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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 44, Dated Nov 08, 2008

Long Playing Record

In an age of hype, more perhaps has been asked of Sachin Tendulkar than other greats of the game. SURESH MENON examines whether the life on the field has kept in step with the myth

Cover Story

Scorecard Sachin Tendulkar tops the runs charts in both Tests and One-Day Internationals

IT IS POSSIBLE that Sachin Tendulkar can walk on water. That wouldn’t surprise a billion Indians, who also probably believe he can catch bullets in his teeth and has X-ray vision. When he was hauled up for ball tampering in South Africa (a technical, rather than a deliberate crime), the whole nation jumped to his defence, and it nearly split the cricketing world. Now Adam Gilchrist has dared to speak the unspeakable — suggesting that Sachin might be human after all, and subject to the pulls and pressures of humankind.

Of course, by the time you read this, order is likely to have been restored. Gilchrist will say Sachin is a great player and a personal friend, and everything he wrote about the player changing his version of what happened during the Symonds-Harbhajan fracas was taken out of context. He will blame it on the media for blowing up the story. And laugh all the way to the bank as his book sells.

What sort of a man is this who can do no wrong? I once read about the footballer Pele being hauled up by a referee — later, the referee was reprimanded for this act. Perhaps, some day an umpire might be officially chastised for giving Tendulkar out leg before. Future biographers might go out of their way to look for stories that show up Tendulkar in poor light, to balance the near-saintly qualities that are in the public domain. They might struggle. The stories they find might merely show that Tendulkar was human after all — and that’s not a bad thing to be.

Indians like their heroes to be modest, non-controversial, high performers. Heroes have to continue to be heroes even when no one is looking, and had our national obsession with Tendulkar been based solely on his game, it wouldn’t have mattered.

But we want our heroes to be pure as the driven snow, and that is why any suggestion of impropriety is taken as a personal insult — and, by extension, a national insult. Our heroes tend to be conscious of this, and live the life of heroes. Tendulkar, it must be said, has had to make less effort than most, because he is by nature hero material. Sunil Gavaskar put it best when he said that Tendulkar’s most striking feature was his balance, “both on and off the field.”

BALANCE WAS the key to the batting of the two men whose record Tendulkar’s will be compared to, Don Bradman and Gavaskar.

If Bradman himself hadn’t said so, it is unlikely that Tendulkar would be clubbed with him. When the Don pointed out the similarity between the two to his wife, Tendulkar was only 23; it might have destroyed a lesser man. But it is a tribute to the Indian’s skill and temperament that he continues to give bowlers everywhere nightmares (literally in his case, as Shane Warne has confessed), and now emerges 12 years later as the greatest run scorer in the game. But is he the greatest batsman of all time?

Cover Story

Two masters Sachin meets Donald Bradman on his 90th birthday in 1998 at Adelaide

The glib answer first. Yes. Because it is in the nature of sport to produce bigger and better champions. In sports, where progress can be measured, this is seen in the faster timings, longer jumps and greater heights recorded by modern athletes. In 1988, Ben Johnson needed to pump himself with stanozolol to run the 100 metres in 9.79 seconds. In Beijing this year, Usain Bolt ran it in a comfortable 9.69 seconds, actually easing up towards the end.

Better training methods, more access to information, more focused nutrition, controlled lifestyles, scientific methods of analysis — sportsmen are bound to improve over a period, and therefore, by definition, the champions of today are bound to be greater than the champions of yesterday.

What about team sports? The paleontologist and baseball nut Stephen Jay Gould in an essay, Why no one hits 400 anymore, explains why that magic figure has not been attained since 1941. He put it down to declining variation, and far from endorsing the myth that the champions of the past were greater and that standards have fallen, he showed how it proves the opposite — that the standard of the sport has improved.

Declining variation is simply the dif-ference between the average and the stellar performance. As more players get better overall, the difference between the figures of the top player and the rest falls. Or, as Gould puts it, systems equilibrate as they improve, a point demonstrated by analysing decades of baseball scores.

The former England cricketer and writer, Ed Smith, has carried the Gould argument over into cricket, arguing that “The sophistication of the modern game works against freakish solo domination.”

Cover Story

To bowl or not? Kapil Dev teaching Sachin, who wanted to be a fast bowler, the tricks of the trade

Statisticians adopted Gould’s baseball methods to analyse all Test batsmen between 1877 and 1977, and concluded, in the words of Smith, “that for a current player to be relatively as good as Bradman — factoring in the bunching together of today’s great players — he would need to average around 77.” The batsman with the best average after Bradman is Australia’s Mike Hussey, who, in 27 Tests, averages 67.28. No one is even suggesting that Hussey is a ‘great’ batsman, so clearly, we must look elsewhere for a definition of greatness. Figures alone aren’t enough. We must look at other elements.

