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Sachin Tendulkar — the greatest batsman of India

Sachin Tendulkar — the greatest batsman of India
Words become reality for Sachin Tendulkar the cricketer at multiple levels © Getty Images

Sachin Tendulkar, born on April 24, 1973 — the child prodigy who emerged as the greatest batsman produced by India. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at some facets of the career of the phenomenon who defined his own era.

The greatest of his times

To paraphrase Somerset Maugham in Razor’s Edge, “I have never begun a biographical article with more misgiving.”

What can I say about the life and career of Sachin Tendulkar that has not been repeated oft enough — to be etched in the consciousness of every follower of the game, and indeed several others who are not even that keen on cricket?

It is redundant to even mention that he is the most complete batsman ever produced by India; it has been said by umpteen experts and laymen alike.

 

His career zoomed in spectacular fireworks across the cricketing firmament for over two decades, and was at the height of its most magnificent flight just as satellite television had begun to capture the images from every part of the journey and beam them back to the furthest homes. He was indeed the premier and pioneering superstar of the magnificent extravaganza that cricket turned out to be post the television revolution of1996. He was a phenomenon the like of whom Indian cricket had never seen before — indeed neither had world cricket since the great Don Bradman had hung up his illustrious boots.  In the crowded ensemble of his achievements, more glittering trophies have been forgotten than many a great stalwart managed to acquire in his playing days.

As a result, he has been the most closely followed sportsperson in the world, every detail of his career extracted, canned, garnished and distributed for consumption — not too infrequently with seasoning and sprinkling of additional imaginary ingredients. Even the current generation with eyes not tuned to reading any print finer than massive headlines knows all about the great man.

One can perhaps add a factoid here and a nugget of information there.

Perhaps it is not that well known that his father Ramesh Tendulkar, a poet and professor of Marathi, took special classes for cricketers who could not attend lectures during regular hours. The rise of Tendulkar is sometimes surmised as the result of the cricketing karma gained through this exemplary act.

Perhaps it is not common knowledge that like WG Grace and Sunil Gavaskar before him, Tendulkar also had a feminine hand starting him out on the cricketing journey. He faced his first ever delivery from Laxmibai Ghije, the maid of the household, a plastic ball that he played with a mogri — a small wooden bat used for washing clothes.

His idolising John McEnroe, his earliest exploits as a schoolboy cricketer, the thoughtful guidance of Ramakant Achrekar, his world record partnership with Vinod Kambli — all these are well known parts of cricketing fable and folklore. From his exploits in the Giles Shield to joining the Kamat Memorial Cricket Club to changing his school to Shardashram in order to facilitate his cricket practice, the details can be retold by every follower of the Indian game. Even his unsuccessful journey to the MRF Pace Academy to be enrolled as a prospective pace bowler is widely known.

One can perhaps add that a school once declared a celebratory half-holiday because their spearhead had trapped the schoolboy Tendulkar for a duck. Or perhaps one can produce the sequence 276, 159, 156, 123, 123, 197, 150 — just one of the amazing feats of run-making he enjoyed while still an adolescent.

But can one keep adding such obscure details about a man who broke almost every record and certainly every mortal expectation through 200 Tests and 463 One-Day Internationals?

Sunil Gavaskar’s letter of encouragement… Dilip Vengsarkar’s gift of a Gunn and Moore bat… Kapil Dev bowling full steam to a 14-year-old visitor in the Indian nets… Dennis Lillee observing, “The guy will not only get runs, but get lots of them”… the first Ranji Trophy century at 15 years seven months and 17 days… the tiny voice piping, “Main khelega (I will play),” after being struck by a Waqar Younis snorter in his first Test series, and his match saving half century after the flow of blood had been stemmed.

From there to the Manchester hundred, and the fast outpouring of gems around the world, to the throne of the undisputed champion of batsmanship, from the Sharjah Storms to Bradman’s endorsement and invitation, the Tennis Elbow which made every cricket lover wince with pain and the 16 Test centuries after Ian Chappell’s smug doomsday proclamation, to being carried on the shoulders after the World Cup triumph to Virat Kohli’s tribute, till the emotional farewell on his home-ground.

Even embellishing the celebrated landscape of his achievements with lesser known details is a daunting task and a largely redundant one.

The half in darkness

Trying to shed new light into Tendulkar’s achievements is akin to carrying a candle to look for the nooks and corners of a blazing sun.

Yes, Tendulkar was very much like the morning star — heralding a new dawn in the history of Indian cricket. A dawn where one man hauled up the slumbering dreams of a cricketing nation long relegated to the lower foothills of cricket and made the hopes soar near the top, borne on his august shoulders. With Tendulkar the definition of impossible was stretched beyond the known limits. He performed feats that were alien to the tenets of Indian cricket – be it hitting a counter-attacking 114 as a 18-year-old as Perth or scoring 82 from 43 balls as a first-time opening batsman in ODIs. Indian cricket had not witnessed such gallantry of dominance in front of adversity. There had been brave batsmen, but none who took celebrated bowling units by the scruff of the neck with such supreme consistency.

