March 29, 2020
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Master Clash

Two astonishing batsmen go head to head in the Caribbean Test series. May the best man win.

Master Clash
Master Clash
It’s not exactly the mother of all battles, for that’s something the Aussies and Proteas call their duels. When India take on the West Indies in the five-Test tug of war beginning April 11, it will not be an occasion for high maternal adjectives but a straightforward fight for honour at sea level by two Third World armies that have been tamed and shamed by the other two. Saurav Ganguly’s tigers-at-home may yet register the country’s first series win away from the subcontinent in 16 years, but that prospect is only slightly more delicious than the more personal sideshow that is on the cards. And one that should answer, once and for all, the big question: who really is the better batsman of the day, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar or Brian Charles Lara?

Some balanced men may say that when there are two teams playing, it cannot merely be an issue of two batsmen. Indeed, having collected his accolades from everybody downwards of Sir Don Bradman, with a Test average eight points higher than Lara’s, and having scored nearly 4,000 more one-day international runs than his compeer, Sachin’s fans may believe that the debate was clinched long ago. But then, what do balanced men have to do with cricket? Many boyish dreams of one day seeing Superman vs Batman may never come true. But Sachin vs Lara comes very close to such mythical aspirations. It’s not good against evil that fascinates a fertile mind, for God is a good rigger. It’s good against good that is a fair battle.

Pitted against Tendulkar’s relentless hunger, drive and motivation, Lara, with a history of indiscipline and inconsistency—who fell behind his younger rival after scores of 375 and 501—may appear to be on the backfoot as the Caribbean series begins. But a spectacular showing in the recent series in Sri Lanka, where he scored 688 runs in three Tests—the second highest series score in the game’s history after Graham Gooch’s 752 against India—have raised hopes of a champagne showdown between cricket’s Golden Boy and the Troubled Genius.

"From what I saw of Lara in Lanka, especially the way he played Muralitharan, the Indians have a lot to worry about," says former Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga, MP. "People talk about his attitude but I think all that’s in the past. What should worry India is that Brian Lara is back. He is more mature now and he is playing better cricket. It will be very interesting to see the two best batsmen in the world play against each other."

An on-field run-in with Ranatunga’s brother-in-law Marvan Atapattu dislocated and fractured Lara’s elbow, kept him out of the two Tests against Pakistan in Sharjah, and put a question mark on his participation in the India series. But Lara was named in the squad of 22, and even played a training match last week in which he got out cheaply for four. Briefly in the news over the year-end for allegedly assaulting his British girlfriend, Lara may seem to be stuck with the curse. But that’s precisely what makes the contest so fascinating: Lara’s human frailties of form, fitness and state-of-mind against Sachin’s superhuman consistency, ambition and focus.

Lara himself is looking forward to it. As he told Star News: "Tendulkar is the best player in the world and playing cricket on the same pitch as him is a challenge. Records are meant to be broken, and if I have to pick a person to do that now, it has to be Tendulkar."

Although their averages (58.57 to 50.49) and centuries (28 to 18) set them far apart, and although the reputations they carry are so different, Sachin and Lara are neck and neck in the Test race. After 146 and 147 innings respectively, the two have 7,673 runs and 7,221 runs. Still, the paths the two have traversed since their debuts in 1989 and 1991 is such that there is an astonishing degree of certainty about what Sachin can do. Even before the first ball is bowled in Georgetown, Guyana, fans have already delivered their verdict on who will score more runs in the upcoming Test series. The tally on cricket website says it all: Sachin 84.8 per cent, Lara 15.2 per cent.

In the 13 years Sachin has been on the circuit, India and West Indies have faced each other only eight times in Tests. Sachin and Lara have fared equally well in those contests. One century each—five 50s for Sachin, four for Lara. India won one of those eight Tests and West Indies, two. But it is the ghost of Bridgetown, Barbados, where India under Sachin crumbled while chasing 120 that he and his team-mates need to exorcise. Says former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd: "Two of the best batsmen ever pitted against each other will make this a very exciting tour. Sachin is phenomenal; anybody would want to go watch him bat. And Lara, on his day, is better than anybody."

