Gems of our generation

In the instant recall value of their knocks lies the trouble in comparing the three most productive batsmen of our times — the trouble of excess, writes Kunal Diwan.

One could have gone the easy way and let averages and strike rates run amok like Ijaz Ahmed did almost exclusively against India in Sharjah. Or swung to Lara’s flourishing backlift and Tendulkar’s ballerina balance, sung drunken paeans to the pugnacity of the Punter and the disrespect of his pull shot.

One could have payloaded arguments with the warhead of winning centuries and lost series, offside dominance and front-foot fortifications, but it would all have been to no end.

Because each time the numbers were piled onto one arm of the balance, there would be an equal heap awaiting the other. And the balance being three-pronged would be of no help at all.

Do you remember the time Brian Lara swivelled and serenaded to 153 against Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne in Bridgetown, scripting a one-wicket win when the next highest innings score was 34?

Or the 98 Sachin Tendukar blasted with that audacious six off Shoaib Akthar on top of backward point in the 2003 World Cup?

How about the spasm of fury that wreaked your body when Ricky Ponting eviscerated India with a murderous 140 in the final of the same tournament? Agonising?

It is in the instant recall value of knocks such and suchlike that lies the trouble in comparing the three most productive batsmen of our times — the trouble of excess.

Too many runs, or too many wickets, work out to be something like diabetes, you have all the sugar you could possibly want in your system, but you can’t utilise it to any good. A run for run comparison, thus, is as much blanched in futility as a compass in an artificial magnetic field. And when all claimants to the one top spot match up — give or take a few hits to the fence — in their prolific nature, could not the discrepancies in statistical achievement be a product of situational opportunity and the number of matches played?

And if a comparison is the one, and only, undying requirement of the hour, where does one look for clues when those that exist do so at a level so subliminal it would take an eye especially gifted to have them unearthed.

Let us, first up, resort to the sterile safety of statistical analysis.

Tendulkar’s first four Test hundreds came after overseas battles with Angus Fraser and Devon Malcolm in Manchester, Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes in Sydney and Perth, and Allan Donald, the man they called White Lightning, in Johannesburg. With a verification of similarity from the great Don himself, the Indian was like the one constant in an uncertain world, charting a course every Indian had mentally mapped out for him the day he entered the national discourse as a feather-lipped 16-year-old.

Two decades later, he finds himself perched on an improbable 42 Test centuries, 24 of them in away matches and 16 in an Indian win (nine at home, plus seven on tour). Comparatively, Lara has eight winning hundreds (of 34) and Ponting, a stupendous 27 (of 38), largely because the Aussie benefited from being in one of the best Test sides ever for the most of his career.

If popular opinion seats the iconic Indian achiever on a pedestal of consistency and poise, Lara has been placed on a throne of artistic excesses. Ponting, possibly because of his competitive on-field persona, is handed the shortest stick, which is vaguely justified since he, being Australian, never had a crack at McGrath and Shane Warne — something Tendukar and Lara did with great success and regularity.

Tendulkar is also, possibly, the only large-scale accumulator who has been two different batsmen in his career, starting out as an aggressive cherub with a point to prove against the big names, and maturing into a responsible senior pro not averse to collaring the odd attack when required. Though his exploits in the ‘V’, the authority of his drives, the inventive ingenuity of his strokes, and the longevity of his performance silence most tongues, he has piqued both ends of the rate spectrum with one faction welcoming the watchful, and the other decrying the loss of the loose canon he was in his younger days.

Just like intelligence and good looks take on many parts, batting too wears different clothes — spartan and bare, yet efficient and purposeful in times of need; at other times a warlike trumpet of delight; as much an uncompromised dash for the finish as a painstaking process of accumulation. In all his parts, however, Tendulkar has demonstrated the virtues of the golden ratio, the economy of movement, and the technique of self-containment — something known as ‘thehraav’ (the ability to always be in control) in dance parlance.

If Lara wins points against such competition, it is because his batsmanship revolved around sublime, quicksilver footwork, a lightsaber blade, and the utterly demoralising way in which he dominated bowlers. And, again, if Ponting registers rather differently to the senses, it is only an illusion created by his personality, for many, including a fervent colleague, swear by the power he packs in his pulls and his bare-knuckled approach to batting.

When detractors cite Tendukar’s limited reliance on footwork, the exploitable gap between bat and pad, and the risk-fraught, hard-handed, punchy defence as soft spots, they also reserve some flak for Lara and Ponting. The southpaw gets it for his high backlift, a tendency to pull in the air, cutting balls too close to the body, and a total disregard of modern practices such as pinching the single, while Ponting for being a shaky starter, habitually shuffling across the stumps, particularly out of sorts against quality spin bowling.