Yet, a noted line from the poetry of his father Ramesh Tendulkar rang out loud, clear and true. It is a half-truth that the sun lights up the universe… for in that moment, half the world is plunged in darkness.

These words became reality for Tendulkar the cricketer at multiple levels.

As he spent his best cricketing days in the 1990s, the Indian cricket team suffered from a weak bowling unit and often a brittle group of supporting batsmen who failed on the demanding away conditions. Many a times and oft Tendulkar’s solo efforts were comparable to the helpless bravery of the boy on the burning deck. His runs, scored in all the splendour and glory, often stood towering amidst crumbling shambles of the rest of the team.

Inability was not the only darkness in which half of Indian cricket was plunged. There was also the dimness of ignorant criticism.

Yes, it remains a fact that India had won 43 Tests in the 57 years of cricket before the arrival of Tendulkar. And then went on to win 72 of his 200 Tests — a number comfortably 20 per cent ahead of any other Indian cricketer. Yet, the supreme efforts that failed to win victories early on were picked up relentlessly by his many critics.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the young Voldemort says, “Greatness inspires envy, envy engenders spite, spite spawns lies.” From supposed historians with favourite bees in their bonnets, to pseudo-analysts with a penchant for starting with the inference and working their way to the data, the failure of the earlier pre-2000 Indian teams were attributed to him. So-called studies that resembled selective cherry picking to feed the nurtured prejudices.

In fact, even his own giant stature in all its resplendence cast its own shadow on his reputation. It seemed too many people know him more than cricket itself. He walked through his days in the green expanses around the world, whether in white flannels or in the Indian blue, always larger than life in the eyes of wonder that followed his tread.

Yes, in some contexts he was bigger than the game. And that clichéd phrase was attacked with all the uncountable critics as one of the most despicable crimes that can be committed by a cricketer. Yet, there were very good reasons for his larger than life stature.

Let us start there and look at the many facets of the career which made Sachin Tendulkar the unique legend he turned out to be. Let us try to find out why he has been the greatest batsman produced by India. And at the same time let us try to trace some of the laurels that are lost in the crowd of feathers in his magnificent cap.

Bigger than the game?

In 1972, Melville de Mellow, Chief Producer of Features for All-India Radio, conducted a programme as a tribute to KS Ranjitsinhji on his 100th birth anniversary. The luminaries who spoke in the session included the old outspoken Australian leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly.

Speaking about the era of Ranji, the incomparable leggie voiced, “They used to feed me with the garbage that the game is greater than the player. Now, I have always said that is utter nonsense, the game can only be great if the fellows playing the game are great. Now, occasionally a great man appears on the scene. We had one (Bradman) whom cricket will know for ever. We had another, Victor Trumper, each of those two men stamped the era of his age.”

The argument of O’Reilly, and an indisputable one, was that these were the players who made the game great, who made people acknowledge the feats performed on the ground as special, as works of genius. That is what attracted them to the game. Had he been around in the Tendulkar era, there is little doubt that O’Reilly would have stamped the cricket played by the Indian master with the same seal.

O’Reilly passed away in 1992, just after Tendulkar had stepped firmly into the realm of greatness with a blazing century on a lightning fast Perth wicket during the previous Australian summer. However, the testimony of greatness for Tendulkar came from O’Reilly’s former colleague, the greatest batsman ever known to the game. Don Bradman himself vouched for the class of the Indian master. No recommendation could carry greater weight.

To hark back to O’Reilly’s words, he knew what he was talking about. He played in the days when the world had just plummeted into the greatest of financial collapses. The Great Depression of 1929 had singed even the faraway Australia, and society staggered to come to grips with the times. And during those drab days of the 1930s, it was one man whose colossal feats of run-making allowed the Australians to forget the helplessness of their daily drudge. The claps and cheers drowned the monotone of woes. Bradman at the wicket drew thousands to witness the only ray of sunshine in their lives. Newspapers could announce “He is Out” — enough for a nation to understand the enormity that had taken place. That decided whether men would make a beeline for the stadium or carry on their struggle for existence. People went to see Bradman and then the game. There were many who voiced even then that Bradman was becoming greater than cricket itself, and the chorus was taken up by many of his critics — for he too had many. O’Reilly, one of the biggest critics of the greatest batsman, saw this phenomenon as natural. And the words, however counterintuitive to the cliché happy modern world, ring true to this day, especially in India.

Of course, O’Reilly had the rare ability to think for himself and question the very remarks that are repeated like gospel.

The Indian fans have conned the individual versus team proverb by rote, and choruses it with devotion. It is repeated with the same frequency, force, conviction and meaninglessness as the ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ chant of Animal Farm. Pausing to think about it is not the forte of the fan. But, if one tarried along the way and looked around, one would see what the sport bereft of big names would do to the cricketing terrain in the subcontinent. Take away the star appeal from the game, and we would have the same number of people that trickle to the ground for the domestic Ranji Trophy matches.