Longevity is one (Bradman played from 1928 to 1948 with a break for the war years), impact on team results is another, impact on the opposition, quality of bowling attack faced — these are quantifiable. What about the weight of expectations, the pressure from a billion and more fans, the influence on the game itself, the power to change the way people think? A nation rode on Bradman’s shoulders every time he went out to bat, but it was a small nation in terms of numbers, barely comparable to the nation on Tendulkar’s back.

Bradman’s stature has grown for every year that he hasn’t played, and doubtless Tendulkar’s will, too, after he is finished with the game. That is the romance of the sport. A decade ago, I had written that Tendulkar was like the Taj Mahal — there was nothing new to be said about either. By then he was already the best batsman in the world.

When someone asked the then world record holder, Fred Trueman, about the man likely to break his record of 307 Test wickets, he replied that whoever it was would be ‘bloody tired’. By that reckoning, Tendulkar ought to be the most tired player in the world — yet, he brings to his game the same enthusiasm that was evident when he went to bed as a 15-year-old wearing his full gear.

Cover Story

All the right shots Sachin has the most complete array of shots of any batsman in recent years

INCRICKET, as in art or literature, there cannot be a single ‘greatest’ (the exception we shall come to later). Ernest Hemingway was fond of calling himself the heavyweight champion writer of the world, and our own Francis Newton Souza commented when the artist Francis Bacon died that he was now ‘the greatest in the world’. But was Picasso a greater artist than Michelangelo? Those who swear by Picasso think so, while those who swear by Michelangelo think not. Perhaps, there exists some Valhalla where such questions are finally laid to rest.

Despite knowing there cannot be a clear answer, we wish to know who is the greatest. Such a question is the bedrock of all sporting discussions. Woods or Nicklaus? Pele or Maradona? Spitz or Phelps? Such debates have fuelled more arguments, sold more newspapers, and emptied more kegs of beer in bars around the world than arguments about politics or religion. Not even Bradman, with his average of 99.94 and 29 centuries in just 52 Tests, enjoyed unanimous acceptance as the greatest. In Australia, there were those who thought Victor Trumper was the greater player, although he finished with an average of 39.04.

In any case, if Bradman was the greatest, what about Gary Sobers, who could bat more aggressively, bowl both fast and left arm spin with equal felicity, and field better than anyone else, either close-in or in the deep? Or WG Grace, who virtually invented modern batsmanship?

Bradman and Tendulkar have much in common, the most significant being that they were the repository of all knowledge of the batsmanship of their time. Tendulkar is — like Bradman was — a one-stop shop, where state-of-the-art batsmanship is on display. You could go to Sourav Ganguly for the cover drive, VVS Laxman for the on-drive, Rahul Dravid for the square cut, Kevin Pietersen for the lofted drive and so on. Or you could get them all under one roof, as it were, with Tendulkar.

Cover Story

Stunned Shane Warne, second-highest wickettaker in Tests, had nightmares about Sachin

Where the careers of Bradman and Tendulkar begin to diverge is in the range and variety of international cricket the Indian has played. There were no One-Day Internationals in Bradman’s time. Bradman toured only England; he only played Tests at 10 venues — five in Australia and five in England. In contrast, Tendulkar has played Tests in 10 countries, One-Dayers in 17. He has played at 94 venues. Bradman batted on uncovered wickets, Tendulkar had to counter reverse swing. A whole new strategy — bodyline — had to be worked out just to counter Bradman’s genius. It consisted of bowling fast, virtually unplayable deliveries at the batsman’s body, with a phalanx of fielders on the leg side. If you played the ball, you were caught; if you didn’t, you risked serious injury. Bradman had his worst-ever series, averaging just 56.57, and bodyline was outlawed for good.

IF THE comparison has to be meaningful, then Tendulkar ought to be compared with someone closer to his times, with similar public expectations and pressures. Rahul Dravid’s average is almost identical to Tendulkar’s, but thanks to Tendulkar himself, he has not had to carry the hopes of a country in the same manner, although for a period early in this century, he was actually the better batsman. And thus we get into the Tendulkar versus Gavaskar debate — pointless, like all such debates, but perhaps it will help us with the question of the greatest.

When Sunil Gavaskar was a young world-beater scoring centuries against the finest bowlers, he was compared to Vijay Merchant, who played 10 Test matches, and averaged 48 but was considered the most complete batsman of his time. Merchant’s stature was sustained by endorsements from Bradman and his own first class record, where his average was second only to Bradman’s. That he was India’s greatest batsman became a ‘fact’ that gained by reputation and repetition.

