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April 29, 1999


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Celebrating Sachin

Prem Panicker

Dear Arvind Lavakare:

A month ago, when you had visited our office and told us that you would be penning a piece "bursting the Sachin bubble", I had promised you a rejoinder. Which, please find delivered to you, as under.

May I start off by telling you a little story? Once there was this king, very proud and arrogant and demanding, the kind who wants what he wants when he wants it and no questions asked.

In the court of that king there was a young lady of wonderous beauty, who went around telling all and sundry: "I wouldn't surrender my virginity even to the king!"

Wah, wah!, went the admiring multitudes, marvelling at this iron determination to preserve her chastity.

One day, a wandering knight found his way to that court, and sure enough, the lady 'casually' accosted him and went into her spiel, about her virginity. The newcomer looked at her, scratched his head in thought and then asked, "But my dear, has the king ever asked you to surrender your virginity to him?"

The answer, as it turned out, was 'No!'

 Sachin Tendulkar
Your article reminded me of that story. Every line of your article speaks of the enormous trouble you have been to, to find the relevant statistics to prove your theory. But what is that theory? That Sachin Tendulkar is not Don Bradman.

But, my dear friend, whoever said he was?!

What this means, effectively, is that you have gone to all that pains to disprove a statement that was never made in the first place.

This whole Bradman thing, if I remember right, began with the Don himself. And this is what he said of Tendulkar: "In matters of stroke production and shot selection, Sachin Tendulkar is the player who most reminds me of the way I myself used to play." And that is all that was said.

You would expect the Don to know, wouldn't you?

I was quite frankly amused at the enormous amount of statistics that you've thrown into that article. Statistics, my college professor once told me, is like a lamp-post: you can either use it for illumination, or you can use it like a drunk, hanging on to it for support. With all due respect, Arvind, I suspect that you have used statistics in the latter fashion -- inebriated by the exuberance of your own fury, you've chosen to cling to numbers (carefully chosen numbers at that) for support, rather than for illumination.

When you do that, without thought, the results can be as ludicrous as a drunk (I don't use the word in a pejorative sense, believe me) hanging in there with his arms wrapped tight around a lamp-post. Let me see if I can underline the point, by a similar use of statistics to come up with a ridiculous result.

Thus, I shall now make a proposition: Of all the bowlers who have played one day internationals -- a lineup that includes Lillee, Thomson, McGrath, Warne, Roberts, Holding, Garner, Walsh, Ambrose, Marshall, Akram, Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath.... -- the greatest, of all time, is -- hold your breath -- Ajit Agarkar.

 Ajit Agarkar
No, don't bother contesting that statement: statistics show that Agarkar got to his 50 wickets faster, at a greater strike rate, than any other bowler in history. So, using a phrase you use often in your article -- "at that stage of his career" -- Agarkar has to be the greatest of them all, right?

That is the problem with statistics -- if you rely exclusively on it, as you have done in your article, you will end up with some propositions that are downright laughable.

There is another danger with the use of statistics. If you take all available numbers and think them through, then you might come up with interesting conclusions. However, if you first come to a conclusion -- as you did, when you told us a month ago that you were going to prove that Tendulkar was no Bradman -- and then go looking for the figures to underline it, you tend to ignore everything that doesn't fit into your theory.

To revert to my old college professor, he used to say, "Statistics are like miniskirts -- what they reveal is interesting, but what they conceal can be downright fascinating."

 Sunil Gavaskar
The numbers you have quoted in your article are like that -- more interesting for what they conceal, than for what they reveal. Thus, when it comes to Gavaskar, you say that since he had played only 108 ODIs, at that stage of his career, he had a greater average than Sachin. And arrive at the conclusion that Gavaskar was the greater one day player.

Really? How does that reconcile with another set of statistics that you forgot to mention? Namely, that Sachin (21 centuries in 211 ODIs) averages one century every ten visits to the crease (and here, do keep in mind that unlike Gavaskar who opened throughout his career, Sachin only began opening after 70+ ODIs spent in the late middle order), Gavaskar averages one century per 100 ODIs? On the basis of that yardstick, who would you say is the better ODI batsman? And if you were bringing up Gavaskar's one day credentials, should you not also have mentioned the most famous of his limited overs knocks -- namely 36, with the help of three dropped catches, in 60 overs, in the first edition of the World Cup?

Again, in one impassioned paragraph, you say that India's dependence on Tendulkar is a myth. And you quote games that India has won, with minimal contribution from the man. Strangely, however, you forget to mention one statistic: on 17 instances out of the 21 where Sachin scored a century, India won. What does that tell you, my friend? Simply this: that when he performs (and as mentioned earlier, he performs big time once every ten trips to the wicket), Sachin increases the statistical probability of India winning.

