In November 2009, Sachin Tendulkar played an innings of 175 in a one-day international against Australia in Hyderabad. For me, used to atomising so many of his innings so many times over so many years, it represented a sort of turning point. As prodigious as he was murderous, Tendulkar exemplified in that innings a 36-year-old veteran who was celebrating, as it were, the teenager he had been, the one a nation could not but adore.
We got it all in that 81-ball hundred: the impudent straight hits that disappeared into the stands; the textbook cover drives that split the field; the canny improvisations that yielded runs behind the wicket; the flicks off his legs to backward of square; and the hoicks in the arc between mid on and mid wicket that were destined to be boundaries no sooner had they left the bat.
It all happened so swiftly, and with such unabated fury, that it seemed as though we were watching the highlights of an innings rather than an innings in real time. In a way, though, we were watching the highlights of what Tendulkar has offered us in the past two decades: Sharjah, Perth, Centurion, Sydney, Ahmedabad, Bloemfontein, Chennai… It was like a photo album – as much homage as remembrance.
That innings set up the astonishing run of form in 2010. This year, he became the most capped player in history; he scored the first double century in ODIs; he was the ICC’s Test Player of the Year and returned to the top of the ICC rankings; he became the highest run getter in history; and he has scored seven Test centuries, with one Test still to go.
In an interview with London’s Guardian in October, an interview in which he called 2010 his “sweetest year”, he said: “I’m really focusing now on how I can get to the next level as a batsman. How can I get even more competitive? How can I get even more consistent? How can I get better?”
This is a man in the 22nd year of his international career. Really, what can you say? What is there to say?
This is the year in which Tendulkar cemented his claim for not greatness or even all-time greatness (all that had been accomplished ages ago); this is the year in which the whisper about his being the greatest batsman of all time began to swirl, gaining substance and pitch, remaining no longer a whisper as he went from feat to staggering feat.
But it is really a parlour game fans love to play, this business about the greatest ever. So much depends on the quality of opposition, the nature of the pitch, the fatigue a player is subjected to, the evolution of technology and equipment that it is often misleading to compare greats across eras.
Fans never tire of discussing how George Headley was one of the all-time greats, but he played in merely 22 Tests; how Barry Richards might have outstripped Sir Vivian only if he had had the chance; and how, Sir Viv – Tendulkar’s idol – dwindled dramatically towards the end of his career, scoring only one Test hundred in his last three years.
Across generations, Don Bradman – who saw himself in a young Tendulkar – continues to be the benchmark because with his Test average of 99.94, and his 29 hundreds from 52 Tests, he is simply so far ahead of the pack as to eliminate variables like quality of opposition, nature of the pitch and so on.
Among batsmen of the modern era, Tendulkar enjoys that gulf of difference with his peers. As Shane Warne had once put it: “There is Tendulkar, and then there is daylight.”
Two years ago, it seemed that Ricky Ponting – then his close competitor – was likely to one day overhaul Tendulkar. Now Ponting, 36 years old and in the twilight of his career, has scored at an average of less than 40 in the past two years. Despite being No. 2 on the all-time Test century-getters’ list with 39, he seems to be in perpetual decline. Brian Lara, whose record of most runs in Test cricket Tendulkar broke in October, has long retired. And it is hard to tell if Jacques Kallis – with 38 centuries – will be able to keep going long enough to eclipse Tendulkar.
And Tendulkar is only getting better. It took him 93 innings to go from 30th to his 40th century; he has gone from his 40th to his 50th in merely 34.
Greatest ever is a subjective thing, but one matter has been resolved beyond any dispute. With more runs in Tests and ODIs than anyone else, and more hundreds in both forms of the game than anyone else, Tendulkar is (as Wisden once called him) the most wholesome batsman we have ever seen.
I’d also call him the most durable batsman of all time. He was once the son that every father wanted. Now, with two children of his own, he is the father every son or daughter would rather have. His brand positioning has changed (he now endorses life insurance), but the cachet has remained just the same.
When he started to play international cricket, Steffi Graf was Wimbledon champion, Diego Maradona was captain of Argentina, and Allan Border led Australia. Think of where they are today, and what they do.
When he started, the Berlin Wall and the Babri Masjid were still intact; India had no mobile phones; and Nirvana was two years away from recording Smells Like Teen Spirit. As the world around him has changed beyond recognition, Tendulkar – peerless, generation-straddling poster boy of his sport – continues to dominate India’s collective consciousness more than anyone else has in the past two decades.
For a generation that grew up on the batting exploits of Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath, he has redefined the notion of hero worship. A generation of Indians, who acquired this year the right to vote and to drive a car, can remember no Indian cricket other than that dominated by Tendulkar.
Tendulkar has been playing international cricket for more years of his life (21) than he hasn’t (16). Certainly, it is just as hard to imagine cricket without Tendulkar as it is to imagine Tendulkar without cricket.
But he will one day go, and we shall have to adjust to the strange vacuum. Before that, we ought to savour the moments while they last. And keep hoping that he does the one big thing he is yet to do: win the World Cup for India.
Whatever he does, however much, we still want more from Tendulkar. He has borne the burden of our hope so well for 21 years; it could well be the heaviest burden borne by a batsman in cricketing history.
(Soumya Bhattacharya’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind: Why India Can Never Do Without Cricket is published in India by Penguin)