Sachin Tendulkar and his carping critics

The anti-Tendulkar section of the society starts with the conclusion that the maestro s milestones never really amounted to much for the team. With that start and end in mind, the data, real and massaged, are reverse-engineered, often replaced by anecdotal and intuitive substitutes when necessary © Getty Images

His rational fans don’t claim that Sachin Tendulkar is God. However, Arunabha Sengupta feels that his die-hard critics often bestow God-like qualities on him.

The ICC Rating list

Even as the whole country is caught up in the emotional upheaval surrounding Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement, there is a popular post doing rounds, shared across the social media with the age-old gusto of naysayers.

It is the link of an article in a reputed website, accompanied with sombre, self-righteous status messages that read something like: “I am no cricket fan, but like to keep a balanced perspective.”

The article in question regurgitates the old fact that Tendulkar is registered as the 29th on the all-time list of International Cricket Council (ICC) ratings. It is indeed an old news item, reused successfully to grab attention, banking on the characteristic of the social media frequenters to share articles based on headlines rather than the details.

If one looks at the list in detail — and for that one has to go to the ICC Ranking site — it is clear that it was never meant to be a sequential ordering of batting greats. For starters, it lists Gautam Gambhir at No 36, higher than Greg Chappell on 38. Mohammad Yousuf at 12 is miles ahead of Herbert Sutcliffe at 35.

ICC clarified that long ago. It is simply the table of batsmen according to the highest lifetime ratings they achieved on the ICC point system. It is a comparison of their highest peaks achieved as batsman — however short-lived the highs were.

In other words, it ranked players according to best immediate form of their career. One superb season could pitchfork one to a very high rating, although his career could nosedive the very next year. A one season wonder was likely to get a higher ranking in the list than a continuous contributor for a long period.

That is why Mike Hussey, with his phenomenal start, ends at number 17, while the sustained brilliance of Wally Hammond comes in at number 30. One season highs end up placing Yousuf ahead of Sutcliffe, Gambhir ahead of Greg Chappell!

The article in question — carefully or otherwise — suppresses these tell-tale facts which disclose that this is by no means a measure of relative greatness.

However, the provocative title “Sachin Tendulkar the 29th best batsman of the world?” is enough to grab eyeballs. Few care what logic the rating system applies.  For many, as long as Tendulkar’s name comes down below several others, it is good enough.

That is the curious way the mind of a Tendulkar critic works.
The typical Tendulkar critic

A typical Sachin Tendulkar critic can be found everywhere, in every corner of the drawing room, smugly perched in every variety of arm-chair.

Most often he exudes the classic traits that, according to Mark Twain, form the sure-fire combination to success: ‘ignorance’ and ‘confidence’. The story of the shared link on ICC ratings demonstrates the behaviour aptly enough.

Perhaps it is a trick of large numbers. India is huge, and even if there is only a small percentage that looks this phenomenal gift horse in the mouth, they amount to staggering numbers.

There are many reasons why legions of frustrated souls want to scrutinise his near-flawless career under faulty microscopes to come up with non-existent or distortedly enlarged holes. They range from petty jealousy and regional bias to irritation at the often irrational fan following.

It is frequently the reaction to the God-like adulation Tendulkar enjoys that instigates the anti-Tendulkar bias. However, this sentiment itself totters beyond the realms of logic when the mistaken illusion is created that being anti-Tendulkar is the litmus test of rationality.

However, as we will see, in a bizarre circle of illogic, it is the critics who often end up anointing Tendulkar with god-like characteristics.

One of the primary cribs of many critics is obviously that he is not a match-winner. A myth born out of the relentless media drive to find a non-existent chink in the supreme armour of the maestro in the halcyon days of the late 1990s.

This results in plenty of theories cooked in toxic fumes of cognitive illusion with dangerous nuggets of little knowledge. They somehow try to prove this assertion using what can at best be termed pseudo-science.

The efforts follow a standard life-cycle. They start with the conclusion that Tendulkar’s milestones never really amounted to much for the team. With that start and end in mind, the data, real and massaged, are reverse-engineered, often replaced by anecdotal and intuitive substitutes when necessary. In the end, one man’s statistics in a team sport involving an ever changing 22 is somehow made to fit the hypothesis of his not being a non-match-winner.

It often hurts to see the brilliant subject of statistics mutilated in this callous way.

There are even books being written to cash in on the anti-flow in times of frenzy — and India being the country it is, such efforts will sell in large numbers.

The belief in this strange non-match-winner theory is so rooted in the consciousness that it can never be totally removed. And unfortunately, time and again I have to deal with full blasts of such mistaken illusions.

