February 24, 2020
Home  »  Magazine  »  Sports  » Essays  » Essay »  Pitch Perfect

Pitch Perfect

The Tendulkar phenomenon has transcended cricket. A tribute to a true-blue hero.

Pitch Perfect
Photograph by AMAN SHARMA/AP
Pitch Perfect
Ayaz Memon’s All-Time Test XI   Ayaz Memon’s All-Time ODI XI

  • Jack Hobbs
  • Sunil Gavaskar (or Virender Sehwag),*
  • Don Bradman
  • Sachin Tendulkar
  • Viv Richards
  • Garfield Sobers
  • Imran Khan (captain)
  • Adam Gilchrist (wk)
  • Wasim Akram
  • Shane Warne
  • Muttiah Muralitharan
  • 12th man: Jacques Kallis
  • Sachin Tendulkar
  • Adam Gilchrist (wk)
  • Viv Richards
  • Brian Lara
  • Ricky Ponting
  • Javed Miandad
  • Kapil Dev
  • Wasim Akram
  • Shane Warne(c)
  • Curtly Ambrose
  • Allan Donald
  • 12th man: Clive Lloyd.
*(if he can maintain such a high strike rate and consistency)


Like most Indians, I got fixated on cricket when barely nine or ten. If memory serves me right, what triggered this manic obsession was two ‘trick’ questions posed by my father in the mid-1960s: “Which batsman scored a triple Test hundred and never played again, and name the player who would have had a Test average of 100 had he scored just 4 runs in his last innings?”

The second poser was easier to unravel than the first. I had a Playfair Cricket Annual as my regular bedside companion in which the name of Sir Donald Bradman jumped off several pages for several reasons, but most notably for his incredible batting average. Heck, 99.94! It boggled my mind for days on end after that; indeed, it still does.

With the internet not even a pipedream then, the answer to the first question needed more vigorous search, but in a couple of days I discovered Andrew Sandham. His fine feat of scoring 325 against the West Indies at Kingston in 1929-30, to become the then record- holder of the highest Test innings was, astonishingly, not good enough to help him play again for England.

That’s out: Sachin celebrates after taking a Kiwi wicket in the Wellington Test, Apr ’09 (Photograph by DEBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP)

“You can ask the same questions to your grandchildren,” said my father when I went up to him in triumph with the answers. “These records are unlikely to be bettered ever.” More than four decades later, I bequeath my father’s posers to the grandchildren and children of the readers of this issue—with one addition: name the only player to score more than 100 international centuries?

I am, of course, sticking my neck out here. Sachin Tendulkar is still three short of a century of centuries. But I’ll take that gamble. Barring some terrible luck or injury, these three are a cinch. Indeed, I won’t be surprised if he finishes with a tally of 110 or so if his current form and  resolve to play a few more years are any indication.

I don’t, however, intend this to be a numbers analysis of Tendulkar. I am indulging in it for awhile just to highlight the surreal world of statistics. For instance, Sandham probably never played another match for England because he was 39 years and 272 days old when he made 325, in an era when Tests were few and far between.

Indeed, statistics are not always kind to Tendulkar. He is yet to score a triple century in any form of cricket where Bradman and Sehwag have two apiece and Lara has a 400 to go with a 375 in Tests. Unlike Rahul Dravid (and a few others), he also does not have a century in every Test-playing country, having drawn a blank in Zimbabwe, an aberration unlikely to be rectified now that Zimbabwe is no longer playing Tests.

Moreover—and this isn’t in the least insignificant—his record as a captain is poor. In 25 Tests, he won only four and lost 12, the remaining being drawn; in 73 odis, he won 23, lost 43 and one match was a tie. There are several theories—ranging from poor man-management to being a hapless victim of the match-fixing syndrome—for this anomaly, but the fact remains that he never made an impact as captain. Finally, if I may add a qualitative taint to statistics, none of Tendulkar’s centuries till a few years back found a place in the Top 100 Test centuries put to vote by Wisden. 

Yet, some math is compelling. All records are meant to be broken, goes the cliche, so some day some player could have a better average than Bradman’s and more international centuries than Tendulkar. To upstage Bradman, however, it will need a cricketer who can combine the sterling virtues of Superman, Batman and Spiderman; to outdo Tendulkar, a player will have to start at 16 and play on till he is almost 40 with a hitherto unseen degree of consistency and hunger for runs. Possible yes, but highly improbable.

