Sachin Tendulkar's challenges in the post Dravid-Laxman era

In the Indian batting order, VVS Laxman (L) and Rahul Dravid (R) resembled the two lungs on either side while Sachin Tendulkar was the throbbing heart of the nation © AFP

After 16 long years, Sachin Tendulkar will take field without Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman flanking him in the batting order. While he has done this in 39 Test matches before the arrival of the stalwarts, Arunabha Sengupta takes an apprehensive look at the diverse darts of caustic criticism that is sure to relentlessly hound the greatest Indian batsman.

 

 

For years the Indian middle-order had been blessed as no batting line-up has ever been. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, a confluence of greatness, piled up runs around the globe as no trio has ever done before.

 

In the 118 matches they played together, Tendulkar (9703), Dravid (9471) and Laxman (7736) amassed a total of 26,910 runs with 67 hundreds and 138 fifties – ahead of any other cricketing troika by comfortable distance.

 

Figures aside, Indian cricket lived and breathed with these three amigos in the middle. In the batting order, Dravid and Laxman resembled the two lungs on either side while Tendulkar was the throbbing heart of the nation.

 

And now, within just about half a year, the two lungs have been lost. The ageing heart beats on, but with each passing day, it is dissected and defaced by men with scant knowledge of the anatomy of the game and scant respect for the greatness that lies before them.

 

It is not unexpected. The favourite indoor game in India is to look glorious gift horses in the mouth – and then spit on them.

 

Eulogies may flood the cricket columns now, but both the outgoing lungs have been blackened by the cruel fumes of criticism.

 

For three years, Dravid had been hounded by head-hunters specialising in noble scalps. Before the phenomenal last series in England, the greatest No 3 batsman to ever play for India had to deal with the most destructive abuse from all quarters of cricketing space.

 

And though post-retirement Laxman’s genius has undergone a virtual rebirth in the consciousness of the ‘cricket lover’, even the celebrated shortness of public memory will be hard-pressed to forget the very recent clamours for his removal.

 

Without many answers available for the debacles of the two  disastrous tours, the two stalwarts may have ended up as well-disguised scapegoats – offered to appease the mob masquerading as cricket fans, who want change because hacking and breaking institutions is perversely satisfying.

 

The heart has beaten without lungs before

 

How much longer can the brave heart keep pumping life blood into the veins of the batting when faced with this increasing barrage of brickbats? In the traditional Indian manner of honouring the greats, vultures will hover in a circle around the one remaining worthy in the line-up, the hyenas will bare their fangs after every knock deemed a failure.

 

If we look at the records, the heart had beat loud and strong in his younger days when the lungs had not yet formed. During his 39 Tests before the arrival of the other middle order maestros, Tendulkar had scored 2629 runs with nine hundreds.

 

Sachin Tendulkar  before Rahul Dravid’s debut (June 20, 1996)

Mat Runs Ave 100s 50s
In all matches 39 2629 52.58 9 13
In matches won 11 874 72.93 3 5
         

 

After 1996, Tendulkar has continued steadily at the peak – with the little dip during his succession of injuries.

 

Some inferences can be drawn from the figures. Solid support in the later years has seen more of Tendulkar’s big efforts converted into victories.

 

While just 27% of his centuries resulted in wins before 1996, the arrival of other regular performers has helped this figure climb to 40%.

 


Top 5 performers in all Test matches since June 20, 1996
  Mat Runs Ave 100s 50s
SR Tendulkar 149 12841 56.07 42 52
R Dravid 163 13265 52.63 36 63
V Sehwag   95 8095 50.91 22 31
VVS Laxman 134 8781 45.97 17 56
G Gambhir   48 3712 45.26  9 19
 

Top 5 performers in Test wins since June 20, 1996

  Mat Runs Ave 100s 50s
R Dravid 56 5131 65.78 15 23
SR Tendulkar 52 4720 65.55 17 17
V Sehwag 37 3201 57.16 7 16
VVS Laxman 47 3410 55.90 7 23
G Gambhir 21 1557 48.65 4  9

 

The striking feature of Tendulkar’s career has been sustenance at the highest level. Men have reached their peaks, plummeted to the bottom, entered and exited the scene, but he has gone on forever, scoring at the same level of brilliance ever since. The figures of the last 16 years speak for themselves.

 

One is tempted to predict that his performance will not be influenced in a big way by the disappearance of his long time colleagues. There is every indication that he can continue his stint of greatness for the last few days on the other side of the Dravid-Laxman era.

 

It is far easier to be critical than correct

 

However, statistical truth scarcely ever bothers voices steeped in ignorance.

 

It is clear that at this stage of his career, Tendulkar cannot win against the masses who smack their lips in anticipation of baiting him.

 

The importance of his unparalleled experience to combat the sudden disappearance of 297 Tests and 22000 runs from the batting line up will pass harmlessly beyond the radar of consciousness. Out will come the haranguing laments about Tendulkar continuing to hog a place in the side even after his excellent teammates have set such worthy examples.

 

Every match will place him under scrutiny. Anything under a hundred has for long been deemed a failure for the man. Now, it will loom as yet another exhibit of non-performances in spite of which he selfishly continues to play.

 

A century on the contrary will mean that he is prolonging his career in shameless pursuit of individual records.

 

And heaven help him if – as is quite likely to happen in an inexperienced team – a century is scored in a defeat. The urban legend junkies will be stirred by a shot in their arms, chanting inane correlations about his centuries and defeats.

 

If he bats the side to victory, as he has done multiple times in the past, it will be submerged in deep irrecoverable recesses of memory, hastily covering up the failure to map such feats in the domain of confirmation bias.

 

A body that has for 23 years been stretched to the limits by demands, and eroded irreparably by expectations, has to be used wisely and sparingly to ensure longevity.

 

However, there is little scope for wisdom. If he opts out of meaningless One-Day Internationals, it will be tantamount to putting himself above the team and tampering with the balance of the side. Serious articles will follow inferring his goals are not the same as that of the team. And if he does play every overs-limit encounter, he will be blasted for holding up the place of a youngster, in the same self-centred way one has come to expect from him.

 

If he keeps going till the next World Cup, there will be allegations of his relentless drive for personal glory. If he calls it a day before that, however, there are possibilities that he will be criticised for chickening out of the responsibility of shepherding a youthful team in their quest of defending the title.

 

Perhaps the roots of all this irrationality lie in large numbers. In a country this huge, where the game is so popular, a superstar constantly in the focus of the media will always have plenty of critics for whatever he does. Hence there is a ready market for criticism where many will set up stalls for cheap goodies and foul freebies.

 

As Indian cricket enters this new phase, with the one giant name sticking out among youngsters in the middle order, some of us wait with bated breath, wondering what chaos of calumny awaits the greatest batsman of modern times.

 

(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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