When Gavaskar began to break records, old timers believed it was blasphemy to place him above Merchant, although he batted against better opposition (all Merchant’s Tests were played against England) and in the greater pressure cauldron that was modern cricket. Both were openers who worshipped at the altar of classical batsmanship. A middle ground had to be found, so Merchant was deemed the greatest batsman in pre-Independent India (although he played his final Test in 1951), and Gavaskar the best since Independence. Honour satisfied, it was a happy compromise.

Cover Story

Rivals For Aussie speedster Glenn McGrath, taking Sachin’s wicket was always a satisfying moment

A similar compromise will be arrived at when the Gavaskar-Tendulkar comparison is made. Both made their 34th centuries in their 119th Test. So, who is the better batsman? The answer will say more about the person answering than the two players. It will tell us his age, since the youngsters are bound to plump for Tendulkar; it will tell us about temperament, since Gavaskar is the more defensive player. It will tell us about compromise, since those on the fence will mouth one or all of the following clichés — ‘You cannot compare an opening batsman with a middle order batsman’, ‘You cannot compare batsmen of two eras’, ‘Comparisons are odious’, or, ‘Apples and oranges’.

That is why when someone sticks his neck out and backs one or the other, it becomes news. Pakistan’s Wasim Akram, perhaps the greatest left arm fast bowler to have played the game, has said that “Sunil (Gavaskar) was the more difficult batsman to bowl to.” New Zealander Chris Cairns had said, “Sachin, who has more runs than Sunny in the two forms of the game, has the edge as he has scored his runs at a faster clip consistently.” Akram was a raw youth when he first confronted Gavaskar; by the time he bowled to Tendulkar after a 10-year gap, he was the complete bowler and more confident of his prowess. Cairns never bowled to Gavaskar. Viv Richards thought that Tendulkar was 99.5 percent perfect, adding, “I would pay to see him play.”

The essential difference between Gavaskar and Tendulkar was in their approach. Gavaskar (who could be a carefree attacking batsman as he showed us when he took on Malcolm Marshall and company in a home series) was forced to play a defensive role in the interests of the team. He meant more to the Indian team of the 1970s and 1980s than Tendulkar does to the Indian team today. There are two reasons for this. Gavaskar didn’t have the luxury of a batting line-up that Tendulkar enjoys. Except for Gundappa Vishwanath and Dilip Vengsarkar at either end of his career, there was no one who scored big, scored consistently, and helped to reduce the burden on the opener. Tendulkar has Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag, and that, by his own admission, is a relief.

The second reason for Gavaskar’s defensiveness was psychological, and testimony to the country’s limited ambitions on the cricket field. For so long had India been the underdogs and whipping boys of international cricket that often, not losing was a victory in itself. And Gavaskar was the master at ensuring not losing. His naturally-defensive temperament (he was one of the most defensive captains the game has seen, guaranteeing at least a draw in every match before attempting to win it) meshed well with our national consciousness then. As a nation, we were just beginning to emerge into self-sufficiency, and despite the confidence that Ajit Wadekar’s victories in the West Indies and England in 1971 brought about, our cricket team only gradually reflected national confidence. It wasn’t until the World Cup win in 1983 that our cricket shook off the defensive approach and began to think positively.

Cover Story

Player and family man Celebrating yet another triumph
Photo: AFP

AS TENDULKAR’S cricket matured, so did our sense of nationhood. Economic liberalisation seemed to have brought about a psychological liberation in our cricket team too. Tendulkar’s aggressive batsmanship fed into this New India with its greater self-confidence. Losing the odd match in pursuit of a win was no longer a national crime (Tiger Pataudi’s creed too, but his team was too timid to follow his lead), and that suited Tendulkar’s batting as well.

Both Gavaskar and Tendulkar are, thus, creatures of their times; if we have to understand them better, we must acknowledge this. It is only from this perspective that we can ask that question again: Who is the better batsman?

It was easier for Tendulkar to bat like Gavaskar, than for Gavaskar to bat like Tendulkar. One of the finest strokes I saw Gavaskar play was when he stood up to Imran Khan and played the ball dead at his feet. This is not merely correct or technically perfect batsmanhsip. It had as much poetry as Tendulkar’s youthful destruction of Abdul Qadir on a blustery day in Peshawar — he went through with the shot on one occasion knowing he was beaten, by relying on his natural timing and strong wrists to carry the ball over the boundary. Perhaps there is a hint here. Perhaps Gavaskar was impregnable against top class pace, while Tendulkar could murder spin. In any case, Gavaskar would not have allowed a weakness against the incoming delivery to be as ruthlessly and regularly exposed as Tendulkar has done in recent years.

The easy answer, therefore, would be: Gavaskar to bat for your life and draw a match; Tendulkar to open up possibilities of a win. Or, the head says Gavaskar; the heart Tendulkar. But we must remember that Gavaskar gave bowlers fewer chances. Also, he played the better bowling, going in against some of the fastest bowlers to have played the game — from Andy Roberts and the West Indian pace battery to Imran Khan at his peak.