Let us face it candidly: India is not a great sporting nation. It loves spectacle. It bestows on the sporting idols characteristics borrowed from the mythical gods, with hype rather than facts building up reputations. The country is not used to sporting greatness and fumbles while dealing with it. The stands and coffers of the Indian Premier League (IPL) remain full to the brim, spilling over into betting scandals and murky affairs that too much craze and lucre invite. The domestic matches are often watched by ten wandering men with too much time on their hands, a couple of policemen and a solitary, disinterested dog.

The cricket fans care as much about the game as the Bollywood lovers do about quality cinema. It is the superstar that sells in India. It is the combined star appeal of the cricketing superheroes and Bollywood celebrities that drive IPL, the cricket on view is just a shiny vehicle for glamour.

In this environment, it is not surprising that someone like Tendulkar would end up as an icon like no other, an individual striding the land and consciousness far bigger than the game could ever aspire to be. The question is why he and not someone else?

Tendulkar and Television — the God phenomenon

To answer the question let us go back to 1996, the summer after the World Cup. Tendulkar’s largely single-handed brilliance had taken India to the semi-finals of the tournament. And then a crumbling Eden pitch had seen the demise of the rest of the batting once the master had left for yet another gem in the semi-final, the dreams of the trophy submerged under a bottle shower and public outrage.

Let us hark back to the first Test match after the heartbreak, played in Birmingham. It was also the first time viewers in India were watching the live telecast of a Test match played in England.

This columnist was one of three friends seated in a crowded hostel lounge of a premier Indian educational institute in New Delhi as Tendulkar walked out to bat. The situation was all too familiar, the score stood at 17 for two in the second innings, 82 runs still in the arrears, with Sanjay Manjrekar injured, slotted to come in at No. 7, debutant Sunil Joshi finding him promoted to No 6, Nayan Mongia to No 3. The situation was pathetic, and the innings crumbled, falling like a pack of cards. And all along at the other end a spectacular structure was erected by the bat of Tendulkar.

As the drives flowed and the cuts resounded across the room, the viewers looked at one another in delighted anticipation. It was something special. The brilliance enacted on the screen had no precedence in the annals of Indian cricket. Vijay Hazare, Poll Umrigar, Sunil Gavaskar  had all undergone such periods, battling alone on wickets overseas, the sole man standing between honour and surrender. But, no one had ever done so with such consistency and such dominance, with hopes kindled of unexpected victory.

The master scored 122 that day, with 19 fours and a six. The next best score in the innings was 18. One of the many instances that are later deduced by critics as his failure to deliver overseas victory. Even as the wickets tumbled at the other end, the miracle man was at work, and eyes remained glued to the screen. And when he mistimed a pull off Chris Lewis and Graham Thorpe caught a steepling skier at midwicket. Tendulkar departed after a masterpiece etched against the backdrop of smoking ruins. With him departed hope, and the crowded room emptied in unison and a synchronised sigh.

Yes, people had gone to see Tendulkar and had left with his dismissal. In that respect, he was indeed bigger than the game at that stage. Because without him, there would be no game at all.

It did not change much in the next few years. There was indeed an infusion of fresh talent in the middle, but be it Cape Town in 1996-97, Sharjah in 1997-98, Chennai in 1998-99, Melbourne in 1999-2000 or Bloemfontein in 2001-02, and many many other situations, whenever the bowling was tough and the situation precarious, Tendulkar remained the one man army. Someone who not only stood up against the best of the day, he also dominated them.

And all that was watched live, every ball of his brilliance, beamed to every home possessing cable television.

This was a combination of genius and circumstance. The late Mark Mascarenhas, the Connecticut-based businessman of Indian origin, later became Tendulkar’s agent. He is renowned — the saying goes that the insane measure of Tendulkar’s greatness is that even the men who worked for him were famous. However, Mascarenhas deserved every bit of his glory.

Before taking the affairs of Tendulkar in his hands, he had already laid the foundations. He had been the one who had transformed cricket viewership in India. He had honed in on the 1996 World Cup played in the sub-continent and had showed BCCI the enormous market that lay in selling television rights. He had bought the rights for an atrocious sum, and the profits had been equally spectacular. The transmissions had reached the remotest places of India, and also to the cricket-starved diasporas around the world, mainly in the United States. By then the Indian television industry had come of age. From the two channels when Tendulkar had made his debut, there were over 50 in 1996.

The world woke up to the power of televising cricket in India and to Indians around the world.

ESPN already had major stakes. Star Sports joined in. After initial high-pitched battles over telecast rights, they formed a joint venture company ESPN-Star Sports, dividing up the spoils.

And immediately after the World Cup, for the first time, the Indians saw live images of Test cricket in England brought straight to their homes. That is why we saw Tendulkar strike that supreme 122 at Birmingham as the rest of the batting collapsed around him. From then every tour was telecast live.

Before the television revolution, there were icons in India. But much of their exploits were heard over the radio, and the rest left to imagination. It did have the benefit of providing the players with fictitious characteristics. In the highlights package one seldom saw a ball pass the edge of the bat. Much less were reported in the glorified accounts. Live telecasts were indeed different in that respect, making the best players look human. Yet, before the age of satellite television, with the exception of Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, seldom did cricketers have universally recognised faces.

