It is a debate that will just not die. Who is the better batsman, Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar? Even when both players were active, it remained the favourite topic among cricket fans. The arguments for and against the two cricketing legends were loud and long perhaps even leading to fisticuffs but at the end of it all there could be no real satisfactory answer.
Comparisons it is said are odious and this is especially true when the two are from different eras. But here it remained a split verdict right down the line even as the two belonged to the same period, with Tendulkar making his Test debut a year ahead of Lara.
After a lull the debate has again been ignited by former Australia captain Ricky Ponting who has rated Lara ahead of Tendulkar as he feels the West Indian batsman helped his team win more matches. "Sachin and Lara were the two stand-out batsmen for me. Lara won more games for his team than Sachin probably has. I'd lose more sleep as captain knowing Lara was coming in to bat next day than I would with Sachin," said Ponting.
"You always found a way to restrict Sachin if you needed to. Lara could turn it on in half an hour and take a game away from you. For me, it has never been about making hundreds, it is about winning games and series," Ponting has been quoted as saying.
The views are interesting coming as they do from the third outstanding batsman of the last 25 years. There can be little doubt that Ponting takes his place among the all time greats. At the peak of his powers he outscored both Lara and Tendulkar and was for some time the leading batsman in the game which given the competition was a significant achievement. His views have to be taken seriously for as batsman and captain Ponting saw both Lara and Tendulkar from up close.
Let’s then first consider his opinion that he rates Lara better than Tendulkar as the former won more games for his team. There can be little doubt regarding this as Lara for most of his career was part of an emaciated West Indian side. The batting was particularly weak and Lara had frequently to shore up the batting virtually on his own.
The most classic example of this was when he won two Tests against Australia in 1999 with a century and a double century enabling his team to emerge with a 2-2 draw in the four-match series. This was of course not an isolated case but the most notable one.
Tendulkar also shaped many great Indian triumphs but invariably he was one among many, being the leader of a star-studded batting line-up that included Md Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and later Virender Sehwag.
From this viewpoint he never endured the kind of pressure that Lara had to but then of course Tendulkar carried the hopes of an infinitely larger number of cricket fans. However if this factor is to be considered then all Indian cricketers carry enormous pressure as there are obviously more Indian cricket followers as compared to fans in any other country.
There is another interesting point that Ponting has talked about. According to him, a way could be found to restrict Tendulkar whereas Lara could turn it on in half an hour and take the game away from you. Actually both were commanding batsmen as befitting their exalted status but overall Lara was probably more so.
His career strike rate of 60.5 is better than Tendulkar’s and when it is recalled that he played for the weaker side it is a tremendous achievement. It underscores Ponting’s point that it was perhaps easier to restrict Tendulkar than Lara. Little wonder then he says that he would lose more sleep as captain knowing Lara was coming in to bat next day than he would have with Tendulkar.
On sheer figures there really is nothing to choose between them. A century every four Tests is the hallmark of a truly great batsman and both pass the grade here with Tendulkar having amassed 51 hundreds in 198 Tests and Lara 34 from 131 matches. There is very little difference in the proportion of half centuries too with Tendulkar accounting for 67 and Lara 48.
But there are two notable differences in the stats. When it comes to double hundreds Lara is way ahead – nine in 131 Tests including a triple and a quadruple (both world records) compared to Tendulkar’s six in 198 matches with a highest score of 248 not out.
And as if to confirm the sleepless nights that Ponting has talked about which captains would have to endure, Lara has hit 88 sixes in his career compared to 69 hit by Tendulkar. There is virtually no difference in the career average with Tendulkar on 53.86 to Lara’s 52.88. There is no point in bringing the run aggregate into the argument. Tendulkar has scored nearly 4000 runs more but then of course he has figured in 67 more Tests and has played 95 more innings.
For all his gallant batting on quite a few occasions, Tendulkar must take second place to Lara when it comes to heroics. Lara always gave the impression of being the boy on the burning deck, of being Horatio on the tottering bridge. Everything around him was going up in flames but Lara stood bravely weathering the storm.
With virtually no support, he saw to it that West Indies stayed in the fight. When a batsman scores a double hundred and a hundred in the same Test and yet his team loses the match, it underlines what Lara was up against.
I suppose it ultimately boils down to a personal choice for as I said there are so many arguments for and against the two cricketing legends. Shane Warne placed Tendulkar above Lara and now Ponting has put it the other way around. Speaking for myself, I would give Lara the edge but I will not get into any arguments – let alone fisticuffs – with anyone who rates the Indian above the West Indian.
Finally perhaps we should just be grateful that we had the opportunity to see two grandmasters of the game at the same time.