The crown of greatness

The West Indian cricket guru, political philosopher, and author, C. L. R. James held firmly to the opinion that one unique quality distinguishes the great cricketer from the merely good. He quoted the example of the outstanding fast bowler, gifted with extra pace off the pitch by comparison with his run-of-the-mill contemporaries. I found genius in the defensive technique of England opening batsman, Len Hutton: a flawless skill which endowed him with an unrivalled ability to adapt and modify his strokes so late in their execution, that they appeared to be intuitive reflex counters to deliveries which seemed to have beaten his defences.

Hutton himself was an acolyte of Bradman, whose greatness he attributed to his nimble footwork. Len described "the Don" as "the Fred Astaire of cricket", saying that, if he had not been such a wonderful batsman, the little Aussie could have been a superb dancer.

As a youth, Hutton saw Bradman compile his 334 at Leeds in 1930 and came away from the Headingley ground firmly convinced that the 21-year old prodigy ignored the stumps he defended, simply preferring to dance around them, playing the strokes of his choice.

Former Victorian batsman, Jack Ledward attested to Bradman's lightness of foot when he described a pre-WW II innings played by the Don against Victoria. Ledward was fielding at slip when Bradman came to the wicket, and, after playing himself in, confidently announced that he was about to conduct "a Round-Up". Mystified as to the New South Welshman's intentions, Ledward watched in amazement as Bradman hit each ball of every over to every fieldsman in anti-clockwise succession — beginning with Ledward himself at slip and concluding with fine-leg.

He carried out his plan with controlled deliberation, irrespective of where the ball was directed and on what length it pitched! When a fieldsman returned from the chase, slightly out of breath with his exertions, "the Don" gave him another chase next ball — accompanied with a little malicious chuckle!

This was the genius of Bradman in his twenties and early thirties: Bradman whose brilliance knew no bounds; Bradman who invented his own rules about batting. The young Sachin Tendulkar at the same age possessed the same stellar qualities. The bowlers bowled the ball where they wanted to pitch it; and Tendulkar hit it where he wanted to hit it! He possessed the unique skill which C. L. R. James attributed to greatness: which defied mere orthodoxy and which raised him above the ordinary and up to the dizzy heights of being acknowledged by Bradman as a player cast in his own mould.

Sadly Tendulkar has discovered that the crown of greatness is paradoxically heavy yet ephemeral. Age does wither it; injury whittles away its effectiveness. And the media hounds are forever at the heels, nipping and herding towards retirement. In retrospect, Tendulkar's unparalleled record of 35 Test centuries now appears less significant. Ten thousand Test runs suddenly do not seem as important as they used to do. Strangely coincidental is the fact that Tendulkar is approaching his 18th milestone in Test cricket: the exact temporal marker at which Don Bradman toured England with his "Invincibles" for the last time in 1948: the year when "the Don" called it quits at the prompting of his creaking joints and aching muscles.

Tendulkar's career has been ratcheted up a couple of degrees of difficulty by a persistent tennis elbow injury, which has reduced the consistency of his run scoring. Cracks are beginning to appear in his hitherto stonewall defence — and Australia's metronomic beanpole paceman, Glen McGrath has exposed a flippant tendency to flirt with potential slip-ups outside the off-stump. Yet in spite of these increases in his unforced batting errors, we can never discount the greatness of a batsman with 35 Test hundreds and 10,000 runs to his credit; a player who ranks in the top five heaviest scorers of the game at the highest level. At the moment Tendulkar is at a comparable stage of his international career as Bradman found himself on the Australian tour of England in 1948. At this juncture "the Don" was 40 — eight calendar years older than the Little Mumbai Master. But in terms of playing experience, both men were on a par.

Bradman lost eight years of cricket to the Second World War; Each suffered injury: Bradman to a gym accident as an Army Physical Education Instructor and Tendulkar to his lingering tennis elbow. Both players were subjected to external pressure to leave the game prematurely. Bradman came within an ace of withdrawing from the Test scene — and probably would have done so had he been given out to that controversial Ikin catch in Brisbane in 1946. Tendulkar's lack of form has led to his being currently pressurised in some quarters of the media to retire.

I would counsel Tendulkar to examine Bradman's Post-WW II figures closely. For after having decided to defy age "the Don" went on to notch a further six Test centuries and two double hundreds — three of them unbeaten, against England and India. If one rates advancing age as a terminal handicap of batting excellence, it is also worth remembering that the celebrated England opener of the early 1900s, Jack Hobbs, scored 98 of his 197 centuries after he had passed the age of 40!

Bradman's successor as Australian skipper, Lindsay Hassett, once explained to me the secret behind Bradman's heavy scoring — both as a young man, and later as a more mature player. In the thirties, Hassett said that Bradman played with all the instinctive confidence of youth, allied to an unparalleled physical and mental talent.

No one player has ever been able to match the young Bradman in this, his era of greatness. After WW II, with most of the reflexes of youth gone or restricted by his back injury, "the Don" simply reverted to being the best technically equipped of all orthodox batsmen. And few batsmen have been able to rival even this version of Bradman — the perfect technician.

There is however, a faint chance that Tendulkar can come close to emulating the example of his idol — for he is an excellent technician. He has the mental strength and the physical skill to score more centuries — if he remembers the lines which the poet, Robert Browning, put into the mouth of Rabbi Ben Ezra: "Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be."