Sachin has since spoken of his intention to correct his reputation as a "poor finisher".

For two prodigies, four years apart in age—Sachin is 28 to Lara’s 32—and who made their Test debuts within two years of each other, their careers have been chalk and cheese. Sachin had a more sedate start, clocking his first Test ton shortly after failing to become the youngest ever. Lara’s, on the other hand, was a more rollicking get-up-and-go. After a sensational 277 against Australia as his maiden century, Lara’s life changed in five months of 1994 when he broke the world records for the highest Test and first-class scores. The Sachin vs Lara battle had begun. Incidentally, it took ten years for Sachin to score his first double century.

Initially, why even till the halfway mark in their careers, the little Trinidadian was clearly ahead in the race. Former South African great Barry Richards even declared at one point: "Sachin is good only at home, Lara is his equal if not his better." But Lara—whose stated mission in life is to play for the West Indies and break records—probably assumed that his records would score the runs for him. His form, fitness, attitude, average ran riot.

On the other hand, Sachin, who refuses to reveal his goals except to state that he is looking at 15,000 Test runs, was quietly adding to his growing stature. Focused, consistent, steering clear of controversies and refusing to let fame, success and money go to his head, Sachin was the boy who could do no wrong. Lara, meanwhile, earned a standard profile opening: "Undoubtedly the most gifted batsmen of his generation, but..."

But for his behaviour, but for his indiscipline during his debut county season with Warwickshire, but for undermining his captains Richie Richardson and Courtney Walsh, but for his rebellion against the West Indies cricket board over money for players, but for his trouble with girlfriends, but for being named by Mukesh Gupta as a recipient of 28,000 pounds in match-fixing. At the height of Lara’s travails, Michael Henderson wrote in The Daily Telegraph: "Wonderful batsman that he is, Lara is not unique. Not Sobers, not Richards. Only the softest brains would mark him above Sachin Tendulkar." From then on, it has been generally downhill.

"Lara’s attitude on the field is exemplary. But off the field he seems to be under a lot of stress in his professional and private life," says Bob Woolmer, who was Lara’s coach at Warwickshire. "Once in a county game, I saw him walk in one minute before the match was to begin. He scored 180 in that match but stories like this have made Lara seem like a man with serious attitude problems. Having said that, in another county match against Middlesex, I saw him talk to some young cricketers in the stands and give them tips. He is a nice fellow who loves his cricket but may be a bit mixed up."

Sachin, however, could put no foot wrong. His Yorkshire sojourn, although not up to most people’s expectations, went like a dream. His fitness was exemplary except for a small toe injury. More importantly, his hunger for runs never dried up even when his team was plumbing the depths. Lara may have walked into the Wisden 100 lists, but our man was in the Don’s XI. Nothing underlined the fact more than the response to the ball-tampering controversy, which showed the depth of public adulation for the little master. A child of the one-day game, Sachin has notched up the most 50s, most 100s, most runs in one-day cricket, becoming the first to touch 11,000, the first to score 50 centuries. In a country short of role models, here was the ultimate one.

If Sachin was late for some matches, it was only when he was a schoolboy, when his coach Ramakant Achrekar used to take him on his scooter from one match—after he got out—to another. During one such transit, the captain of the Bombay Gymkhana side, Shailendra Singh, put his foot down. He was annoyed with "this boy" who would walk in to bat and then vanish. "I said I don’t mind this guy coming from nowhere to bat but then he has to field." So Sachin fielded in that match, a compulsion which came with a peril. He had the chance to bowl. When Shailendra came in to bat, Sachin somehow got thrown the ball. He rushed in "and the very first ball was a bouncer". Sachin wanted his head.