Cover Story

Player and family man with daughter Sara and wife Anjali
Photo: AP

But the curious fact is that a Gavaskar was replaceable. India stuttered a bit at the top of the order after his retirement, but soon settled down. The Gavaskar legacy was carried forward by the likes of Ravi Shastri, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sanjay Manjrekar and Rahul Dravid.

GREAT PLAYERS leave behind legacies, but geniuses merely leave a hole that is covered up — they cannot have successors. A Bradman came, was seen, and conquered, but didn’t give rise to a school of Bradmans. Likewise with Gary Sobers. It will be the same with Tendulkar. He will be missed like any giant will be; but it will just mean that we will have to readjust our sights. From drooling over a genius in the middle-order, we will have to settle for the merely great.

A genius can also be discouraging. Watching a Tendulkar bat might cause a lesser player to give up the game, saying: “What’s the use? I can never play like that.” It is the Gavaskars and the Dravids who inspire younger batsmen to emulate them.

Cover Story

Generations Sunil Gavaskar (left) and Sachin have won laurels with contrasting batting styles

So, despite the question we started off with, the purpose of this piece is not so much to answer that question as to provide pointers to a possible answer. The solution depends on what you are looking for. It depends, too, on when it is asked. Richards’s criterion — “I will pay to see him play” — might make more sense in today’s financially shaky world. Like writers and artists and politicians, sportsmen too, go through periods of revisionism, when one or the other aspect of their endeavours gains priority over another. In Gavaskar’s time, there was a regular debate over whether he or Vishwanath — despite his inferior average — was the better batsman. Vishwanath was the more stylish, played more attractively, had more strokes to the ball, and India never lost a Test when he made a century. Yet today, no one speaks of him in the same breath as Gavaskar. In the long run, the figures matter as a basis for comparison.

When Tendulkar was starting out, his first Ranji captain, Dilip Vengsarkar, said he was a combination of Gavaskar and Vishwanath. For years, when Tendulkar batted, he made everything around him look that bit less imposing; all activity around him that bit more banal. Yet, whoever replaces him is unlikely to feel the pressure of the opener who replaced Gavaskar, because he will be under no compulsion to bat like Tendulkar. It is accepted that such a thing is impossible.

Cover Story

From a legend to another Sachin accepts the Player of the Tournament award from Gary Sobers in the 2003 World Cup

We spoke of an exception to the rule regarding the greatest, and that is in One-Day cricket. Here, possibly because figures are more important, there is no doubt that Tendulkar is the greatest batsman in the game’s history. He has played 417 matches, scored 16,361 runs, hit 42 centuries, and India have won more than they have lost when he has played (206 wins against 186 losses). He had to wait till his 79th match for his first century; earlier, when an injury to Navjot Sidhu forced him to open for the first time in Auckland, he made 82 off 49 balls with just 22 scoring strokes.

THE COMPARISONS with Bradman and Gavaskar fall apart the moment Tendulkar’s One-Day record is brought into the equation. Gavaskar hated One-Day cricket and didn’t care who knew it. Bradman never had the chance. We can, therefore, say that Tendulkar is the greatest all-round batsman in the history of the game.

There is a purity to his technique, an elimination of inessentials, and a desire to dominate that places him above all his contemporaries, including Brian Lara. His defence is textbook, while his flair for attack is both creative and controlled. Despite the injuries to various body parts, he has carried on manfully, bringing joy to millions.

Cover Story

Fighter Sachin has always been one of the finest fielders in the history of the game
Photo: AP

He no longer attempts the kind of shots that put Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar in his place in the 2003 World Cup. Or Warne asking for his autograph five years earlier. To have reached the peak while coming to terms with age and slowed reflexes speaks of a rare acceptance. At 35, Tendulkar is roughly at the age when Alexander the Great declared he had no more worlds to conquer.

But Tendulkar will not say such a thing. Not because he is modest, which he is, but because he knows that he cannot pass into history as the greatest One- Day batsman without a World Cup to show for it. The 2011 World Cup is in the subcontinent. Tendulkar will be 38 (the same age as Gavaskar when he retired). If he paces himself, he could well make his sixth World Cup the most memorable one for himself and his countrymen. But three years is a long time in sport, and by then Tendulkar would have been playing almost continuously for 23 years.

He has already rendered irrelevant the question we began with, like sportsmen who have risen above their sport and spilt over into our collective consciousness, where technique, temperament, records and statistics no longer matter.

Menon is a Bangalore-based writer who has reported on the game from all over the cricket-playing world

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 44, Dated Nov 08, 2008



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