This is perhaps the only situation where Bradman and Tendulkar find similar terrain in performance, otherwise they are worlds apart. In any case, comparing sportspersons across generations is sometimes perilous, often foolhardy. How does one compare Rod Laver and Roger Federer, for instance, without the process becoming odious, silly or interminably vexing? Or indeed Pele and Maradona, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna?

I think it was Sanjay Manjrekar who made the pertinent point somewhere that a player can only be compared to his peers. The closest averages to Bradman’s is from George Headley (60.83), England’s Herbert Sutcliffe (60.73) and South African Graeme Pollock (60.97)—and even they played only around 20 Tests, too meagre to make a sensible comparison.

To outdo Tendulkar, a player will have to start at 16 and play on till he is 40 with a hitherto unseen consistency.

Tendulkar averages now in the 50s in which band there are several more—Hammond, Hobbs, Hutton, Weekes, Walcott, Barrington, Sobers, Kallis, Ponting, G. Chappell, Richards, Gavaskar, Miandad, Dravid, Lara, Steve Waugh, Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Hayden, Sehwag—to name just 20, so the gap between him and Bradman is not just larger but also more populated.

But an alternative way of assessing a player is to listen to what his best performing peers think of him. If one goes by what Lara, Warne and Wasim Akram say, Tendulkar is the best batsman they have seen or played against. If that is not good enough to gauge his stature in the game, Bradman’s own verdict, “that Tendulkar reminded him of himself”, could be seen as the final seal of approval for a position in the great players pantheon.

Personally, I have reached a solution to the Great Debate by constructing my All Time World XI based on my reading, research, first-hand experience factoring in the ‘difficulty quotient’ and the influence they had on the game. Till recently, I could think of only two players as automatic choices for my World XI: Bradman and Sobers. Today, I find it impossible to leave out Tendulkar. Moreover, the number of challengers to his position has diminished considerably vis-a-vis other players in the team. Of course, where odis are concerned, he becomes my first signee in the all-time side (see lists).

The Tendulkar phenomenon, as is well documented, first came to public attention in 1987-88 after his (then) world record partnership of 664 with Vinod Kambli in Mumbai school cricket. Less than two years later he made his Test debut, still a few months short of his 16th birthday. By then, he had already made a century on debut in the Ranji, Duleep and Irani Trophies.

The history of sport is replete with prodigies who went nowhere after the initial burst. Only a few ever make it to the top and even fewer stay there for any length of time. That heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali knocked his mother’s tooth out with a friendly left jab while still an infant is surely an apocryphal story. The brilliance of Maradona showing through even as a teenager has greater validation, but Tendulkar’s case is probably closest to Tiger Woods who picked up a golf club at age three and never looked back.

Show me a genius without dedication and I’ll show you a hoax. Like all truly great performers in any walk of life, Tendulkar’s love for cricket was unbridled and manifest in almost everything he did when he was young. Peter Roebuck, in his book It Takes All Sorts, relates this charming anecdote from David Innis, a contemporary of Sachin and Kambli.

Innis tells Roebuck of “arriving early one morning and chatting to his coach when a small curly-haired child appeared complaining that the maalis would not put up the nets until six and could Sir (Das) Shivalkar please tell them to put them up or alternatively authorise him to erect them himself.”

“A few years later, Tendulkar travelled through the night with a youth team, arrived at their destination at 3 am, practised in the corridors till dawn and then woke up his coach at 5.30 and said he was ready to go to the ground as he was not happy with his batting. In those days, his captain and coaches used to send him to third man because he was full of suggestions and it was the only way to keep him quiet.”

Learn from the master: Sachin at the nets (Photograph by MANPREET ROMANA/AFP)

With age and maturity, such passion finds more prosaic expression; it transforms into deep diligence and a high sense of self-discipline. Even today, Tendulkar remains as enthusiastic about nets, often practising alone at the mig Club or the mca ground in Bandra before even the India camp commences for a major series.

From an observer’s point of view, within two years of making his Test debut, Tendulkar was to convince everybody that his class was not veneer, but solid teak. He was true-blue. This came through a series of three events, each significant on its own, and adding up to spell genius with a capital G.

