A nation led more by frenzy than reason had anointed Sachin Tendulkar as the greatest cricketer ever a long time ago. No matter that Donald Bradman’s batting average, at 99.94 runs per innings, is almost double that of Tendulkar. So how do we decide who was the ‘greatest’?
Tendulkar is the front-runner if volume of runs scored, the number of hundreds notched up, the sheer amount of matches played across all formats of the game, and the years spent on the field all go into the making of a yardstick. His double century against South Africa last month, the first ever in the one-day game, has once again triggered that old debate of ‘Who’s better, who’s best?’ This time round, even the conservative international media are willing to acknowledge that the Mumbaikar could well be on par — if not better than — the man who till now was considered ‘untouchable’ as a cricketing icon, Sir Don.
In a country almost bereft of truly great international achievements on the sporting field, Tendulkar’s worth can always get exaggerated. We also tend to overrate the impact one player may have had on the psyche of a nation, and not just the game itself, in judging Tendulkar’s greatness. In a purely statistical comparison with Bradman, Tendulkar only scores more when it comes to sheer numbers. If you look at the averages and centuries scored per innings, the comparison is futile.
Bradman and Tendulkar also belong to vastly different eras. So it’s best not to evaluate the two by comparing their cricketing records. A fairer question to be raised is whether Tendulkar is the greatest cricketer of our times, of the, say, last 30 years. Is Tendulkar better than Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting? And then there is Virender Sehwag, whose disdainful annihilation of the bowlers and the impact it has on his team’s fortunes has already invited comparisons with Viv Richards.
Till Tendulkar came along, Richards was Bradman’s heir apparent. To many, the gum-chewing, statuesque Richards, who shunned the helmet even when it was available in the latter part of his career, was the greatest destroyer of bowling the world has known. If sheer presence on the field and the awe and fear he invoked in bowlers is a yardstick, then there still isn’t anyone quite like him.
In sheer contrast to the daunting Richards was Sunil Gavaskar. While Richards would dismiss the best bowlers with a contemptuous flash of his blade, get bored at some point and throw away his wicket if the stakes in a match were to purely enhance one’s averages, Gavaskar was a technician par excellence, someone who would keep on accumulating runs no matter what the state of the game. This is a ruthless streak that Tendulkar shares with him.
By taming the ferocious West Indian fast bowlers, by overtaking Bradman on the ‘highest number of centuries’ list, by becoming the first cricketer to scale the 10,000-run mountain, and, above all, by the impact he has had on Indian cricket, makes Sunil Gavaskar a top contender for India’s ‘greatest ever’. Many would argue with reason that despite the sheer weight of Tendulkar’s achievements, Gavaskar remains India’s finest batsman. What adds weight to this argument is that Sunny achieved all his milestones without the safety of a helmet for the most part of his career.
Then there is Lara. In the last 20 years, there has not been a more elegant, graceful player than Brian Lara. If innovation and pure timing are the essence of batting, then he should be streets ahead of the rest. Had his career not been riddled with controversies and if his focus on the game had been anywhere near Tendulkar’s, Lara could well have been there right at the top.
Ponting, the one closest to Tendulkar at the moment is still not a finished product. But the hunger with which he is playing, he could well overtake Tendulkar some day.
What is most amazing about Tendulkar is that today, even at 37, age has not worn him down. He hasn’t lost his appetite for runs and the desire to better himself. His cherubic face may have matured, but he still has an understated presence at the crease. His frame is small giving one the impression he is holding a much heavier bat than he uses. But once in motion, he is no less perfect than the others, has better control over when to play which stroke and can even eliminate a short like drive from his entire innings, if he so desires. His powers of concentration are matchless in the history of the game. His greatest strength is the way he reads the wicket and adapts according to the challenges the bowlers throw at him.
It would be fair to say that Tendulkar is the most complete batsman of our times. Whether he is the greatest or not can be debated as long as cricket survives, and is even irrelevant.
Pradeep Magazine is the author of Not Quite Cricket