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Why Sachin Tendulkar's next two years are likely to be better than his last twenty

It is a stunning achievement in contemporary international sport to complete 20 years. And to actually perform at an optimum level for most of that period is superhuman in its very comprehension. 

No one can take anything away from Sachin Tendulkar for being India’s most talented and consistent batsman by a distance. His statistical monuments are cited as proof of that – the aggregate of his centuries and runs, in both Test and ODI cricket. As is his manner of playing – that balance, timing and placement, and when at his best, the ability to dominate without ever looking gauche. These qualities have made him a cricketing God in India, a Holy Cow who can do no wrong in the media and his legion of blindly worshipping fans. 

Amidst all the characteristic cacophony it is repeatedly forgotten that cricket is a team sport where the point is not individual glory but team triumph. It is here that Tendulkar’s contributions come under scrutiny, and sometimes fall short. Especially in the shadow of his reputation, stature and hype. The somewhat-cryptic story of Sachin’s career so far is that despite being India’s most talented and most consistent batsman who has scored runs against all opponents in almost all conditions, he isn’t India’s greatest batsman.

For pretty much his entire career, Tendulkar has been a great talent who operates in the vacuum of his own greatness, being oblivious to the environment around him. However, in the last two years, things have been visibly changing. He seems to be getting out of this veritable vacuum (a vacuum that has led to those massive aggregates of runs and centuries but not enough man-of-the-match performances in winning causes, for example). Lately, there is a determination in him to affect team results directly, and in the last two years it has been keeping India in good stead. 

This change is not just on the field. Frustratingly reluctant in the past to say anything remotely controversial, his unprecedented comment about Mumbai being for all Indians (which was always likely to get one of the crazy Thackerays hyper-ventilating, in this case the old man himself) is refreshing for Tendulkar’s willingness finally to be more aware about his environment, or at least to articulate it. This new consciousness has manifest itself in other more relevant ways too – like his criticism of the BCCI for not having more Test matches in the current season. And finally, in his constant references to the “team” in all his interviews. The last is the most significant development of all – suggesting that the great cricketer is deeply aware of the only blot on his career. 

Something has changed. Perhaps, it is a determination to prove his detractors (which include people like Sanjay Manjrekar and Imran Khan, both astute thinkers of the game) wrong or simply the realization that he can do much more to directly affect the results of his team. In the last two years, he has actually done more of that than in the eighteen years before that (despite the breathtaking brilliance in 1998-99). It started against Pakistan in 2007 with the barely-remembered rare fourth-innings unbeaten 56 which took India to a 6-wicket win in Delhi. It continued with his memorable twin match-winning innings at the ODI CB series in Australia in 2008. Then, his fourth innings century against England in December 2008. The unbeaten century against Sri Lanka in the ODI final in September 2009. And now his match-saving innings against Sri Lanka in the first Test of the on-going series. 

But during the period of even these performances, some old foibles come through. Like the blatant obviousness of trying to stay not out and bolster his average even at the cost of his team in Sydney 2008. His petulance about opening the batting in ODIs at the cost of the team’s welfare, despite having the world’s best opening pair in recent times (in all formats, a very rare thing) in the side (Sehwag and Gambhir). And, most disturbingly, about his inability to finish the job sometimes. 

In the fifth ODI against Australia two weeks back, India needed 19 runs to win in 18 balls with four wickets in hand. Tendulkar was all set to commemorate his greatest innings in ODI cricket, as he was on 175 off 140 balls as his team chased 351 to win. The series was at 2-2 and it was as razor’s edge as it can ever be in this game. It had been the master batsman’s day and he was fully set now as anybody batting for three and a half hours has to be. Then, he played an uppish paddle shot and spooned the ball up, got out. India promptly lost – the match and subsequently the series. Given Tendulkar’s propensity to do this right through his career, there were more than a few who shook their heads and asked if he would have played such a shot if he was batting in the 90s. Or if he had a double century within grasp in this innings itself. 

