Geoffrey Boycott, one of the keenest observers of the game today and previously a record holder for the highest number of runs in Test cricket, once said that he has witnessed only three batsmen who possessed genius: Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards and Brian Lara.
However, in his book, Boycott rated Sachin Tendulkar, along with Lara, as the best batsman he has seen since Sobers and Richards. Tendulkar’s sculptured stroke-play, precise footwork, full range of shots, remarkable concentration, perfect technique, unwavering focus, and amazing hand-eye coordination made him the most complete batsman who displayed no weakness against any type of bowling.
Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize-winning author and cricket enthusiast, wrote about his boyhood hero and ace English opening batsman Sir Len Hutton that his bat was part of his nervous system; the same statement can be made about Tendulkar and Lara dominated the cricketing world for more than two decades but batted together for the same team only once: they opened the innings for International XI against Pakistan XI in a charity match, in aid of 2005 Earthquake Relief Fund, at the Oval in July 2006. One feels privileged to have witnessed these two maestros play together in a rain-curtailed ten overs a side game which Pakistan (124/4) won in the last over —thanks to Shahid Afridi’s blitzkrieg (41 runs off 12 balls) in response to MS Dhoni’s fireworks (35 runs off 13 balls).
However, the highlight of the match was 72 runs opening partnership between Lara (32 off 21 deliveries) and Tendulkar (50 not out in 26 balls). More than 20,000 lucky spectators who watched it were reminded of Wisden’s verdict nine years earlier (when Tendulkar as named one of the five cricketers of the year in 1997) about the two immortals: “He (Tendulkar) is a focused technician, who offers a counterpoint to Brian Lara’s more eye-catching destruction, fuelled on flair and ego.”
As a 16-year-old boy wonder, Tendulkar made his Test debut against Pakistan at Karachi in 1989 facing the might of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. He scored his first hundred at the age of 17, a match saving unbeaten innings of 119 against England at Old Trafford in 1990, and had notched up 16 Test centuries when he turned 25. His most amazing innings came against Australia on a lightning fast pitch at Perth in 1992; although India lost the match badly, Tendulkar stroked his way to 114 and impressed Sir Don Bradman who told his wife that Tendulkar reminded him of himself.
Tendulkar played his most impressive and memorable innings against Australia — undoubtedly the best team in his era. If his centuries at Perth and Sydney in 1992 confirmed his batting prowess against fast bowling, Tendulkar’s unbeaten 155 against Shane Warne at Chennai in 1998 established his mastery over the best spinner in the world. His Test record against arch-rivals Pakistan was the least impressive as he scored only two centuries in 18 Tests. It is a pity that Pakistan and India, due to political tensions, did not play any Test series during 1989-1999 and there was no Test contest between Tendulkar and the two Ws — Wasim and Waqar — who were also at their peak during this decade.
Tendulkar’s most heroic and superhuman yet tragic innings was played against Pakistan when he scored 136 in the fourth innings at Chennai in 1999. Set to chase 271, India had collapsed to 82-5 when Tendulkar, who had been dismissed for a duck by Saqlain Mushtaq in the first innings, played, despite his back injury, the finest innings of his career and took India to within 17 runs of victory when Saqlain got him out and quickly polished off the tail as Pakistan won the match by 13 runs.
On the other hand, Pakistan would never forget one of his best innings in One-day Internationals — 98 off 75 balls — at Centurion in South Africa during 2003 World Cup when Sachin completely demoralised Pakistan’s bowling attack with his massive hitting and Pakistan soon crashed out of the World Cup.
Tendulkar was the beau ideal of India’s youth, the greatest sporting icon of his country, and the embodiment and emblem of his nation’s hopes and dreams. In 1998, Indian poet C P Surendran aptly wrote: “Batsmen walk out into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the lifelong anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit their visored saviour.”
Tendulkar, although the most worshipped player of his generation, had his share of detractors who point out that he never scored a triple century, did not win sufficient matches despite his centuries, lingered on at least two years after his “best-by” date, never faced Waqar and Wasim at their peak in Test matches in 1990s, had a lower batting average in Tests than his contemporary and competitor Jacques Kallis, scored no century in last two years of his career and averaged slightly below 30 in his last 25 innings. His critics accused him of turning into an “accountant, obsessing about records, instead of being an artist”.
However, as a record-breaker, Tendulkar is sui generis; his status as the most prolific run-scorer in all formats of the game and his record number of centuries and Tests will endure for long. Sachin became the richest cricketer of his generation (Forbes placed his annual income at US $ 22 million in June 2013) but he will be remembered for his modesty and magnificence.
At the end of his phenomenal journey, he had 200 (his final tally of test matches) reasons to smile. Watching Tendulkar deliver his stirring farewell speech and then walk off into the sunset in styleperched on the shoulders of his team-mates while enjoying the mobile guard of honour in front of his home crowd — one could not help but utter Shakespeare’s famous line: ‘Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?’
Ammar Ali Qureshi tweets at @AmmarAliQureshi