It was an occasion that was bound to result in over reactions. The retirement of one of the game’s all-time greats – and in true storybook fashion in his hometown - predictably enough brought about an outpouring of sentiment, nostalgia and praise that bordered on hysteria.
The hype over the event was unbelievable but that again was to be expected when the subject is Sachin Tendulkar. The scenes at the Wankhede stadium, the many symbolic farewell gestures across towns and cities all over the country, the non-stop television coverage, the long articles in newspapers, magazines and the internet, the record tweets on social media were all typical of India, given the religion like status that cricket enjoys in the county and the exalted status that Tendulkar occupies in the hearts and the minds of his countrymen.
Now after the over emotional reaction and after things hopefully have settled down with the climactic act being the Bharat Ratna conferred on him by the Indian Government it is perhaps time to take stock and judge Tendulkar’s right place in the pantheon of the game’s greats.
The cliches flew thick and fast over the past few days – the perfect role model for the young, the perfect ambassador of Indian cricket, the picture of modesty and humility despite the accolades and the achievements, his feet firmly planted on Mother Earth, his ability to steer clear of controversies, his not being associated in any way with cricket’s seamier aspects of sledging, bad behavior and spot or match fixing, his squeaky clean image as a cricketer and a devoted family man.
Certainly these are commendable traits and his equanimity has been admirable particularly in today’s game which is marred by so many unsavoury aspects. His ability to take the good with the bad with little more than a shrug was quite remarkable and more than anyone else he understood the truth behind Rudyard Kipling’s famous saying of treating the two imposters triumph and disaster just the same. I am sure this disciplined attitude helped as much as his dedication, determination and concentration in making him the most complete batsman, secure in defence and spectacular in strokeplay.
His stirring farewell speech was symbolic of the man. A great deal of thought had gone to it just as a great deal of preparation was part of his batting. He was overcome by emotion but kept his composure while thanking everyone and saying the right things.
Tendulkar away from his batting was something else – a breed apart, a symbol of restraint, a model of self control despite immense pressures. He enjoyed the game and conveyed that enjoyment to millions worldwide. Ultimately though he will have to be judged on his batting record as far as cricket history is concerned and that is what I would like to concentrate upon.
Tendulkar is way ahead of the field in runs and hundreds but however commendable this aspect is speaking volumes of his skill, fitness and passion for cricket these alone cannot be the yardstick for true greatness. Don Bradman’s tally of 6996 runs lies past the 40th mark in the list of leading run-getters in Tests. But then of course Bradman is most famous not for 6996 but for 99.94.
Leaving Bradman out of any further discussion on the subject Tendulkar compares favourably with almost anyone else in two other relevant categories – the career average and the matches – hundreds ratio. A hundred every four Tests for those having an extended career is a fair measure to judge greatness and Tendulkar (51 in 200) is right up there with Ricky Ponting (41 in 168), Jacques Kallis (44 in 164) and Brian Lara (34 in 131). Tendulkar’s career average (53.78) is also right up there with Kallis (55.44), Ponting (51.85) and Lara (52.88).
A lot has been said and written about the tremendous pressures that Tendulkar faced every time he went out to bat with the sky high expectations of millions in a cricket crazy nation. This might have been so but then this is the story of every star Indian batsman from Vijay Merchant and Vijay Hazare in the forties to Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath in the seventies to the present day. But then pressure comes in different ways.
When a batsman who is the one star player turns out for a weak team the pressure on him is enormous. He knows that if he cannot get the runs hardly anyone will and the side will go down to defeat. No other contemporary batsman save Lara faced this kind of pressure.
Tendulkar was fortunate in that for most of his career he was the leader of an outstanding band of batsmen. The Indian batting was the most lustrous in the game for years with Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly around along with Tendulkar. Lara on the other hand for most of his career had to plough a lonely furrow.
A single statistic in Wisden underlines this – he alone scored almost 19 percent of his team’s runs during his career, next only to Bradman (24.28) and George Headley (21.38).
And yet even while batting under intense pressure Lara won matches almost singlehandedly for West Indies. This was the quality Ponting emphasized a few months ago while rating Lara above Tendulkar. "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,’’ Ponting was quoted as saying.
It is true that India won a lot more matches in the Tendulkar era as compared to earlier years but it was largely a team effort by the outstanding quintet. Tendulkar starred in certain victories just as the other four did so at other times.