The 1996 World Cup changed all that. By 2000 Zee had also made an approach into the frame. In 2003, Sony followed suit, with CEO Kunal Dasgupta voicing, “Cricket is the only product in India which unites the whole country, north-south, east-west. It transcends clans, religion, and regional and language differences. You do not require words to explain Sachin Tendulkar.”

The best by far

That was the magic that transpired out of 1996. Unlike the cliché, cricket did not become a religion. It actually transcended belief and faith. Major companies soon preferred buying slots between overs than in the breaks during election bulletins. The game had largely displaced politics as the major obsession of the nation. It now vied for the top spot with Bollywood. Players were instantly recognisable, even those who were on the very fringes of the Indian team. And someone like Sachin Tendulkar smiled out of every other advertisement billboard. Just as cricket flowed through the consciousness of the country, Tendulkar was present in every heart, every soul, every home.

By the time Matthew Hayden visited India in 2001, Tendulkar had reached the pinnacle of popularity by riding this fantastic wave. And therefore came the famous comment which bestowed the much discussed sobriquet of god on the mortal man.  “I have seen God,” Hayden said. “He bats at No. 4 for India.” But, it will neither be just nor honest to attribute his rise to demi-god-hood to the television revolution. The revolution took place, but Tendulkar climbed to that level of deification through his deeds.

The period from the 1996 World Cup to the end of the Australian tour in 2001 can be taken as a five year period of transition during which cricket changed from an immensely popular sport to one with a fanatical following. And during this time, Sachin Tendulkar had no rival as a batsman across the world. And his dominance was captured live on the television, as his willow thundered around the world. Indians had never witnessed someone of their own stride so far beyond everyone else in the sporting world.

Gavaskar did have claims to being one of the best batsmen of the world, but the mantle was realistically reserved for Viv Richards. Those who went by figures also put Javed Miandad and Greg Chappell at par, if not above him. But, here was Tendulkar way, way ahead of the field. When he played those cover drives off the back-foot or those imperious pull shots with a quick swivel in those halcyon days of the 1990s, every viewer realised that he was seeing something uncanny, something exceptional. Be it the desert storms at Sharjah, or the Test hundreds around the world, the story was always of genius unfolding. No Indian batsman had reached the top of the batting charts by dominating the best of bowlers in this way. And the television channels beamed each and every stroke, taking them to every cricket-loving home in India.

To put the difference between Tendulkar and the rest of the batsmen in this period in perspective, it makes sense to look at some data. During those five years between World Cup 1996 and Australian tour of India 2001, Tendulkar scored 11,204 runs in international cricket with 41 centuries! The closest rival in terms of runs was more than 2000 runs and 17 centuries behind him. The nearest in terms of centuries was 18 behind. In Tests, his average was 60.52, with no one else above 55. In ODIs, he combined an average of 46 with a strike rate of 89. No one came anywhere close. Brian Lara, his rival for the batting throne most of his career, trailed him by more than 20 runs an innings in Test cricket during this period.

World Cup 1996 to 2000-2001 season – Tests

Batsman

M

Runs

Ave

100s

50s

SR Tendulkar (India)

44

4,237

60.52

17

13

SR Waugh (Aus)

54

3,963

51.46

14

14

AJ Stewart (Eng)

55

3,681

40.45

7

20

R Dravid (India)

43

3,660

53.82

9

18

G Kirsten (SA)

52

3,527

41.98

11

14

ME Waugh (Aus)

57

3,454

39.25

8

20

DJ Cullinan (SA)

50

3,435

47.70

13

11

BC Lara (WI)

48

3,390

39.88

8

16

MA Atherton (Eng)

52

3,207

35.63

7

16

N Hussain (Eng)

52

3,010

35.83

9

13

World Cup 1996 to 2000-2001 season – ODIs

Batsman

M

R

Ave

SR

100s

50s

SR Tendulkar (India)

166

6,967

46.13

89.25

24

29

SC Ganguly (India)

162

6,374

44.57

73.69

16

36

Saeed Anwar (Pak)

136

5,217

42.07

83.60

11

28

ME Waugh (Aus)

126

5,001

44.65

76.09

13

27

ST Jayasuriya (SL)

131

4,603

37.12

98.18

9

32

R Dravid (India)

144

4,596

36.76

67.91

7

30

MG Bevan (Aus)

134

4,461

54.4

75.31

5

31

G Kirsten (SA)

113

4,368

42.82

73.79

8

30

Inzamam-ul-Haq (Pak)

142

4,330

38.31

69.62

3

32

A Jadeja (India)

154

4,189

38.78

73.84

5

23

Ijaz Ahmed (Pak)

129

4,173

36.92

79.91

6

27

A Flower (Zim)

130

4,020

33.78

74.04

1

35

Contrary to one of the many popular fallacies about the great man, during this period when his reputation was sealed, Tendulkar actually led the Test field by a greater margin than the ODI scene.

