In faraway Australia, I too heard about Sachin Tendulkar. He was still a teenager when they first talked about him during international cricket coverage. As a school kid, he had broken all sorts of records. Of course, they said, he wasn’t the only one who had been talked up to this level. Shahid Afridi, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting were all talked about as future champions when they were just teenagers. And while all of them succeeded to some extent, some, like Jamie Cox, never amounted to what he did when he was a teen.
I didn’t see Tendulkar’s first international match at the age of 16. But, like everyone else, I heard about it. He did okay, but not brilliantly. His achievements were on par with Brian Lara’s, but not half as good as Shahid Afridi was at that point in his career.
I saw his first tour to Australia, and at that point he averaged in the mid-30s in Test cricket, which, realistically, didn’t justify his selection in the team. He was still 16 years of age and there were many who complained that it wasn’t fair to put him in the side just on potential when a genuine batsman was missing out. We Australians treated him in a similar way to Lara. Australia were wary of him, but didn’t really expect him to achieve too much.
But when the rest of the Indian batsmen failed, the teenaged Tendulkar stood tall, and scored his first-ever Test century in Australia – 148 not out at Sydney. Importantly it was scored overseas – in Australia. Indians tend to be good at home and horrible abroad, but here was this young Indian who averaged just 35 at that point scoring his second Test century away from home. He followed it up with another century in the same series, 114 at WACA, just to prove that the first one wasn’t a fluke, and ended up topping the averages in his first series in Australia. India lost the series, of course, but it wasn’t due to Tendulkar. The teenager helped them to do a lot better than they otherwise would have.
I was curious whether, like Lara, Tendulkar would be one of those players who scored “easy runs”, big runs when the team was winning easily already or when it was a hopeless cause. But Tendulkar soon earned himself a reputation for winning India One-Day matches when all hope was lost. Lara would later develop this ability too, but early on Tendulkar was scoring the hard runs. He was doing well overseas and he was winning matches by himself.
Tendulkar was so good that, like Muttiah Muralitharan for Sri Lanka, he virtually became a one-man team. Occasionally Ravi Shastri, Javagal Srinath or Anil Kumble or someone else would step in, but more often than not, it was Tendulkar or bust. If he did well, India would probably win, but if he failed, India would usually lose.
It is hard to say whether Tendulkar was better than Lara. They both had similar reputations as youngsters and both did exceptionally well once they made their debuts. Tendulkar debuted at a younger age but both did very well. The difference perhaps was that while Lara saw his team fall from world champions to nobodies, Tendulkar saw the opposite, as a mediocre team started the steps towards being the best in the world.
Certainly at his peak, Lara was superior. At his peak, Lara could win a match on his own when the team was seven wickets down, 10 runs per over required and he was the only batsman left, even with 10 overs to go. Tendulkar couldn’t do that. Lara often didn’t either, but he had that potential. Tendulkar, however, was more consistent.
While Ponting was at one stage ranked number one in the world, he was never really as good as Tendulkar and Lara. He was just in a very good team, where he could pump up an average with easy runs, with cheap runs. Ponting was good, make no mistake about it, but he was never in Tendulkar or Lara’s league.
It was once said of Steve Waugh that he was a guy you would want to bat for your life. And perhaps the same could be said of Tendulkar too. Tendulkar was never an easy wicket. While Lara had one home series where Glenn McGrath pulverised him, Tendulkar never had such a loss of form. Tendulkar was the rock that held the Indian team together.
Eventually, Sourav Ganguly came along, initially as Tendulkar’s opening partner in the 1999 World Cup and later as captain. His presence helped Tendulkar bloom from being a rock into being a batsman that a great team would revolve around.
It was only thanks to the meddling of Greg Chappell as coach that Ganguly’s great team fell apart, when the Australian tried to get rid of India’s greatest-ever captain in Ganguly and also their greatest ever player in Tendulkar – while both were still in good form. But Chappell eventually left, and while Ganguly soon retired, Tendulkar didn’t, and came back with a vengeance.
India now had MS Dhoni as captain, certainly a better player than Ganguly, especially in ODIs, but a much worse captain. But they also had an array of magnificent batsmen, with the likes of Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh, and some decent bowlers like Zaheer Khan, Shantakumaran Sreesanth, Ashish Nehra, Harbhajan Singh, Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. With this team, they were able to finally win an ODI World Cup, albeit favoured heavily by being co-hosts. The tournament was finally decided by captain Dhoni, hitting big sixes to win them the trophy.
India still weren’t ranked No 1 in any format, but soon afterwards they also took over the Test title too, albeit thanks to Australia losing to England. They still kept the position for close to a year. They had also won the World T20 in its inaugural year.
Tendulkar largely retired from ODIs soon after scoring the highest score in ODI history – an even 200 – though soon afterwards this was bettered by his teammate Virender Sehwag.
But the thing about Tendulkar is that he never got injured, and never really lost form too much either. Even when he retired he was still doing reasonably well. There is no reason to think that he didn’t justify his position in the team.
Most players start their international career somewhere between 22 and 25; Tendulkar started at 16. Most finish somewhere between 33 and 37; Tendulkar kept going until 40. At a time when players play an absurd amount of cricket, one of the best players of all time managed to play, in all three formats, at the highest level, for the best part of 23 years.
Tendulkar holds the record for most Test runs, most ODI runs, most Test centuries and most ODI centuries – all by huge margins from the next best. He is also the only person to have scored 100 international centuries – I think the next best is about 60.
Tendulkar’s peak wasn’t as good as Lara’s peak, but in terms of consistency Tendulkar was better. Tendulkar was probably the best overall batsman on display in the entire world for the entire time of his international career, other than Lara at his peak, of course. Viv Richards was probably close, Don Bradman was of course far superior, but going back we have the name of another who had a lengthy illustrious career – Jack Hobbs – the first man to score 100 First-Class centuries, and there we have Tendulkar’s equal.
Tendulkar may possibly struggle to make an all-time XI, but he is certainly the best that India has ever produced. And in terms of consistency, Tendulkar is the best in the entire world in the past 20 years.
And perhaps we end with one of the best aspects of Sachin Tendulkar.
You might think for a player with such an illustrious career that he would be arrogant and lazy, as Lara was often accused of being, or merciless and cruel as Ponting was accused of being. But Tendulkar is hugely loved – even by people in Pakistan. And while his opponents may hate him while he is out on the ground, after the game, and over time, they end up loving him.
In 50 years we may have forgotten all what Tendulkar has achieved. We may have another who will beat his records, there will be others who are better players that India will produce. But that he was so kind over such an absurdly long career is something that will hold him in great stead. Rather than getting annoyed at his teammates not achieving enough, as someone like Kevin Pietersen might do, instead he would praise them, even if they failed.
And that is why, even though I know that Lara is probably better at his peak, in selecting an all-time XI, I would slip Tendulkar in at the No 4 batting position, after Len Hutton, Jack Hobbs and Don Bradman and ahead of Garry Sobers. Perhaps Lara, Viv Richards or George Headley were better players, but if I want a nice guy, who was consistent, it is hard to go past Tendulkar, the man you can rely on when all else fails; the guy to achieve when the rest of the team falls apart; the guy who bats well on foreign soil, in conditions that don’t suit him, who always gives his 100 per cent. And that is what Indian cricket will forever take from him.
(Adrian Meredith, an Australian from Melbourne, has been very passionate about cricket since he was seven years old. Because of physical challenges he could not pursue playing the game he so dearly loved. He loves all kinds of cricket – from Tests, ODIs, T20 – at all levels and in all countries and writes extensively on the game)