Turning man into God — the way of the critic

On social occasions, whenever my involvement in both the fields of cricket and statistics is publicised, I am often accosted by previously unseen fans, springing out of their comfortable armchairs, requesting me to confirm their fallacy.

“Do you think Tendulkar’s innings have any benefit for India?” I have often been asked. “Don’t you think he is not a match winner?”

My reply is generally elusive. I observe that to scientifically test the impact of one player on match winning in a team game of 22 is a non-trivial endeavour. One has to involve sophisticated statistical techniques.

And I can make out from the faces that this is not exactly the answer they are looking for.

I sometimes mention that Mann-Whitney Tests show that in the years he played alongside his celebrated middle-order colleagues, his performance in won matches was significantly better than all the others and at par with Rahul Dravid. This confuses them. Statistics, after all, is always supposed to be limited to batting average and number of centuries. Other methods can make sense only when biases are confirmed.

Generally the query is repeated, with the air of rhetoric question. “But, do you agree Tendulkar’s records did not actually help the team’s cause?”

I come back to non-technical terms. I point out that although to test that hypothesis one has to use sophisticated statistical techniques, some basic points are easily apparent from the data.

Tendulkar has appeared in 200 Tests, and 72 of them resulted in Indian wins. No other Indian cricketer has finished on the winning side in as many Tests.

Indians appearing in highest number of wins

Name Tests Wins
SR Tendulkar 200 72
R Dravid 163 56
VVS Laxman 134 47
A Kumble 132 43
Harbhajan Singh 101 42
V Sehwag 103 42

 

I agree that it does not prove much. After all Ishant Sharma has more wins under his belt than Gundappa Viswanath.

However, Tendulkar has 20 centuries while scoring 5946 runs in those 72 victorious Tests at an average of 61.93.

Both the number of runs and centuries are records in the Indian context.

Of these runs, 1407 have come against Australia at an average of 54 with four hundreds, 832 at 83.20 against England with three hundreds, 778 against Sri Lanka at 51.86 with three hundreds and so on.
These are definitely not rigorous statistics that prove he was indeed a match-winner.  I maintain that showing one person is a match-winner in a team game requires sophisticated methods that may find their way to scientific journals, but not cricketing magazines or websites or drawing room discussions.

However, with the decent feel for numbers that I possess, it does seem extraordinarily difficult to score all those runs and centuries in those wins without contributing to the winning cause.

Obviously I get the normal questions about the fourth innings. When I point out that Tendulkar averaged 59.58 in the fourth innings of won Tests, with one of the only two unbeaten hundreds that have ever seen India to victory, there is baffled silence. I can make out the struggle one encounters when long held perceptions are tampered with.

The final desperate argument, and the most hilarious, I have sometimes heard in these circumstances is:  “Can it not be a coincidence that he scored all these runs?”

Well, as I said, I claim to know something about numbers. And I find it very difficult to believe that these many runs and centuries in wins can be produced without India benefitting from it, or without the cause of the team being helped by it.

In fact, even if I could control the performance of every player of every match with an invisible thread, I would be very hard pressed to design a method for a batsman to score 5946 runs with 20 centuries in 72 victorious Tests at 61.93 without contributing to the wins.

No, I do not believe that Tendulkar is god. None of the figures that exist or I provide makes him a deity.
His drive down the ground used to look divine, but that is more of an expression in the way of rhetoric. His speech at the end of his career was the face of purity, but that is personal opinion.

In other aspects, he is as much flesh and blood as I am, only infinitely more gifted with a willow in hand.
However, if he did not contribute to the cause of the team in victories… if he indeed managed to score 5946 runs in 72 victorious Tests at 61.93 with 20 hundreds, 1407 of them against Australia at 54.07 with four centuries, 832 against England at 83.20 with three hundreds and so on… and if he somehow did all that without contributing to the Indian victories, I can indeed vouch for his god-hood.

No mortal man can score that many runs and that many centuries in victories without continuously helping the winning causes unless he is blessed with some esoteric divine power. In fact, the sheer calculation of the way such ‘meaningless’ runs and centuries can be scored has to be compiled with the help of celestial number-crunching gods.

Hence, the rational fan denies Tendulkar is a god, and accepts his place as one of the greatest batsmen to ever play the game. The figures, especially his longevity at the top, indeed reflect the same.
However, it is the critic who endows him with superpowers, makes him wield the willow with the blessing of the divine, to enable him score all the runs without contributing to the wins.

Thankfully, anyone who has heard the speech on the last day and seen him communicate for the final time with the 22-yards easily understands that he is far beyond the reach of irrational fanaticism.
He has played his part in the history of the game. He has departed with dignity. He is at peace with himself.

(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)