And just for the sake of demonstrating the difference in the level of quality the viewers saw in these five transitional years, let me combine the two formats.

In Tests and ODIs combined from 1996-2001 what the viewers saw on Television

Batsman

M

Runs

Ave

100s

50s

SR Tendulkar (India)

210

11,204

50.69

41

42

SC Ganguly (India)

203

9,191

44.4

23

50

ME Waugh (Aus)

183

8,455

42.27

21

47

R Dravid (India)

187

8,256

42.77

16

48

Saeed Anwar (Pak)

174

8,069

44.09

19

45

G Kirsten (SA)

165

7,895

42.44

19

44

ST Jayasuriya (SL)

173

7,436

38.32

15

44

Inzamam-ul-Haq (Pak)

184

7,245

41.4

12

47

SR Waugh (Aus)

176

7,165

42.14

16

36

JH Kallis (SA)

160

6,791

43.25

13

42

A Flower (Zim)

162

6,596

39.02

8

48

BC Lara (WI)

139

6,585

40.39

16

33

It is not for nothing that most cricketers of that era believe that Tendulkar is by far the best batsman they ever witnessed.

Tendulkar continued without a rival till first his lower back and then his tennis-elbow affliction bore the strain of continuous cricket. The effects of playing 166 ODIs in five years, helping the Board rake in the television profits.

God he certainly was not, but he was indeed streets ahead of his fellow men. And during this transition phase, the television channels beamed his exploits without a pause. People accepted him as the platonic ideal of batsmanship, an established master of the art. And this was the Tendulkar whose fan-following had perplexed Hayden into uttering those oft-repeated words.

No batsman had such a huge gap between himself and his rivals for such a long stretch of time other than Don Bradman. It was thus not for nothing that he was hailed as the next best thing after The Don. And of course, there was the greatest batsman’s endorsement as well.

So enormous was the chasm between him and his peers that during a domestic One Day tournament in the mid-1990s, a commentator voiced, “If we need to have meaningful domestic tournaments, we have to ensure that Sachin Tendulkar does not play in them.”

But television was not just an aid to his aura; it was also the acid Test of his greatness. While amplifying his popularity, it is the television revolution, along with the easy accessibility of statistics through the cricket web sites that underlines why exactly Tendulkar’s achievements rank above any other Indian great.

The greatest Indian batsman ever — the reasons why: Tendulkar and Gavaskar

When Indian cricket followers look back in time, the reconstruction of history is generally a patchwork of partially heard facts, half-truths and pure myths rolled into a composite whole. Indians as a nation have never been too good at documenting historical facts, although they have always revelled in mythology.

As a defining example, Sunil Gavaskar’s 13 hundreds and average of 65 against West Indies generally fuse with the image of the four fearsome fast bowlers of the islands, creating the rather misguided illusion that he was one the best batsmen against scorching pace. Seldom are the various layers of history peeled off from this misleading composite and analysed in detail.

Lost in the hardly analysed past are several uncomfortable facts for this illusion. Such as the 774 runs during the debut series were scored against a bowling attack of Uton Dowe, Grayson Shillingford, Vanburn Holder, an ageing Garry Sobers and Jack Noeriga — hardly a decent attack let alone a fearsome pace unit. That only three of the 13 hundreds came against the four pronged pace attack West Indies were famous for, two of them in meandering rained off matches of little consequence. That those performances against the fearsome four were punctuated by a fair share of failures which now show that he scored at an average of just about 40 when the great bowlers of West Indies bowled in tandem.

Make no mistake. Gavaskar was the best Indian batsman of his days and one of the best in the world. Yet, the image that was created was not really an accurate reflection of his deeds.

he dispatches from the far off lands came in with correspondents and editors eager to glorify the Indian giant, and failures were seldom reported in front of the worshipping eyes. It remained virtually unknown that John Snow had torn off his medallion from his neck with a vicious bouncer before dismissing him for low scores after his celebrated mid-field collision had resulted in a ban for the paceman. It was ignored that Dennis Lillee was never mastered, either for Rest of the World in 1971-72 or for India in 1980-81. It was again rarely whispered that New Zealand with Richard Hadlee generally did not see him flourish. The 221 at The Oval in 1979 and the century on a green Manchester wicket in 1974 became legends while it remained unsaid that his overall performance against England was less than ordinary — an average of 38.

Even in the mid-eighties, Craig McDermott struck him on the arm-guard, forcing him to retire hurt before he came back to score yet another hundred on yet another inconsequential fifth day. But, while his hundred was celebrated as ever, very few heard about the body blow. Gavaskar remained enthroned as impenetrable, impregnable against pace in the imagination of fans. This image has grown by leaps and bounds since his retirement, distance along the gold plated axis of time allowing him to take on a resplendent aura that has become unquestionable.

The lines quoted above can be hauled for blasphemy and sacrilege — such has often been the experience of the writer. Gavaskar has been more securely deified way before Tendulkar’s name was even known, let alone whispered in terms of godhood. Much of this had to do with lack of live telecast and limited access to record books.

