Lords of BIG THINGS

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."

- Oscar Wilde, in The Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

ON an unforgettable evening at the Madras Cricket Club a few years ago, a bunch of ardent devotees sat awe-struck in the pavilion, savouring the word of God - the sporting God of our childhood, of our adolescent years, of our teens.

Lara carries a greater burden than does Tendulkar in the Test series in the West Indies.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Magically transported back to our youth and living the dream of a lifetime, we sat around him like devotees at a "darshan", some of us squatting on the floor, others huddled around him like the All Blacks in prayer before an international rugby game.

It was an evening when a lifetime's prayers had been answered and many of us could almost have pinched one another to check if it was real, or perhaps part of some re-visiting adolescent dream from which we'd wake up with a jolt.

In the event, the enormity of the moment, the sheer improbability of the occasion - a cocktail evening for a select few with Sir Gary Sobers - turned quite a few of us into wide-eyed zombies, tongue-tied and hardly capable of voicing all those questions we had rehearsed in our minds ahead of the big evening, like anxious 12th graders on the eve of a school-final examination.

But once drinks were ordered and downed, some of us began to relax as we queried Sir Gary on issues that we had always been keen to hear him talk about.

"What about Tendulkar and Lara, Sir Gary? Who is the better batsman?" asked one young man.

Sir Gary took another sip of the Caribbean dark rum, flashed a smile that suggested he knew the question was coming and was waiting for it, and then said: "They are both great players. Wonderful batsmen, both. Very much alike, but very different too."

Ah, a hung jury there... not quite the sort of thing that a majority of Sir Gary's audience wanted to hear. And long after the great man left that evening, some of us were still in the MCC bar voicing beer-fuelled opinions vis a vis the great Tendulkar/Lara debate.

"You know, for all their greatness, neither India nor West Indies has approached the Test or even one-day cricket summit during their time," said a friend with the sort of finality that could have ended all the haggling even in a village fair sweet-meat stall. "How many match-winning innings have Lara and Tendulkar played in tough overseas conditions in their career?" he added, just in case you didn't get the point he was trying to make.

Driving back home that night, I recalled Oscar Wilde's famous words about books. So, what does it matter whether an innings won a match or not?

In my book, there is no such thing as a match-winning innings, no such thing as an innings that failed to win a match. Like books, there are only good innings and bad innings, great innings and mediocre innings.

Was Nathan Astle's incredible double hundred - beyond the Bradmanesque if ever there was one innings which could be so described - any less exciting because it failed to carry New Zealand to victory in the first Test against England last month? In most critics' reckoning, it would easily find a place in the Top Ten innings in Test cricket history.

Of course, if Astle had gone on to bring up the most incredible victory in three centuries of Test match cricket, it would perhaps have qualified as the greatest innings ever played. But, no matter that he did not, it still happens to be one of the sport's believe-it-or-not masterpieces, worthy of its niche in history's showcase irrespective of the result of the game.

And, in the last 12 years, no two other batsmen might have played as many good and great innings in international cricket as have Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. The game's premier batsmen over the last decade and a half, the two virtuoso performers have time and again produced innings of the highest class, innings that have been an adornment to the great game.

To me - from a perspective where beautiful things only mean beauty, and stand apart from victory or defeat - it hardly matters whether a Tendulkar masterpiece helped India win a Test match or not, or whether an innings of astounding brilliance and rare beauty from Lara produced a Test victory for a struggling West Indies team or not.

But, let us get this straight: that is a minority point of view, something that is an anachronism in the context of modern sport, in the high noon of sporting commerce when winning and losing are like life and death, as far apart. In the event, Wilde's view of books, when applied to sport, becomes a rather wild interpretation of things in cricket.

For, it does indeed matter - and matters helluva lot - whether a great cricketer's great innings helped produce a great victory for his team. In a team sport, the value of individual brilliance is multiplied when it is instrumental in helping the side win.

Imagine a gifted footballer scoring five of the best goals of a World Cup and finally finishing as the top goal scorer while his team fails to make the semifinals... surely, this individual feat might hardly compare favourably with a pair of goals scored by someone else in the final to win the World Cup for his own team.

This is precisely why my friend's observation that night about Lara and Tendulkar set me thinking. For all their achievements, certainly there would be a void - a sure sense of having fallen short somewhere - in their careers should Lara or Tendulkar fail to accomplish something truly extraordinary for their teams before they trade their bats and cricketing whites for perhaps silk ties and suits and a place in the commentary box.