But the dazzling quality of Tendulkar’s innings (as is always the case when he is even near his best) and the picture of abject pusillanimity of the other players on the scorecard, prompted the typically irrational, tunnel-visioned highly emotional responses from Indian fans. There were responses that bordered on the bizarre, like this corporate columnist who said – it is good India lost this match, as it added a streak of romanticism to the innings, a heroic effort in vain (So, now a cricket match has to resemble a Shakespeare play?). Some were more typically unimaginative – at least India competed in the match because of him, didn’t they? [What difference does it make to the big picture if India were out for 345 or 180 – they still lost the match, didn’t they? Thanks to this result, they still went on to lose the series. Is it not the set batsman’s job to finish the game? Would any other great player have failed to do that (especially when he had brought the equation down to almost a-run-a-ball), and if he had, would not he be criticized for that? How come no other great player in cricket history, in any format, has a track record like this?]. Some responses were characteristically petulant – why does he have to finish the job, what about the other ten players? (India still won two games in the series, didn’t they, thanks to the efforts of others – Tendulkar did nothing notable in any of the other 5 games. Is it not a time-honoured code in cricket that the batsman who gets set on the day finishes the task; is it not the job-description?) Some take refuge behind the well-known names who hail Tendulkar and performances like this. (That this has been more the trend than the exception in Tendulkar’s long career is something not a lot of experts, especially former-cricketers seem to be aware of. The few who do perhaps find it politically incorrect to make a point of it, given their only source of income comes from this. Even Sanjay Manjrekar’s refreshing approach of speaking his mind clearly does not seem to inspire them to greater candour.) Other utterly moronic responses included gems like – what does so-and-so know; why is he commenting? What has he ever done on the cricket field worthy of mention? (Is this even worthy of a riposte?) 

There are too many myths around Tendulkar’s hype that need to be looked at (as the characteristically vacuous hype in the media exemplified during the 20 years celebration in international cricket). Firstly, it is untrue that India was not winning too many Test matches in the 1990s and that he was the only real batsman who India had. The truth is that India was unbeatable at home for most of the decade, and it was Azharuddin who played the majority of match-winning (especially series-deciding) innings for India, not Tendulkar. And after that decade, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag have taken over the mantle. Tendulkar has been a great support act – a consistent source of worthwhile contribution, but rarely the leading batting act (the most exceptional exception being against Australia in 1998 and end-2007 onwards, even though the latter phase has quite a few substantial support acts). Out of the many occasions he has had of saving India the blushes or taking India to victory from an unexpected situation (especially in Test cricket) – he has actually done it fewer times (in proportion to his number of matches) than many of the other notable Indian batsmen of his two eras – namely Dravid, Azharuddin, Sehwag, Laxman and now even Dhoni. 

Our own device called Impact Index (which we presented at the ICC Centenary Conference at Oxford in July) and its subsequent study of the world’s greatest Test cricketers in the last 132 years supported this. The moment we keep the big score performances limited to its impact within just that particular match, a more accurate picture emerges. Everyone was measured by the same parameters – to put it simply, in the first phase, on a scale of 0 to 5, ever player was measured for his impact within the context of every MATCH (as opposed to innings) he played. This was the Basic Impact Index. Then, when we added weights for two significant factors – strength of opposition (self-explanatory) and series defining performances (performances that impacted the team fortunes in the series) – which led to the Impact Index figure. Tendulkar, with 1.82 as basic was 35 on the Basic II list (which included bowlers and all-rounders too). Adding the weights of opposition strength and importance of innings in series context, he slid down to 43 on the Impact Index. Adding captaincy/ wicketkeeping points (where he did not gain much) and longevity points (where he did) he actually slid down even further to 44. No other “universally acknowledged truly great” player in the history of the game ranked so low on this scale. 

One interesting fact is that Tendulkar had just 4 series defining performances in 159 Tests. Two of these were in support roles (both against England, 2002 and 2008) – this strengthens the argument of him being the greatest support act in cricket history – a point we made before. And two of these were in the last season itself (against England and New Zealand). The latter point, coupled with the performances he is providing in ODI cricket, leads one to believe that his best years in international cricket, from a team point-of-view, are ahead of him. 

When the Wisden team made its list of 100 greatest Test innings and did not include a single Tendulkar innings, they knew what they were doing. Even though you can dispute the inclusion of several other innings in the top 100, it is not easy to make a case for a Tendulkar innings to be there (even now). Because his best performances are still either in a support role or in a losing cause (where he did not finish the job). 

Let’s take a look at some of the celebrated Test innings by him and determine their true worth in a match (and series) context. All these were spoken about with typical breathless hype during his 20 years celebration, all on some list or another rated amongst his five best Test innings. 

122 vs England in 1996 at Birmingham. India, after conceding a first innings (in which Tendulkar made 24) lead of 99 runs are 36-4. In a completely hopeless situation, Tendulkar opens out and with sheer abandon (much like Agarkar’s century at Lord’s six years later) makes some merry. It was as spectacular as it was inevitable. England won comfortably by 8 wickets. There was nothing at stake, no pressure; it was tennis without a net. 

169 vs South Africa 1997 at Cape Town. 0-1 down in the series, squaring up to SA’s first innings score of 529, India are 58-5. With ostensibly nothing at stake anymore, Azharuddin begins his all-or-nothing blaze from one end (which had become his signature now in a losing situation). With nothing to lose, Tendulkar does the same, and sure, we have the most spectacular three hours of cricket in Indian batting history but again, with a sense of inevitability to it – Azharuddin goes for 115, Tendulkar takes his score to 169. India all out for 359. But later, set a target of 427, both Tendulkar and Azharuddin characteristically fail to reach double figures. India lose by 282 runs. Old argument, why does Tendulkar have to deliver each time; wasn’t the pleasure he gave us in the first innings enough?

