Three years ago, I spent an evening with a couple of passionate Indian sports fans in a pub in Chicago. A couple of drinks down the line, the conversation veered towards Sachin Tendulkar and that’s pretty much where it remained for the rest of the evening.
While all three of us were in complete agreement about Tendulkar’s greatness as a batsman, my friend Jay wasn’t entirely convinced about one point. Now I’ve heard several naïve criticisms of Tendulkar over the years (he’s a bad finisher, he’s not a match-winner, he cares too much for personal landmarks etc.) but Jay was a far more discerning fan who did his bit to elucidate his point with utmost care. Here’s the gist:
Most fans agree on what is a big game and what is not. There comes a time during these big games when most fans smell the moment, the moment when the game is balanced on the finest of threads. I have seen Tendulkar occasionally sense the moment and pounce on it, imposing his greatness on the occasion. But I feel I’ve seen him not seize these moments more often.
Jay was also a massive fan of the Chicago Bulls and while agreeing that the dynamics of a 22-man cricket match was entirely different from a 10-man basketball game, he felt he had seen Michael Jordan pull off ‘clutch’ moment after clutch moment – with championships at stake – with surreal consistency.
This is a qualitative argument – it’s difficult to pull out numbers for ‘big moments’ and impossible to compare these metrics across sports – but I think it’s pretty much the core of the criticism against Tendulkar.
While it’s impossible to question his gargantuan appetite for runs, the incredible longevity – has any sportsman spent more years of his life at the highest level in his sport (22) than he has not (16)?) – his phenomenal impact beyond the boundary, his equanimity in response to the stratospheric expectations and the überlegen dignity with which he’s carried himself, this clutch debate remains partially unresolved.
Jay also agreed that the Sharjah triumph in ’98, the ODI and Test series win in Pakistan in ’04, the Test series win in England in ’07 and against England at home in ‘08, the CB Series victory in Australia in ’08, the Test triumphs against Australia in ’98, ’01, ’08 – all occasions where Tendulkar contributed immensely to the team’s win – diluted his argument.
He also concurred that this line of reasoning would not have cropped up at all had India won the Chennai Test against Pakistan in ’99 or the World Cup final in ’03; that the discussion would have had a different hue if India had won the Barbados Test in ’97, the Champions Trophy final in Nairobi in 2000 and the Test series in Australia in ’08.
Now here’s my theory: Had Tendulkar played in an earlier era, these discussions would have simply not come up. Not many dwell on Sunil Gavaskar’s clutch moments, simply because India weren’t expected to win then.
Tendulkar has been part of Indian teams that have approached the threshold, slipped miserably on it before eventually shedding the monkey off their back. So unfortunately every India slip-up has been a Tendulkar-could-have-taken-us-home moment.
Also, and this is a crucial point, Tendulkar’s entire career has been televised. The Indian fan has watched, with ball-by-ball detail, cricketers from other countries delivering in the clutch moments. The Indian fan has also seen legends from other sports – like Jordan, Zidane and Woods – wrap their wrists around history’s collar and throttle it into submission.
The Indian fan has seen Wasim Akram shatter the stumps of Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis when the moment arrived; he’s seen Aravinda De Silva embrace the moment in both the World Cup semi-final and final; he’s seen Shane Warne pull off a bank-robbery against South Africa in ’99 before flooring Pakistan a game later; he’s seen Ricky Ponting stamp his greatness all over the bullring at Johannesburg; and he’s seen Adam Gilchrist clutch his fingers around the moment in Barbados. He’s smelt the moment and he’s seen greats seize it.
Tendulkar may be confronted with the moment over the next couple of games though his greatness is assured irrespective of what happens at Mohali or Mumbai. Nobody in their right minds will question his place in the pantheon. He is one of the greatest cricketers to have walked the cricket field.
He is great across formats but I think I’ll remember him the most from one-dayers. I can’t think of a more perfect ODI batsman – toggling between aggression and consolidation, a master at finding the gaps and pacing the innings, effortless whether it’s nudging fours or hammering sixes, making the orthodox shots look cool and making the unorthodox shots look beautiful.
Ten years from now, when I think of Tendulkar, I will first think of him in his blue gear, taking strike in a noisy stadium, standing still, his shirt fluttering in the breeze, facing a fast bowler in a crucial game of a World Cup, the crowd hushed in anticipation.
I will think of him cutting through the tension, with a most efficient, economical movement across the stumps, flicking his wrists to take the ball from middle and race it behind square.
By then, it won’t matter. The goosebumps would have taken over, irrespective.