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Is Sachin Cricket's most underachieving batsman?

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This piece is not for those who consider Sachin Tendulkar to be a holy cow, who think it is blasphemous to examine his game and impact more closely. There are too many of these people in India particularly, and it is a sign of how blinkered our media is that we get hardly any arguments in this regard. Instead, we just get mindless comparisons with Brian Lara for the crown of the best batsman in the world.

The truth however is that Tendulkar has not even been India's best batsman in the last five years, let alone the world's. His ability to deliver decisively under pressure has been highly suspect. He rarely wins his team any matches on his steam, and most importantly, sometimes has appeared to put his individual gains over the team's. At the very least, it deserves a debate.

First of all, and let’s get this out of the way straight away, there is no question that Sachin Tendulkar is one of the most gifted batsman of all time. His natural talent is beyond dispute; the combination of remarkably sound technique and aesthetically pleasing flair is very unique. The ability to make economical movements that effect more than what the eyes see immediately, decisively attack balls that others defend and consistently pierce gaps easily set him apart on the talent stakes from pretty much every contemporary batsman (except Brian Lara). And of course, India is very fortunate to have such talent serve its national team.

But cricket ultimately is a team game. If you make individuals stars in a team game, it stands to reason that their contribution to the team’s success is in that proportion too. It is true in every other sport, but somehow this basic truth gets obfuscated in cricket. And on this count, to put it bluntly, Sachin Tendulkar does not live up to anything near his billing. Unlike every single notable peer of his – Lara, Steve Waugh, Aravinda De Silva, Inzamam, Ponting, Hayden, Kallis, Fleming and most importantly Rahul Dravid.

In the 1990s, everyone used to say that Tendulkar’s was the all-important wicket in the Indian team. It certainly bore examination, as there were numerous occasions when his dismissal ended the resistance from the Indian team. Most notably in the Chennai test against Pakistan, when Tendulkar’s superb 136 in the fourth innings could not win India the match, as he lost his wicket about twenty runs before the target (his lower back injury was acting up), and the remaining four wickets promptly collapsed. The assumption always was that Tendulkar is under so much pressure because he knows if he gets out, the team will fold up instantly, and to be fair, it was more than partially true.

But this was before the new era in Indian cricket dawned, before Sourav Ganguly became captain in 2000. With the emergence of Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly and later Sehwag as genuine match-winners, the pressure has been off Tendulkar for quite a while. And yet, since then, Tendulkar has deteriorated as a player. He does not deliver in crunch situations and you’d be hard pressed to find a single occasion when he took India home.

In the presence of a few facts (as on November 18th, 2006), it is actually quite appalling that Tendulkar is rated among the best batsman in the world, let alone the best.

Fact One: Since the

great Kolkata test match against Australia in 2001, where Laxman, Dravid and Harbhajan crafted India’s greatest ever test win and a genuine rebirth, India has won 25 test matches in India and abroad. The Man of the Match distributions are telling – Laxman 2, Kumble 4, Sehwag 2, Harbhajan 5, Dravid 5, Pathan 3, Ganguly, Kathik and Das 1 each . Sachin Tendulkar? Zero.

Yes, Tendulkar contributed to his team’s cause often enough, but no, he did not play a single innings that changed the course of a match or a series during this period. Not even one.

It’s not like he saved India any matches either; there too it is Dravid who is the colossus for India.

How different this is from Lara, Ponting, Hayden, Dravid or Inzamam – any casual follower of cricket will also know.

Fact Two: Many keep saying that he’s the greatest one-day batsman ever. The figures sure suggest that. Matches: 368. Average: 44. Centuries: 40. Wow.

Now, chew on these figures. Tendulkar’s ODI averages in Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand (usually tougher places to bat in than the subcontinent) are 28, 29, 27 and 27 respectively (these figures are against the host team only). His tally of centuries in these countries is 0, 1, 1 and 0. Meanwhile, his ODI averages against Bangladesh, Kenya and Zimbabwe are 50, 108 and 49.