155 vs South Africa in 2001 at Bloemfontein. India 68 for 4 in the first innings of the opening Test – Tendulkar is joined by debutant Sehwag. Perhaps, it is his lack of faith (understandably) in the lower order, or his desire to do something spectacular himself (this was a few months after what Laxman and Dravid did in Kolkata against Australia) but Tendulkar opens out with complete abandon – 155 in 184 balls in a team total of 288 when he gets out. Sehwag, surprising everyone (except himself), makes a century (albeit his slowest in Test cricket, as it would turn out) and helps India reach 379. But it is a batting wicket, and SA pile up 563. India come out, 184 in arrears – Das, Ganguly and Sehwag try to fight, but Tendulkar falls for 15. Expectedly. Hasn’t he done enough for the match? India lose by 9 wickets. 

114 vs Australia in 1992 at Perth. The series has already been lost comprehensively, this is the last Test. Australia make 346 and India are 69-2 when Tendulkar walks out. Wickets keep falling on the pacy, bouncy wicket, Tendulkar has the license to play his natural game, which he does – he is 9th out at 240 after 114 off 161 balls. Spectacular innings, no doubt, the arrival of a class player on the international scene. Of course, in the second innings, set 442, despite a fighting opening stand of 82, Tendulkar is out for 5. The team collapses for 141, India lose by 300. 

There are two common threads running through these performances – amongst Tendulkar’s most spectacular innings – one, there wasn’t much at stake from a team point-of-view (except, arguably, the 155 in SA). When there is something at stake, Tendulkar either performs a (creditable) support role, or quite simply fails (usually either at the first step, or at the last). Two, he performs when there is less pressure, and invariably fails when there is something definite in stake – like, in the second innings – which is why, before 2007, his second innings (especially, the fourth innings of the match) record when the match has been still open has been very poor. For example, his otherwise brilliant 136 in Chennai against Pakistan in 1999 would have been one of the great innings of all time if he had just finished the job (much like the ODI innings of 175 discussed above). 

Manchester 1990 (a match-saving century) and Chennai 2008 (an unbeaten hundred in a big chase) are the exceptions in his long career. Fans point to his 117 against West Indies in 2002 in Port-of-Spain which India won (they forget he got a duck in the second innings; in a match context, Laxman played the leading role with the bat there and was the man-of-the-match too). They refer to his 126 in Chennai in 2001 against Australia where India won the greatest Test series of all-time – but here too, Laxman’s twin fifties assumed greater importance overall, especially given that Tendulkar came out to bat at 211-2 in the first innings). 

We have mentioned before that Tendulkar might have missed a great opportunity by not taking the bull by the horns in the 1990s and trying out the Test opening spot. Especially given his success as ODI opener at that juncture. The reluctance to take on that challenge has cost him many opportunities to make his indelible mark in a team context. Sehwag, who took on the job later with far less credentials, has etched his place as an all-time great simply because of the manner in which he has redefined the art of opening batting. 

The “khadoos” (whose literal translation is 'mean', but is also interpreted as 'selfish') Mumbai school of thought is often attributed to Tendulkar’s figure-conscious approach to batsmanship, something he is deemed to have inherited from Sunil Gavaskar.  But, since the latter was an opener, he got to set the pace of the game, whereas Tendulkar at no 4 sometimes fails to adjust his game according to the requirements of the team as the innings progresses. The famous Multan declaration (with him unbeaten at 194) is an example of that (itself a reaction to the match just before that, as related here). Some say that Indian cricket fans are blind emotional fools who are fundamentally stirred by individual feats, given the general lack of heroes in our culture. Going by how utterly unsporting Indian cricket fans seem to have become, this is not a surprise either. 

On one level, Tendulkar’s monument to aggregate statistics is like a commercial achiever in the Indian cultural scene. It is like a Yash Chopra film or a Chetan Bhagat book (Indian parallels to, say, the Transformers film or John Grisham books) – the numbers justify everything else that may be lacking. However, unlike the two examples above, Tendulkar’s lack of substance at times (in importance and often in eventual impact on team results) has very little recognition in any strata of the society – neither the masses nor the classes seem to care. But most significantly, unlike both the earlier examples, the tragedy is that Tendulkar, even when operating at 70%, is capable of tremendous substance – that is the essence of his fundamental talent. 

It is finally a great relief to see this ability being focused on impacting team results than ever before. In these times, Indian cricket couldn’t wish for anything more significant. 

(Click here to know more about Jaideep Varma)

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