For punters, experts and benign spectators alike, football has its continuing 'Who's the greatest: Pele or Maradona?' debate; tennis has its 'Rod Laver or Roger Federer?' one. The door marking a similar debate in cricket about the greatest batsman ever narrowed further on Sunday. Contrarians will keep things open by citing the likes of Donald Bradman, the closest to a near invincible batsman the game has produced; Brian Lara, the highest scorer in a Test and first class innings (400 not out and 501 not out respectively); Viv Richards, the flamboyant demon-king armed with a willow. But with Sachin Tendulkar scoring his 50th Test century at Centurion against South Africa on Sunday, the subjective landscape of batting greatness comes as close to crystal-clear objectivity as it possibly can. The definition of the highest form of 'greatness' — known in populist circles as 'greatest' — can be reverse-engineered from what Tendulkar does at the crease with a bat.
The numbers and landmarks are only handrails that help us to tackle the phenomenon that Tendulkar is. The many feathers in his cap — highest number of runs, highest number of Test as well as One-Dayer centuries, etc — are but utility devices that help us measure the art and craft of a master in his trade. The rest can be best confirmed by adjectives and primal utterances that we make each time we see a Tendulkar cover-drive or a leg glance or even a push that alchemically turns out to be the first step of the ball rolling across the field to make its tryst with the boundary ropes.
Such is the synonymous nature of batting greatness with the man that when Tendulkar fails, it is seen as an anomaly akin to witnessing heavy objects float and darkness at noon. This is not mere hyperbole but the result of a reputation built over the last 21 years. Paradoxically, this shield of vulnerability allows us to treat a 'Tendulkar failure' at the crease as a prologue for a thumping performance. As for confirming his genius lest doubts creep in, watch him score 112 against the Australians in Perth in 1992, or racking up 169 against South Africa in 1997 in Cape Town, or his unbeaten 155 against the Aussies in 1998 in Chennai... Or, you can, of course, just run your finger down those numbers.