The first was his much-written about bloody encounter with Waqar Younis at Sialkot in his first series in 1989. Hit on the nose by a Younis snorter, he shrugged aside the concern of teammates and rivals, quickly took guard again and smacked the next ball through cover for a boundary, eyes flaming with defiance.

A little over six months later, he was to score his maiden Test century in excruciating circumstances, staving off defeat for his side at Old Trafford with an innings of high concentration and technique that belied his age and experience. About 18 months after that, he hit a mesmerising 114 on a Perth flier where all other Indian batsmen were ducking, weaving if not losing their wickets.

John Woodcock, venerated cricket writer of The Times, London, called it the best innings he had seen by any young batsman in his life. In a 24-month period leading from his debut, Tendulkar had not only scored three Test centuries already but also shown the technique, temperament and derring-do that defines extraordinary sportsmen. Here was a cricketer (to borrow a metaphor) who was to the manner born.

Imbibing the best from his two idols, Gavaskar and Richards, Tendulkar has grown into the most complete batsman, at least since World War ll. After starting out as a swashbuckler, he has been the most adaptable, the most durable and the most bankable. I won’t elaborate further on batsmanship save to say that the balance, footwork, range of strokes, understanding of a game situation and capacity to improvise define him as a peerless master.

There are other, equally compelling attributes to the Tendulkar phenomenon. He has been modern cricket’s best salesman, drawing crowds everywhere and perhaps single-handedly raising the value of Indian cricket’s TV rights to billion-dollar levels. In the process, he’s also amassed a fortune through endorsements and the like, but as a matter of course, without making it seem obscene or letting it affect his game.

More importantly, Tendulkar has been the pivot in India’s march to the top of the Test rankings, his performances and attitude sparking off a New Age ‘hate-to-lose’ in Indian cricket that gained momentum through a set of gifted players like Kumble, Dravid and Laxman with Ganguly at the helm, and reached fruition under Dhoni with the likes of Zaheer,  Harbhajan, Yuvraj and the bionic Sehwag teaming up in the last decade.

The fact that he wasn’t insecure and didn’t impinge on the space of these players has a lot to do with the team’s success. He may not have been the captain, but he has been the lodestar, the moral authority and the power centre of Indian cricket; a sort of Mother Teresa and Sonia Gandhi rolled into one.

It is no exaggeration to say that but for the trust and belief vested in Tendulkar, the match-fixing scam could have debilitated Indian cricket. In a long career, he has also been remarkably controversy-free, his behaviour on and off the field virtually unimpeachable.

In hindsight, it seems divinely ordained that Tendulkar would break most batting records. Could a better script be written? Still, this cannot obscure the intense passion, commitment, ambition and excellence he has been able to perform with over the past 21 years. A few times revisionistic views questioning his calibre did surface, only to be stymied in double quick time.

Above all else, it is the incredible burden of expectations that he has carried unflinchingly all his life which marks him out as someone special, almost a freak. This is the one undisputed parallel he has with Bradman, who too gave succour and hope to his nation with his batting exploits. In Tendulkar’s case, given the fact of our all-pervasive and invasive modern age media, the pressure has been greater if anything.

A billion Indians live and die, so to speak, with Tendulkar at the wicket. Nobody unites such a diverse, parochial, multi-religious country like him. Why he is so deeply embedded in the Indian psyche should be the subject of deeper research. Perhaps he epitomises the integrity, righteousness and excellence that all of us aspire to, many in public life promise, but nobody quite manages.

In future, it will perhaps be seen as pertinent that Tendulkar’s arrival coincided with the conflictual backdrop of Mandal politics and the opening up of the Indian economy. With no high degree, only a bat in hand, he was to show that genuine talent did not need reservation to succeed. The fame and wealth he has garnered epitomises the country’s march towards meritocracy.

In that sense, he has been the torch-bearer for the country as it seeks a position of power and influence on this planet. That he has done this (so far) without brashness, vulgarity or unconcern for others shows that to succeed, new India need not necessarily cast away the sublime cultural values of the old.

The writer has covered cricket for over three decades

Next Story >>
Google + Linkedin Whatsapp

The Latest Issue

Outlook Videos