"Why I’ve always liked Sachin is because batting is not about not getting out. It is to play positively and score runs. You’ve got to take it to the bowlers. Sachin does," said Graeme Pollock who was named alongside Sachin in Bradman’s Dream Team.

There are many, like Barry Richards, who feel that the Sachin vs Lara debate is infructuous. Assuming that Don Bradman can never ever be displaced from his comfortable perch at 99.94, greats like Pollock and Viv Richards and Gary Sobers, they say, would any day rank higher than Sachin and Lara. The individual records of the two little masters are fine, but truly great batsmen should transform the fortunes of their team too, they feel.

Sachin’s average is better (than his career average) in the 24 victories (before the Zimbabwe series) in which he has been part of. No question then of Sachin doing poorly in matches India has won. But while Sachin has done better in the Tests India has won, his performance is not all that better. He compares poorly with Gary Sobers, Steve Waugh and Greg Chappell who seem to have set up wins or produced their best on the big occasion," writes C. Ramamanohar Reddy in The Hindu. "Their average in matches won is 20 runs or more than their overall average—a truly exceptional record. Steve Waugh is hardly as complete a batsman as Sachin. But a really great Sachin should be coming up with a record like that of Waugh. Third, have Sachin’s centuries come more during India’s Test match wins? Again, Sachin fares poorly here. Most of the batsmen in the list seem to have reserved their tons for the big occasion. More than 75 per cent of the Waugh tons came in matches that Australia won, 50 per cent in the case of Viv Richards and 46 per cent in Sobers. But only six of Sachin’s 27 centuries—a lowly 22 per cent—accompanied an Indian victory. If we had an index of usefulness of centuries, then Sachin would figure way down in the league."

Indeed, Sachin and Lara rank below Viv Richards, Allan Border, Graeme Pollock and Don Bradman in their averages in matches their teams have won, especially when batting second. So there’s a target for Sachin in the Caribbean, if he wants one.

The difference between Sachin and Lara could well lie in some of the quaint Indian middle-class family values. This is not to undermine Lara’s Catholic upbringing, but Sachin’s instinct is not to be conspicuous, not to flash around. Hopelessly in love with driving, and very attached to, among other desirables, his Mercedes convertible, he reportedly sneaks out in the depth of the night sometimes to just drive around in peace. Once when he gave an interview to Outlook, he said while escorting the reporter to the door, "Can you make this interview small, and put it in some corner, with a very small headline?" Of course we didn’t.

It’s the seeking of the shadows that has saved Sachin so far. But Lara’s is another story. After the historical 501, the British press, disappointed with its own royalty and always on the lookout for new heroes, wanted to thrust a heavy crown on to Lara’s head. Even his holidays were covered by TV crews. After that 501, he almost perished. His back problems may not be just spinal afflictions. Dr Dayal Mirchandani, a Mumbai psychiatrist, says, "Backaches have a deep emotional origin. I won’t be surprised if his back problems are stress-related." There is a streak of self-destruction in him, the doctor adds. And that’s not hard to believe for anybody who has followed Lara’s career. But now he is emerging from the woods. It seems the ghosts didn’t chase him to Sri Lanka. It was a less surreal Atapattu who banged into him and ended the brilliant flow of runs.

The prayers are going up to wherever the Maker sits, that Lara be rendered fit to play in the first Test, to help him do possibly the only thing he is meant to in his life. For it’s a bit frightening to imagine what Lara and Sachin would have done with their lives if there was no such thing called cricket. Despite being a professor’s son, Sachin’s faculties never really helped him survive the rigours of education. He may have landed a low paying tough job, the kind that makes shirts stick to the body. Lara, in fact, was once hired to work for a firm called Angostura in Trinidad. The story goes that he was so bad as a salesman that one manager complained the company was wasting its money because he was "just a gofer". So maybe it’s safe to presume that if there was no such thing called cricket, there would have been no such people called Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar and Brian Charles Lara. After all, can there be Gods without religion?

Krishna Prasad and Manu Joseph

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