How the best batsmen and bowlers of a generation match up against each other is a valid criterion for judging them both. Suspect though he is against spin, the Australian captain has an appreciable scoring average against Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble. Harbhajan Singh has posed the maximum problems to Ponting, and one-on-one records reveal that though Lara and Tendulkar gave up their wicket frequently to Murali, they too maintained a healthy average against him.

Tendulkar and Lara also dominated Shane Warne, but both struggled against Donald, McGrath, and Jason Gillespie.

So Ponting never faced Warne. Well, neither did he face the kind of batting pressure Tendukar and Lara did, when the Indian and the West Indian often plucked the lone banjo of hope in a valley of batting despair. A positive in Ponting’s case is that the Aussie dealt with the burden of captaincy with far greater success than the others did with little detriment to his form.

Batting form was a great ally of Tendulkar too, but for all his runs the little master is accused of not having a head for bigger innings, a skill that came so naturally to Lara despite his reputation as a compulsive strokeplayer. So while the Trinidadian ended with the highest score in the history of Test cricket (the unbelievably self-indulgent 400 inflicted on England), seven double hundreds, and a triple century, Tendulkar currently rests on four double-century knocks, two of which were milked against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Ponting matches the Indian’s double-ton record, but in his case the opponents have been West Indies, India (twice), and Pakistan.

Another grouse against Tendlya is that of the seven tons in a winning cause he plundered on tour, only three materialised outside the placid pitches of the subcontinent, of which one was against a rank bad outfit (New Zealand, Hamilton, 2009). Fourth innings scores are perhaps most indicative of a batsman’s ability to influence the outcome of a match (provided the bowlers connived to set up the win). And here, Tendulkar has a solitary winning hundred to his credit — the unbeaten 103 against England at Chepauk last year.

And if one brings up Chepauk, how can one shut out the heartbreak against Pakistan in 1999, a memory Tendulkar says, “still rankles”, when his dismissal for 136 led to a collapse and a forgettable defeat. And though there is only so much a man can do, the Mumbai maestro has this knack for doing rather ordinary stuff after creating visions of immortality — a case in point: the recent ODI against Australia in Hyderabad and the horrible, totally-not-required paddle scoop.

If accusations of him not sticking around to finish the job have always trailed Tendulkar, Ponting, with three unbeaten, match-winning centuries in the fourth innings, sure knows a thing or two about lasting till the end. Lara shares the second place with Tendukar with one such knock — the unbeaten 153 at Bridgetown.

On to the honourably-mentioned ODIs then — arguably the sole dominion of the Indian colossus, whose 45 centuries include 32 that won India the match (Ponting’s tally of 28 includes 24 and Lara’s 19 has 16 winning tons).

Since their averages hover around the early-to-mid 40s mark, could the extra padding of runs and moments Tendukar has over his peers be linked entirely to his extended time in the middle?

Rather than take away from what has been a career of almost statistical perfection, it would be easier to admit that, ultimately, rounding up favourites among batsmen is like choosing an arm over a leg, or one eye over the other, and it’s hard enough maintaining a gaze of neutrality when hues of nationalism come into play. Like stated earlier, we’re looking for clues that simmer below the surface when, maybe, none exist except those of our own making.

* * * They said it

I’ll be going to bed having nightmares of Sachin just running down the wicket and belting me back over the head for six. He was unstoppable. I don’t think anyone, apart from Don Bradman, is in the same class as Sachin Tendulkar. He is just an amazing player. –Shane Warne

I saw him playing on television and was struck by his technique, so I asked my wife to come look at him. Now I never saw myself play, but I feel that this player is playing much the same as I used to play. –Don Bradman

Sachin Tendulkar is a genius. I’m a mere mortal. –Brian Lara

Sachin is the most complete batsman I have seen. His technique is so good and he has played well in all conditions. The number of innings of his I have been able to sit back and watch, I think he is an amazing player. Look at his stats and records and it’s quite incredible for someone to have stayed in the game for 20 years. He has set benchmarks for guys like me to chase him and get as close as we can. If I had to last 20 years, I would probably be batting in a wheelchair. –Ricky Ponting

There are two kinds of batsmen in the world. One Sachin Tendulkar. Two all the others. –Andy Flower

Sachin is cricket’s God. –Barry Richards

Don’t bowl him bad balls, he hits the good ones for fours. –Michael Kasprowicz

You take Don Bradman away and he is next up I reckon. –Steve Waugh

I’d like to see him go out and bat one day with a stump. I tell you, he’d do okay. –Greg Chappell

If I’ve to bowl to Sachin, I’ll bowl with my helmet on. He hits the ball so hard. –Dennis Lillee

I have seen God. He bats at No. 4 for India. –Matthew Hayden

He’s 99.5 per cent perfect. –Vivian Richards

Cricketers like Sachin come once in a lifetime, and I am privileged he played in my time. –Wasim Akram