100-ton weight off Tendulkar’s shoulders

Congratulations, Sachin.

There, I said it. I’ve written before about the arbitrariness of the ton of tons, but whatever you think of it, it is some achievement, one that is unlikely to be replicated any time soon. Tendulkar deserves all of the accolades he will get although the man himself, as ever, probably doesn’t really want the attention. I don’t propose that anything that I can say about Tendulkar will be in any way novel, as legions of journalists and commentators have already picked over every aspect of the man; every loose thread. However, I wanted to try and put his achievement in context – what does it really say about Tendulkar the man and Tendulkar the cricketer?

First off, concerning the debate about whether Tendulkar is the ‘greatest’ batsman of all time, something that both BBC and Channel 4 news mooted in their TV reports, which, after all had to cater to people whose knowledge of cricket comes exclusively from costume dramas and tea on the village green, the answer is categorically no. Let’s get this clear – Sir Donald Bradman was, is and probably always will be the ‘greatest’ batsman of all time (although ‘great’ is a horribly subjective term). Bradman played Tests over a 20-year period, nearly as long as Tendulkar’s 22 (and counting) and while his weight of runs isn’t nearly as great as Sachin’s, the Don’s Test average is nearly 45 runs greater than Tendulkar’s.

45?

That’s pretty much the modern standard for a top-class Test batting average, and that’s the gap between the two. Yes, Tendulkar is great and probably the greatest of his generation, but longevity of itself is not a measure of greatness. I’ve played cricket with a man who has turned out virtually every week for nearly 70 years – that doesn’t make him a great player. Tendulkar’s feat was only possible because he played in an age of prolific quantities of international cricket – it would have taken Bradman 72 years to play the same number of Tests as Tendulkar at the rate he played. One shudders to think what the statistics might have been like if Bradman had played in the modern game. So I don’t want to read comments from hysterical Indian fans who think Tendulkar is the greatest ever, because you’re wrong. It’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it, but you’re just wrong.

So if it doesn’t make him ‘the greatest’, what does Tendulkar’s achievement tell us? It tells us that Tendulkar has qualities that few professional sportsmen have ever had. In cricket, it is a rare thing to be a batsman who possesses immense mental resilience, total professionalism and absurd levels of talent. The likes of Alastair Cook and Graeme Smith have the first two but not as much of the latter, whereas players like Gayle and Sehwag and, to a lesser extent, Pietersen and Ponting (for part of his career at least) have had the a mixture of the others but not all three. The fact that all of those named have at times and to varying extents touched what might be called greatness without all of these attributes shows just how special someone like Tendulkar, who has it all, is. Of those three factors, in my opinion it is Tendulkar’s professionalism that has set him apart – his success has been possible in part because he has not sought attention, he has never let fame and fortune detract from the cricket and he has always worked hard at his game. For all the myriad headlines about him over the years, you won’t find many that aren’t about cricket. When that professionalism is added to his natural abilities (and rare levels of fitness for a man of 38), the results are explosive. Bradman was the same. Many talented players could learn from their success. Few do.

Tendulkar has reached 100 because of these factors and also because of the amount of cricket he has played. If a Test match is taken to last on average 4 days (which is probably on the low side), then Tendulkar has spent around 3 years 4 months of his life playing international cricket. This shouldn’t do down the immensity of the achievement, as none of his peers or teammates playing the same amount of cricket have got anywhere near the number of hundreds Sachin has (Ponting is next on the list with 71). Indeed playing that many matches is an incredible achievement in itself, but the quantity of cricket and the hundred hundreds should not be guarantees of greatness. For instance, George Headley, Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards, all batsmen who have been considered ‘great’ by some, between them played less than a third of the Test matches that Tendulkar has. (Richards only played 4 Tests before South Africa’s exclusion ended his international career. Headley and Pollock played 22 and 23 respectively.)

Sachin is a great because he is a master of the game, a (metaphorically) towering presence at the crease, not because he has scored a hundred hundreds. That’s just a number. Now I admit that I’m slightly having my cake and eating it by dismissing numbers in assessing Tendulkar’s greatness and relying on them in assessing Bradman’s, but the point is that a player is not great because they score lots of runs, rather they score lots of runs because they are great. Statistics are indicative of greatness but not demonstrative – look at Andy Ganteaume. One of the reasons Tendulkar is great is because he has been so good for so long, but it’s only one reason. He was already great ten years ago.

There are caveats to his greatness, though. He is not perfect. He has never, for instance, scored a triple century – something that, given he is a veteran of 188 Tests, is an eyebrow-raising omission from his CV. He, like Bradman, was never a natural captain – another example of administrators’ inability to comprehend that their best player will not necessarily be their best captain. In addition, if you’re going to treat the hundred hundreds as a valuable statistic in gauging his ‘greatness’, you have to accept the fact that eight of those hundreds came against Zimbabwe, six against Bangladesh, four against Kenya and another against Namibia, or that it took him nine Tests and 79 ODIs (and nearly five years) to get his first century in each format. He also experienced notable lean spells in Tests in 1995-6 and 2006. All of these are merely nit-picking and none of them make him ‘not great’, but they are legitimate criticisms. It’s all too easy to have rose-tinted spectacles when evaluating a career like his.

So to sum up, class, what does 100 tons tell us about Tendulkar? It tells us that he has played a lot of cricket and that he’s played slightly more cricket than when he had 99. That’s about it. Let’s not pretend, as Cricinfo did with their ready-made swathes of analysis ready and waiting for the moment to arrive, that a fanfare has suddenly played and a banner has gone up saying ‘Sachin at 100: Now officially really super-great! (p.s. he wasn’t before)’.

What’s next for Tendulkar? It’ll be interesting to see whether he chooses to retire sooner rather than later. I’m not sure he will – his reaction at scoring the hundredth hundred was so understated that he was evidently overcome with relief as though he could physically feel the hundred-ton weight being removed from his shoulders. He won’t retire because he’s got to 100 at last, he’ll retire when his will to play cricket disappears, or his reactions start to slow. He’s since admitted that he sees a new chapter in his career starting post 100-squared. It’s a measure of the man that he doesn’t appear to have allowed ‘the statistic’ to motivate him – yes the pressure, the anticipation and the disappointment have affected his play – but I doubt it has ever been a goal in and of itself. The man just goes out and bats.

For me, Tendulkar is no more or less of a cricketer now that he has a ton of tons than he was before. Some people might take the contrary view. But then ‘greatness’ is just subjective. Isn’t it?

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