Television, while ensuring Tendulkar’s god-like stature, did so at the cost of such mythological attributes which would have doubtless accumulated had he played away from the eyes. He did not have the luxury of selective reportage either. Every success and failure was viewed by every pair of eyeballs, be it of a fan or a critic. It was under this severe scrutiny that he emerged the leader of the pack of celebrated batsmen by a considerable margin. People could look up his immediate scores, average, strike rate from the available resources on the web. For Gavaskar, such figures were locked up in scarcely available volumes of Wisden, partially brought to light at the whims of sports editors of the handful of magazines in circulation.

Indeed we have shown the difference between Tendulkar and the rest of the field during his best years. Let us now consider Gavaskar’s best years between 1976 and 1980, after which he scored runs at an impressive but unremarkable 45.08 for the 62 Tests of the second half of his career — yes, his dominance of world cricket was rather limited when compared to Tendulkar.

During the 1976 to 1980 period, Gavaskar scored at 59.30, but the field was headed by Viv Richards with an extraordinary 70.17, while Javed Miandad with 57.89 and Greg Chappell with 56.22 were not too far behind either. Gavaskar did not lead the field, let alone by a distance comparable to Tendulkar.

These figures were not available to fans and few cared about what happened in matches India did not feature in. The exploits of Richards and Greg Chappell remained obscure, reported in tiny boxes in dailies, if at all. This is in stark contrast to the late 1990s when the exploits of Steve Waugh and Brian Lara were beamed back from every corner of the world to be compared and the fans were in a position to critically contrast their batsmanship with that of the Indian hero.

In the 1970s, it was mainly interviews of the experts made up the minds of the populace — and such experts were carefully chosen for the subsequent popularity and sale of the papers and magazines. It was a combination of a willing expert and wishful thinking that led to claims that Gavaskar was the best batsman of the world. Indian fans had no way to compare him with Viv Richards or Greg Chappell or Javed Miandad. For Tendulkar one could see everything live and extract the figures with the click of a button. In contrast, the figures always underlined Tendulkar’s undisputed supremacy.

The ICC rankings retrofitted for the past tell the same story. Gavaskar peaked to number one in late 1978, only after Richards and Chappell had been taken out of the equation by the Kerry Packer intrusion. And after Richards came back into the fold, the crown was lost within seven months — in June 1980. Gavaskar remained in the top three for a couple of years before sliding down during the ordinary tour of West Indies in 1982-83. Only, the rankings, as mentioned, are retrofitted. No one knew the scientific stature of Gavaskar and his contemporaries during their playing days. People who wanted to could always find out where Tendulkar stood in the batting tables.

The younger Indian master, on the other hand, reached the pinnacle on November 18, 1994. There were occasional dips, but he stayed at the very top till late 2002. During 1998 to 2002, Tendulkar was comfortably perched at number one, vacating the throne for any considerable length of time only for Brian Lara. During this period Lara and Tendulkar exchanged the number one spot often enough.

And let me remind the readers that all this while we have been talking about just Test cricket. If we bring the shorter format into the equation, Tendulkar will zoom ahead full steam beyond any scope of meaningful comparison.

After 2003, Tendulkar went through that phase of recuperation, a phase during which he was no more the best in the world. But, by then he was already the biggest icon the cricket world had ever seen. A genius who came riding on satellite channels. His aura had already been etched. And there it would remain.

Incredibly, the younger master regained his batting crown on October 8, 2010, almost 16 years to the day he ascended the steps to the throne for the first time. This was perhaps the greatest distinguishing achievement of the legend, the result of a remarkable second wind starting 2007. He made his way back to the top and for four years ruled world cricket yet again. He scored 23 centuries during this period, 16 of them in Tests and seven in ODIs. During this period he was perhaps more impregnable as a batsman, although perhaps less spectacular to the casual fan. On this occasion the reign was short, and he was displaced by June, 2011.

The span of greatness remains a constant source of wonder. Only Don Bradman, Garry Sobers and Jack Hobbs have managed comparable stints at the very top in the history of the game.

Unless we rely totally on opinion, age old fables and a staunch refusal to admit that numbers are rather more important than the deep-rooted beliefs that we hold based on hearsay, there is not much scope for refusing Tendulkar’s status as the best Test batsman produced by India, that too by some miles.

The greatest Indian batsman ever — the reasons why: Tendulkar and Dravid

Let me repeat, make no mistake. In the 1970s, Gavaskar was indeed the best batsman of India and by some distance. Yet, a section of the press and public did claim that Gundappa Viswanath was in fact better. It is a very common Indian trait, of creating a demi god out of a perfectly peaceful stalwart, to try and displace the extraordinary talent placed on the deserving pedestal.

Gavaskar was a pioneer in one particular area that had eluded the Indians ever since the start of the game in the land. The virtue of consistency over a large period of time. It will not be wrong to say that it was his approach towards batting that showed the way to the future batsmen. Tendulkar took it to the next level, by adding the audacious attacking aspects. That is how the art evolves in a land from generation to generation.