Compare this to Brian Lara’s ODI record. Matches: 279. Average: 41.37. 100s: 19. Huh, you say?

His ODI averages in Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand are 37, 32, 36 and 52. His ODI average against Sri Lanka is 67, and it would do well to remember that those are not home conditions for him, as they are for Tendulkar. There’s a reason why Murali has publicly stated that Lara is the best batsman in the world, and not Tendulkar.

Also, Lara’s averages do not get ridiculously skewed against the weaker teams (as is curiously the case with all the other great batsmen, except Tendulkar). He averages 42, 43 and 45 against Bangladesh, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

It has been murmured in many quarters over the years, that Tendulkar is a bit of flat track bully, who relishes weaker attacks and does not play consistently against stronger bowling attacks. This is actually borne out in test cricket too.

Tendulkar peaked in 1998, when he made those magnificent twin ODI centuries against Australia in Sharjah. It has been steadily downhill since then, with a few sparklers off and on, but that has apparently been enough for our media. Sample, how in the 1999 World Cup, when he came back after his father’s funeral and slammed Kenya (whose bowling attack could not have been better than MIG Cricket Club’s at that time) for a 140, the media raved about him. That he did not cross 50 after that even once was characteristically glossed over. (It’s not that failure is to be held against him more fiercely than others – it’s just that his success could be examined more closely).

No question, he was a significant contributor in India’s path to the final in the 2003 World Cup. But though, his scintillating innings against Pakistan is the one most remember, the life he got at mid-off when he was in his twenties in that same innings is forgotten (that’s how fine the line between success and failure can be). Now, it is also forgotten that he gave away his wicket with an ugly, mindless stroke in the final, in the very first over. Just because the team was chasing 350, he felt no need to build an innings and demonstrate a thought-out effort? But that was actually as per the law of averages. It was Tendulkar’s 9th consecutive failure in a big final (and that record’s gotten worse three years later, by the way). His 10 off 26 balls against Australia in the Champions Trophy crunch game just carries on the trend.

Fact Three: It is not a coincidence that not a single Tendulkar innings featured in the Wisden list of the “100 Greatest Test Innings” of all time. Not even from before 2001. This is not to say that he did not produce some great test innings, but none of them met the most important criterion in that Wisden exercise – winning your team the match, or saving it – that’s what pressure is about at the end of the day. The only classic fourth innings knock Tendulkar has played in his entire career is the 136 against Pakistan in Chennai, but he did not take it all the way, and India lost by a handful of runs. (Within a month of that losing effort, Lara produced a stunning 150 not out that helped his team beat Australia by 1 wicket, and that innings was in the top ten of that same Wisden list).

In his early days, Tendulkar did produce some outstanding test innings –Manchester (1990 – this is, till date, his only 4th innings knock to save a test) and Perth (1991) are good examples. Moreover, his batting average of 36 in the fourth innings is not an indicator of “the world’s greatest batsman”.

Fact Four: Forget being the world’s best batsman, Tendulkar is not even India’s greatest batsman today. That distinction goes to Rahul Dravid, by a mile.

No-one has won India more matches with the bat than Dravid has, not to speak of the matches he has saved. Both Laxman and Sehwag have played more significant, match-winning innings for the Indian team in the last 5 years than Tendulkar has (the man-of-the match awards clearly tell you that). So, why is he considered our greatest batsman?

Fact Five: Tendulkar and Dravid make an interesting comparison study in another aspect.

Think of all the adjustments (some would say sacrifices) Dravid made throughout his career, both in ODIs and Tests, and the story gets even more interesting. Dravid agreed to keep wickets in one-dayers to give his side a better balance. He went down to number 6 in tests, and even opened several times, to lend his side flexibility.

