Favoured by all

Lara will have his supporters, but for the majority of fans (and not necessarily in the subcontinent), the debate was resolved long ago. Tendulkar first, says Suresh Menon. In the second part of this Cover Story, from Page 8, Ted Corbett plumps for Brian Lara. Welcome to the debate.

Great sportsmen straddle many worlds. They leave behind the merely good very quickly as they enter rarefied areas defined as much by their mastery as by the elements that do not even enter the debate when others are discussed. Part of Don Bradman's greatness lay in his Test average of 99.94, but partly it was also a function of what he meant to a nation coming to terms with itself; he defined Australian nationhood.

It is an accident of time and space, this identification with an evolving nation, but it is crucial to the understanding of the context of greatness. W. G. Grace, for example, was the icon of Victorian England, representing both its elements and its aspirations. Such players dominate their era, and tell us there is more to greatness in batting than a fabulous cover drive or a delicate leg glance.

The intangibles enter the equation, and other things remaining equal (statistics, averages, role in victories), the intangibles tip the balance. There was a time when it was difficult to separate the careers of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara — both had similar statistics, influence on their teams, impact on bowlers around the world. Lara's taste for huge scores meant he held the individual batting record for both Tests and first class cricket, 375 and 501 respectively made within two months of each other in 1994. Tendulkar, four years younger, more consistent, less flamboyant, more sober, less controversial, frustrated the bowlers with a defence of Gavaskar-like certainty and an attack that could match Lara's.

“Sachin is a genius,” said Lara himself, “I am a mere mortal.”

Even if that is taken as a modest assessment by a great rival when Lara first made the point, today it is difficult to disagree. After Tendulkar's ‘ Second Coming', the statistics too go in favour of the Indian. At 37, when Lara called it a day, Tendulkar discovered a new steel, a new joy of batsmanship, a new purpose that was difficult to distinguish from those he entered the game with at the age of 16. In his last 15 Tests, Tendulkar has scored 1811 runs, with eight centuries and an average of 86.23. To get Bradmanesque when others of his age are rediscovering the joys of fatherhood or the comforts of the commentary box places Tendulkar not just in another league, but on another planet altogether.

The debate today is not about who is the best batsman after Bradman, it is about deciding whether Tendulkar is better than Bradman was given the range of his game (Bradman didn't play a single one-dayer, Tendulkar the greatest batsman without argument in that form of the game has played 442), the travel, the greater media and public pressure and the fact that he has played more years (Bradman had a break of five years during the War), on more grounds (57 different Test grounds in 10 countries to Bradman's 10 in two countries), and destroyed more bowling attacks.

Tendulkar versus Lara, let's get the statistics out of the way first. Lara ended his career after 131 Tests, 11,953 runs, an average of 52.88 and 34 centuries. Tendulkar's figures at the end of his 131st Test (he played 23 fewer innings) were 10,434 runs, an average of 55.79 and 35 centuries. Little to choose there between the two, although Tendulkar's current figures tend to border on the verge of absurdity, like the US budget deficit or the temperature at the centre of the sun. Body willing, Tendulkar could play 200 Test matches, score 16 or 17 thousand runs and over 55 centuries. This is not just startling, but faintly ridiculous too. Such figures cease to have any real meaning simply because it is difficult to get our minds around them.

And when you consider that there could be another 50 ODI centuries and nearly 20,000 runs in that format, it would be foolish to even consider anyone else in the same league. Lara, twice holder of the individual score, the first man to make 400 in a Test innings will have to move into that portion of the stage inhabited by second fiddles.

But, as mentioned earlier, the debate cannot be reduced to statistics and averages, for then we would be ignoring the intangibles that make up the whole picture. Statistics can only be the basis for starting the debate. Greatness is made up of other elements you cannot put a decimal point on. Such things as respect for the craft, contribution to the team.

Lara, a great player in a mediocre team, has had to go it alone for most of his career, finishing on the winning side only 32 times. His average in Tests won is 61.02 (eight centuries). Tendulkar, by contrast, averages 69.14 in the 59 Tests India won when he was playing (20 centuries).

So stunning has been the impact of his figures that Tendulkar's historical contribution to Indian cricket is often forgotten. In a recent exercise to choose an all-time India XI, it became apparent even to those generally slow to recognise good times when they are living through it that the Golden Age of Indian cricket is here and now. Four players in the list were current national players, and two had retired only recently.

In sport, greatness is usually bestowed retrospectively. Perhaps it is no coincidence that India are currently the number one side in the world.

That six of the eleven made their debuts after November 1989, when Tendulkar first announced himself to the world, is a tribute to the Mumbai man's impact. Golden Ages must have their iconic figure and Tendulkar is clearly the one here, both for what he has accomplished himself and for his qualities that inspired the others.

Lara, through no fault of his own, presided over the decline of West Indies cricket and his impact therefore has been far less than Tendulkar's on Indian cricket and cricket-watching public.

The major difference between the two great players has been in their attitude towards the game. Lara, like, Tiger Woods in another context, has always had a sense of entitlement, a feeling that cricket owed him for his being one of its most accomplished players. This was especially evident during his stints as captain and the tantrums he threw when his wishes were not met. Tendulkar might not have taken up the cause of players when a word from him could have made a difference, but he had no sense of entitlement. The guiding force was gratitude to the sport for making him what he is.

Like Bradman in another era, Tendulkar too has been both representative and flag-bearer of a nation rediscovering its self-confidence and redefining its identity. Diffidence has been replaced by inspired self-worth, and in a nation often riven by faith and religion and artificial lines of separation, he has been a hero across the divisions. Again, it is not Lara's fault that he cannot play a similar role in a country, the West Indies, that exists only on the cricket field but divides into Jamaica and Trinidad and Barbados and others off it.

Tendulkar is a product of his period. Time and space are in his favour. As are those qualities that define greatness, discipline, tough work ethic, the ability to both extract joy from the game and distribute it to millions as well as the creativity to invent new ways of scoring runs, and the ability to score them consistently.

Lara will have his supporters, but for the majority of fans (and not necessarily in the subcontinent), the debate was resolved long ago. Tendulkar first.

Have your say

Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara? Who is the best batsman after, perhaps, Don Bradman? Who is your pick? Or do you have someone else in mind? READERS ARE WELCOME TO RESPOND. Letters will be published in the print edition. Those held over due to space constraint will find a place in the web edition. e-mail us at sport@thehindu.co.in