Viswanath was a wonderful batsman in the mid-1970s, but his peak was short and consistency was not really his hallmark by a large stretch. In fact, apart from a brief period in 1975-76, there was no scope of comparing the two, yet the common Indian game of manufactured pettiness within the greater game persisted. Just like irresponsible chroniclers of the present day twisted facts to voice that Tendulkar’s innings are monuments to his genius without quite being landmarks in the history of Indian cricket, similarly convoluted cries were heard from outwardly respectable quarters of the older days, “Gavaskar plays for himself, Viswanath plays for the country.” It hardly requires mention that such statements were steeped in voluble nonsense.

Analogous claims are made for that noble cricketer called Rahul Dravid. His peak form intersected with a fair amount of period during which Tendulkar struggled with his tennis elbow problems. In fact the two batsmen complemented each other excellently, as was evident in so many of their celebrated partnerships. During 2003-2006, Dravid was magnificent — helping India to tide over the temporary loss of consistency of their premier batsman.  From the middle of 2004 to early 2005 he even headed the world according to the ICC rankings. He was a fantastic batsman, but with some glaring gaps in his record.

Dravid was incredible in every situation — provided the bowling was not relentlessly great. He performed commendable feats against Pakistan — but not when Wasim Akram charged in with his lethal left-arm offerings. He was superb in England and West Indies, but when the full strength attacks of South Africa and Australia sent down their wares, he made the mistake of playing the waiting game to tire them out. Four superb bowlers running in one after the other cannot really be tired out. On too many such occasions his tactics did not come off. His average of 38 against Australia and 33 against South Africa over his 16-year career underlines this flaw. One must add that the numbers against Australia were hauled up considerably by the incredible 2003-04 series of his famed feats at Adelaide. The attack in that particular Test lacked the services of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Brett Lee. When McGrath and Warne bowled at him in tandem, Dravid’s record remained shockingly poor.

While remaining one of a kind batsman in England and New Zealand, Dravid struggled against extreme pace in South Africa scoring at 29.71. Similarly, he was always uncomfortable in Sri Lanka where Muttiah Muralitharan sent down over after over of diabolical off-spin, averaging 33 in the land. His peak was sublime but short in duration and limited in terms of geography.

It is incredible that even in the days when action is beamed live and scores and statistics are available at one click, myths never cease to take shape in Indian cricket. The Reebok created nickname ‘Wall’ went a long way in convincing the populace that Dravid was impregnable in front of the deadliest of foreign attacks. To put it simply, a cursory glance at the record books will demonstrate that he was not remotely so.

In the most demanding hinterlands of South Africa, the most challenging land for modern batsmen, Tendulkar was the only Indian batsman to score consistently and with élan, and he did so with five hundreds stretching from 1992-93 to 2010-11. In Australia again, he scored constantly against the most relentless attacks. The only other Indian to come close to his brilliance in these two countries was the supremely talented VVS Laxman. However, the classy Hyderabadi’s method of using the depth of the crease predictably spelt his doom in England, where the ball deviated alarmingly in the air and off the pitch.

It was Tendulkar’s success stretching across an incredible period of time and paraded across all the distant lands and formats that mark him out as the best ever produced by India. There can be little doubt about it.

An attempt at decoding brilliance

Why did Tendulkar succeed while the rest of the Indian batsmen did not? Why was he able to adapt to every condition when that has been a perennial problem for every other Indian batsman since the country started playing Test cricket?

The secret perhaps is that unique ability that distinguished the two batting giants of their era — Tendulkar and Lara. Their talent was god-gifted and, as several attempts showed their teammates, inimitable. They could change the way the bowler bowled at them — even the very best of them. That enabled them to dictate terms against the best of bowlers in the most demanding of conditions.

Every other batsman committed himself to the stroke once the ball had left the hand of the bowler. The difference with Lara and Tendulkar was that they were able to do so after the ball had pitched. This allowed them several strokes to deliveries that limited the rest to one. It is of little surprise that these two were by far the best against the most lethal attacks. Of the modern batsmen, perhaps only AB de Villiers demonstrates this ability.

The other facet of the Tendulkar genius was perhaps evolution. His technique was rooted in the platonic tenets of perfect batsmanship, and he touched it with his own magic of creativity. In youth this was valour, in cricketing middle-age it was adaptation. Seldom has one redefined one’s technique and repertoire of strokes to compensate for the fractional fraying of the hand-eye coordination, the slightest slowdown of reaction time. If Tendulkar played up to the age of 40, the best in the world till 38, it was because of these astute and constant modifications — opting for the upper cut as pulls started to tax the body more, playing less on the up and more beside the ball as the legs took that tiny instant longer to move. Every adaptation was converted into an asset, the treasure-trove of wisdom building a layer of invulnerability as a compensation for the earlier audacity.

More forgotten gems than many lifetime collections

Perhaps one more real differentiator between Tendulkar and many other greats is the number of neglected and forgotten gems. There is an incredible collection of knocks that would have been the crowning glory of any other batsman but is relegated to the obscure corners in the crowded assortment of his many glittering jewels.

