a test match abroad used to be a rare feat for the Indian team in those days. With Tendulkar and later with Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and Virender Sehwag, this started to change. In the limited overs matches, Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni began to consolidate the starts given by Tendulkar in a much better fashion than Ajay Jadeja or Mohammad Azharuddin would do earlier. Kohli’s team won a 50-over World Cup within three years of his debut. Kohli had entered a transformed Indian side, a transformation which had been begun by Tendulkar two decades ago.

And there lies the basic flaw in comparing Tendulkar and Kohli. Kohli is a product of the changes ushered in by Tendulkar. In other words, Kohli is himself a creation of the Tendulkar myth—a myth which has to be nurtured and sustained by Kohli. And he is doing a good job of it.

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