Tendulkar? He never even considered opening in tests for India, despite being India’s regular one-day opener, and despite there being a severe need for his kind of solid technique at the top of the order in Tests. He never even gave it a shot even once. In fact, just this fact makes one wonder why Sunil Gavaskar is not rated higher than Tendulkar – Gavaskar opened the batting against far more ferocious bowling attacks than Tendulkar has succeeded against at no. 4. Gavaskar saved, and even won, more test matches for India than Tendulkar ever did. And this, despite the fact that the Indian team was not such a big all-round force in most of Gavaskar’s career. In fact, with the pressure of being the all-important player off Tendulkar (post-2000), it gave him the space to take his game to a different level, but he could not do that.

Most importantly, the famous declaration of Dravid’s at Multan, with Tendulkar at 194 not out, actually told an interesting story that no-one in the media chose to highlight (just like Ganguly’s rift with Indian team after Nagpur 2004 was never discussed publicly).

Just the test match before that, at Sydney, Tendulkar made his very scratchy and uncharacteristic but unbeaten 241 (unarguably his worst big innings) that broke the record of the highest individual score by an Indian abroad (made by Dravid just two tests before that). During the last quarter of the innings, he inexplicably slowed down even though India needed quick runs to declare (and that time lost would probably cost India a win at the end). Ganguly sent messages through men with gloves and drinks, but Tendulkar did not speed up. At one point, the TV cameras clearly caught Ganguly raving and ranting in his dressing room, but it didn’t go beyond that.

This was not new in Tendulkar’s career. Something similar happened when Kapil Dev was coach and Tendulkar captain

(Ahmedabad, 1999). Actually, the most famous instance of this is the world-record partnership between Tendulkar and Kambli in school cricket, when they turned their back several times on their coach Ramakant Achrekar, who kept yelling at them to declare (they got a firing from him at the end of the innings, but this part of the story is usually not recounted in the media).

So, when Tendulkar decided to ignore all Dravid’s reminders (which supplemented the usual offers of drinks and gloves) to get on with the score, and continued his pursuit of a double century in successive tests at his own pace, Dravid took the bull by the horns and declared. The really shocking part of this episode occurred at the press conference at the end of the day, when Tendulkar whined publicly about how he should have been allowed to get to his landmark. It is to Dravid’s credit that he did not allow the situation to snowball, by having a private chat with Tendulkar, which shut him up.

It wasn’t surprising that a large number of former cricketers took Tendulkar’s side in this, given the individual dimension Indian (and subcontinental) cricket has always had. Nor was it unexpected that the Indian media by and large expressed outrage on Tendulkar’s behalf – sensationalism over common sense has been the Indian media’s preference for quite some time now. It was Ganguly’s pronouncement from Kolkata that he would not have declared which was in extreme bad taste. This kind of political gameplaying would finally backfire on Ganguly, but that’s another story. The bald fact is that Ganguly, despite his record and credentials as captain, never had the foresight or the gumption to do what Dravid did in a match he captained by default (because of Ganguly’s injury). But that’s another story too.

The whole point of presenting all these facts is to question why Sachin Tendulkar is the cricketing role model of this country. With the natural talent he has been blessed with, he should be at the forefront of India’s cricket success in the past few years. After all, don't they say that good players adjust and great players dominate.

His failure on that count can only be attributed to weakness of mind or character, and/ or allowing a certain individual focus to supersede the team’s requirements.

Having said all this, once again, it is worth adding that his importance to the Indian team is still tangible. Talent like his comes rarely, and if he could only be persuaded to play as freely as he used to in his younger days (and as he did on just a handful of occasions in the last 5 years), with the team’s objectives as the primary focus, he could actually justify at least some of the hype he generates.

Till then, one has to wonder - why do the media keep projecting him as India’s cricketing God? Why do former cricketers flinch from criticizing him? Why is his inadequacy glossed over by commentators of the game?

Is it a sign of the shallowness of our times, or of the priority of entertainment over substance in all walks of life? Sadly, that’s not another story.


POSTSCRIPT

The above piece was written in November 2006, and to our own surprise has been relevant even now (March 2008). However, Tendulkar's magnificent batting in the CB series finals did inspire us to write this. Hopefully, there will be many such updates like this; nothing can be better for Indian cricket. But, please do not mistake them for disclaimers.
 




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