Over 50 centuries in international cricket before turning 29, over 18,000 runs, a rare acknowledgement from the late Sir Don Bradman himself vis a vis his place in the pantheon as an all-time great, a level of adulation never before witnessed in the entire history of Indian sport, iconic status as a virtual One Man Industry in cricket in this country... surely, a sporting CV like no other in India. What the hell can be missing there? Not even the most inventive of copywriters can add anything to make Sachin Tendulkar's career file look any more impressive.

Is that what you think? Well, try this little entry, for one: * Helped India beat West Indies in West Indies with a marvellous century in trying conditions on a minefield of a pitch in Barbados. Or, perhaps, this one: * When all seemed lost for India at Lord's, turned things around miraculously to help the visiting team beat an inspired bunch of Englishmen in the series-deciding Test.

If there is one thing missing in the Tendulkar CV, it is this. Consider, on the other hand, the careers of the two other giants of Indian cricket: Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev.

Gavaskar's debut series heroics saw India not only win a Test in the West Indies for the first time but also helped the team to its most famous series victory overseas. And, not long after that, India won a series in England too.

As for Kapil Dev, India's greatest all-round cricketer came up with death-to-glory heroics against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup, something that was so inspirational that the team went on to shock the mighty West Indies in the final. Two years on, both Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were part of the side that won the WCC trophy in Australia a year ahead of the 2-0 defeat of England in England.

On the other hand, in the 13 years that Tendulkar has been playing international cricket, India has failed to win a single Test in the places that matter - Australia, South Africa, West Indies and England. We are not talking about series victories here, but merely a single Test victory.

Lara, for his part, has found a little more success here but he too, like Tendulkar, has long been part of a team that has performed poorly in overseas conditions.

Indeed, it is a pity that two such all-conquering batsmen - men whose names would be right up there in any Who's Who of batting giants - should find themselves in teams that are far from being world beaters.

Right from the very beginning of Test cricket, almost all the mighty batsmen, from Sir Don Bradman and Wally Hammond down to Graeme Pollock and Viv Richards were part of great teams. In this, Tendulkar and Lara are exceptions.

Of course, neither man can be held responsible for the mediocrity around him. Lara may well be the last of the dinosaurs from the Caribbean with cricket, in those parts, clearly in decline. The prognosis is not good either. The illness seems terminal.

The rise of the great generation of West Indian cricketers after the Second World War, symbolised not the least by the late Sir Frank Worrell's unforgettable side which created history Down Under more than 40 years ago, was a leading factor in the patch-quilt racial revolution of those time in the island nations.

Since then, every West Indian side, good and great, was fuelled principally by two things: pride and self-belief. It was the combination of these twin virtues that saw a less-than-formidable Windies team deny India victory when the visiting team chased 120 in the Barbados Test the last time India toured the West Indies.

Unfortunately, the team India would be facing this time, has neither the talents nor the pride and self-belief of the Windies teams of the past.

In Tendulkar's case, the Mumbai maestro is certainly not surrounded by quite as much mediocrity as is Lara. There is, indeed, a lot of genuine talent in Sourav Ganguly's side.

But, then, if there is more than a semblance of talent, pride and self-belief in the Indian team when it plays at home, what generally happens is the boys tend to leave behind all those virtues at Immigrations and Customs when they fly out of the country to play cricket!

And, unlike Oscar Wilde at the New York Customs - when the great man said, "I have nothing to declare but my genius," - Indian cricketers have only their ineptitude to declare in overseas ports.

The Indian teams of the 1970s and 1980s, with a few exceptions, played hard, fought hard and displayed "attitude" in Tests abroad. But the decline began in the 1990s and not even Tendulkar's genius seems to have made a difference.

The question is, will it finally make a difference in the Caribbean these few weeks?

To be sure, if it does not this time, it never will. For, never has India faced such a mediocre - Lara apart - West Indies side. It is a team without a single world class match-winning bowler and not even a nervous debutant in the Indian side would lose much sleep ahead of the Tests.

Bishan Bedi's team chased 400-plus to win a match against Clive Lloyd's squad in the West Indies in another era. If Ganguly's men do half as well, and put on show a semblance of the courage displayed by Gavaskar, Visvanath and Mohinder Amarnath, Tendulkar would certainly have added something important to his wonderfully impressive CV in a few weeks' time.