Does one remember the 77 scored in January 1992 at Brisbane against Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Pat Patterson and Anderson Cummins? The second highest score in that Indian innings was 28.

What about the 85 at the Wankhede against a charged up Courtney Walsh and Kenny Benjamin after walking in at 11 for three in the second innings, a knock that turned the Test match on its head?

Does one recall the 114 against South Africa in the Mohinder Amarnath benefit match of 1996? It again won the match in what was a low scoring game. What about the 113 against New Zealand in the Wellington Test of 1998? The 93 against Pakistan at Hobart in 1999-2000? The incredible 97 against South Africa at Mumbai in 2000? The 117 in Port-of-Spain in India’s first Test victory in the Caribbean in 26 years?

Even the dream double of 117 not out and 93 in the CB Series finals in 2007 are seldom remembered with the degree of awe that they deserve. And the astounding 214 at Bangalore which won the Test in 2010 after he had come in at 38 for two in reply to the 478 piled by Australia — that is often taken for granted.

Each one of these innings would have been eulogised for eternity in the case of a lesser cricketer. However, due to the sheer mastery of Tendulkar that these were relegated to the rear shelf of his splendid trophies. And these are just a paltry few of many such examples.

He scored 100 centuries and 164 fifties. The human mind is not structured to store each and every of those gems.

The true entertainer

We have done many past analysis of Tendulkar the cricketer. We have shown where he stands with respect to the other greats in history, how myths have been propagated about the man and how those fallacies can be proved to be wrong.

We had also taken pains to decode the reasons why the great man faces criticism in spite of his unparalleled achievements.

The cognitive biases that creep in when critics view his incredible achievements powered by opinions rather than scientific assessment is a fascinating subject by itself.

But where does he really stand among the all-time greats?

What strikes one is that irrespective of the apparent rank among the pantheons of batting greats provided to the legend, it is always Tendulkar who is earmarked for comparisons. It is either Tendulkar versus Bradman, or Tendulkar versus Lara or desperate methods of trying to place lesser mortals above him. One seldom sees an attempt at a Lara versus Sobers analysis or Ponting versus Greg Chappell.

The reasons are perhaps several. One was definitely Bradman’s own endorsement which was tantamount to stamp of immortality. The other reason is the same 1996-2002 period that saw the remarkable genius that no one had really witnessed before. And then there is the age old Indian fascination for pulling down demi-gods and making another Caesar for themselves – all these have been discussed earlier.

However, all these comparisons just underline that Sachin Tendulkar stood head and shoulders above any other player of his and several other generations in terms of sheer reaction invoked among the followers of the game, and the splashes of his genius exceeded the boundaries of the game and drenched neutral, cricket-agnostic observers with the passion and the drive.

As for true analysis, there is never one parameter based on which greatness can be measured — unless the variable of choice is opinions.

In any scientific analysis, there will be several different yardsticks of different weights. Consistency, longevity at the top, high impact, ability as a lone ranger, handling pressure, performances against the best bowlers, performances in different conditions — each and every aspect needs to be scored based on documented data for the different batsmen.

The differentiating genius of Tendulkar is that he will inevitably be very near the top for each and every parameter, across time, space and formats. Perhaps he won’t score too many in terms of performances in fourth innings, but even then if we tailor for fourth innings scores in winning Test matches, we will see him walking in the top six with 715 runs at 59.58. The trail left by Tendulkar’s numbers can seldom be questioned. It is little wonder that he is called the most complete of batsmen.

The numbers tell us the distance he covered and the giant steps he took as he walked. What about the turns, twists, swivels and pirouettes on the way? Numbers cannot talk of that effect, yet the swivels, turns and pirouettes are precisely what make sport a joy to watch.

Let me get back to day I mentioned earlier, glued to the television screen in that hot summer day in Delhi in 1996, as Tendulkar essayed that magical innings at Edgbaston. How his drives down the ground had thrilled the full house to throes of delight, how his dismissal had emptied the room in an unpremeditated exodus.

There had been several such magic moments of watching Tendulkar. A square cut, travelling like a bullet, landing a few yards from the bat, and then whooshing past the point fielder before bouncing again a foot from the boundary line. A mistimed lofted on drive against the spin off Shane Warne at the Eden, and eyes of the hapless bowler and the amazed spectators watching in awe as it sailed over long-on for six. The incredible sharp singles and twos taken in between the hammered fours and sixes during the Sharjah sandstorms, when calls for the run were made immediately after the ball pitched. The bend of the back and the glide over the slips again and again during that fascinating 155 at Blomfontein.

Each moment underlined that we were witnessing history, a special magic that transcended whatever we had seen before.

All through his myriad feats Tendulkar remained an entertainer, a delight to watch. A master whose art was based on purity taken beyond its logical conclusions. He built on his perfection of strokeplay and touched it with his own magical wand of uniqueness.  The 24 years he strode across the cricket field was one long spell that touched the hearts of the cricket lovers.

It was the Tendulkar era — magical and magnificent.

Read more here: Happy Birthday, Sachin Tendulkar!

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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