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January 25, 2001

Is Sachin the Greatest?

Prem Panicker

A rather funny thing happened last evening -- Barry Richards, the South African batting great who ranks among the most lucid, and rational, of international cricket commentators, lost it. One hopes, momentarily.

The contents of Richards' statement is, by now, common knowledge.

His basic premise, that Sachin is good only at home, is debatable -- and judging by the flood of emails we have been receiving, it IS in fact being hotly debated by cricket fans.

What is interesting, however, are the comparisons Richards' comes up with, to support his premise. In his statement, the South African master-bat suggests that Brian Lara is at least the equal of Sachin Tendulkar, if not his better. And that in an all-time listing, the likes of Graeme Pollock and Vivian Richards would be far superior to the Indian star.

Lara's theme, as sung by Richards, sticks in the craw at a time when the West Indian superstar is going through the most horrific batting slump endured by a contemporary player in the last decade or so -- in fact, the mention of Lara's name here makes you wonder whether Richards has been watching the West Indies on their ongoing tour of Australia.

The case for Graeme Pollock is best left unargued -- at least, by this diarist. I have seen Pollock bat twice. Once, on a grainy black and white video that a fellow cricket fan lent me. And once, when he played the Masters series at the Cricket Club of India, Mumbai, about six-seven years back. The video clip left you with the impression of a supreme master of the art of batting -- a player who seemed to have six different shots to every ball, each packed with enormous power, and all the time in the world to play them in.

The trouble is, though, that Pollock, thanks to the apartheid ban on South Africa, hasn't played enough international cricket for us to follow, and judge, of the extent of his abilities.

And that leaves Vivian Richards -- in my book, the batsman I have most enjoyed watching, bar none. And yes, that includes Sachin Tendulkar. I love watching Sachin in full flow -- heck, even watching Lara, or Inzamam, or Saeed Anwar, or Mark Waugh in full flow gives me a huge high. But during his playing days, the mere sight of Viv Richards swaggering to the wicket, jaws champing on the omnipresent stick of gum, shoulders rolling in an approximation of a champion boxer, was -- like the first sight of a David Copperfield or a P C Sorcar striding onto a stage -- the promise of magic to follow, magic I could never have enough of.

Having said that, is the comparison justified?

In fact, is any comparison across eras -- and I include the more favourable one, whereby Donald Bradman himself has compared Sachin's batting favourably with his own -- can never be justified. Simply because there are so many imponderables, so many factors we cannot numerically quantify. For instance, would you agree that having two good openers makes a difference to the batsmen to follow? As in, Rahul Dravid for instance was recently remarking to my colleague Faisal Shariff, that throughout the Australian tour, he never once came in to bat with the score on double figures.

Seen from that perspective, can we assess, numerically, the benefits accruing to a Richards, or a Lloyd, or a Kallicharan, from the fact that they were fronted by arguably the greatest opening combination in contemporary history -- Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, to give them names? While Sachin Tendulkar's team had, as openers, who, Nayan Mongia, Devang Gandhi, Sujit Somasunder, Vikram Rathore, VVS Laxman, Ajay Jadeja, Wasim Jaffer....?

It is for this reason that I find comparisons -- including the one Barry Richards draws, between Vivian Richards and Sachin Tendulkar -- untenable and odious. They form nice pegs to hang bar-room arguments on -- but other than that, what useful purpose do they serve?

The only quantifiable yardstick on which comparisons can be hung is, in fact, career records. And even here, I believe that comparing the average of one player with another player of a different era does not really tell the tale.

Out of sheer curiosity, though -- a curiosity sparked by Barry Richards' recent statement -- I went trawling through the database, to check out the records of Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, and Vivian Richards. Here is what I found:

Lifetime Figures:
Player Tests Played Runs Ave
  Sachin Tendulkar 79 6416 57.28
  Brian Lara 75 6133 48.29
  Vivian Richards 121 8540 50.23

Figures in Australia:
Player Tests Played Runs Ave 100's
  Sachin Tendulkar 8 646 46.14 3
  Brian Lara 15 1083 40.11 3
  Vivian Richards 22 1760 47.56 4

Figures in South Africa:
Player Tests Played Runs Ave 100's
  Sachin Tendulkar 7 443 36.91 2
  Brian Lara 5 310 31.00 0
  Vivian Richards Has not played in South Africa

The above figures tell me a lot of things. For instance, it tells me that India does not play as many Tests, especially against Australia and South Africa, as it should be playing.

The above figures, however, do NOT tell me that Sachin Tendulkar is appreciably, noticeably, greater than Vivian Richards and Brian Lara.

By the same token, I don't see, anywhere in the above figures, anything to show me that Tendulkar is appreciably, noticeably, a lesser batsman than Richards and Lara.

So just what is it that Barry Richards sees, that we are missing here?

'Greatness', especially of the comparitive variety, is an intangible. For instance, was Bjorn Borg greater than James Scott Connors and John Patrick McEnroe? Or were either of them greater than Pete Sampras?

During the 1999 World Cup, Rediff had featured a little debate. It started with veteran journalist Arvind Lavakare visiting us here, and promising to pen an article "puncturing the myth" of Sachin Tendulkar. At the time, I had told him that I would love to write a rejoinder to his article -- and ultimately, that is what we did. Arvind wrote his piece, I wrote my rejoinder. The points made then are valid even today -- so, rather than reiterate them, I will simply link to the two articles in question.

By way of aside, there is this -- Often, fans write in accusing the "Bombay media", whatever that is, of puffing up Tendulkar above all else. The statement has occasioned me much amusement -- more so because a lot of the readers have assumed that because my surname ends in 'kar', I too am a Mumbai-ite. Which, for the record, I am not. Interestingly, then, in the debate mentioned above, the person who set out to "puncture the Tendulkar myth" was one of Mumbai's most long-serving veterans, a doyen for the "Mumbai media".

But then again, there is no arguing with perceptions, is there?

So here goes, with the links:

Bradman? No way! -- The Arvind Lavkare article

Celebrating Sachin! -- The Rediff Rejoinder

There you go -- the case for, and against.

Now let's hear from you -- is there any point in such comparisons? Why is it that we do not possess the ability to enjoy individual talents, while refraining from this inexplicable urge to play the numbers game and install one or the other player as "the best bowler of all time", the "greatest batsman of all time" et al?

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Illustration: Dominic Xavier   

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