The point here is that while it is said -- with obvious justice, as pointed out above -- that Tendulkar ranks as India's best match-winner -- no one ever said India only wins when he is there. To point out instances when India has won in his absence, or despite his neglible contributions, is thus, yet again, to attempt to prove a theorem no one propounded in the first place.

Your proposition, in this instance, is a bit like saying that the Brazilian football team has won matches without Pele scoring, ergo, Pele is not the king everyone claims he is!

You quote Dilip Vengsarkar, saying that Gavaskar is the greatest Indian batsman of all time, and that his real forte was "staying power". You mention innings after innings where the batsman hung on for 350, 400 minutes to get his runs. Tell me, when making that little statistical end run, did you take into account that the game has radically changed between Sunny's time, and Sachin's? That today, a batsman who hangs around for hours to make his runs finds little favour with either the fans, or the selectors -- ask Rahul Dravid?

 Michael Holding
And while on 'staying power' -- let me come up with a little quote of my own. Did you ever chance to read Whispering Death, by Michael Holding?

While discussing Gavaskar, Holding says that he had noticed that while Gavaskar hung around and scored runs when the conditions were right, he never seemed to put a premium on his wicket when the conditions were inimical to batting. Shall we, on that evidence -- and Holding, you will admit, is a bowler of sufficient stature, with sufficient experience of bowling to Gavaskar, for his voice to count -- condemn Gavaskar as a flat track bully?

Similarly, you take pains to argue that Tendulkar is unreliable. That he has let the team down when it most needed him. As a case in point, you cite the recent India-Pakistan Test in Chennai, when he played that heave against Saqlain Mushtaq and departed, at a time when victory was well in sight.

Your choice of that innings is particularly interesting. Because all commentators -- including Vengsarkar in his column, and Gavaskar on air -- rated it as one of the two best Test innings by an Indian batsman. The other being Gavaskar's own 96 in Bangalore, in a similarly losing cause.

Equally interestingly, nowhere do you mention that for the greater part of that innings, Tendulkar played with crippling back pain -- the kind of injury that would have most players retiring hurt. But never mind that -- let us go with your premise, that a batsman on whom the team depends has no business playing such a shot; that a batsman who plays such a shot at such a time has no claim to being called a great.

Now throw your mind back to the 1934 Ashes series, which in fact you have cited in your article. By then, Bodyline had been outlawed. In the second Test of that series, Australia was trailing by 156 runs on the first innings, and was 57/2 in the second, when the new batsman attempted to hit Headley Verity against the spin. The ball went straight up in the air, and down the throat of wicket-keeper Les Ames. The batsman departed for 13. England won by an innings. The Times described it as "the worst shot the batsman has played in his life, at the worst possible time".

 Donald George Bradman
Second Test, 1936-'37 series: The same batsman tries to, of all things, hook the selfsame bowler, Verity, and is bowled -- by a long hop! "The greatest batsman in the world has played the worst strokee in the history of cricket," was how C B Fry, who you will agree knew a thing or two about the game, described that shot. Needless to add, both the above are incidents from the cricketing life of Donald George Bradman.

By your yardstick, should we now call the Don unreliable? A batsman who lets his team down just when he is most needed? Who plays the most injudicious shots at the worst of times?

I have no intention of running down Gavaskar, or the Don, here. But I'll tell you what --- name any batsman you like, from the Don on down. Give me a day or two with the scoreboards, and with history books and, by carefully selecting figures and facts, by ignoring other facts with equal care, I will make that batsman look like the worst that ever held a cricket bat. It's easy enough to do -- because they were all, from Don Bradman to Sunny Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, human beings. Human beings who achieved far more than you and I can ever dream of, certainly -- but also human beings who, by virtue of their human-ness, had their fair share of failures.

Failure does not detract from greatness, my friend -- it merely underlines it, enhances it. Because it reminds us that the achiever was human -- and that whatever he achieved was in defiance of that very human-ness.

The most amusing part of your article -- for me personally, that is -- is para 14. Where, in the second line, you say: "One bright young cricket correspondent said the other day that he had seen old film clips showing Bradman having several fielders close by while he flayed the bowlers around merrily".

I am, of course, most grateful to you for referring to me as a 'bright young cricket correspondent' -- an appelation I must deem an honour coming from a veteran such as yourself. And yes, I did mention, during our chat that day, that Bradman had played in the era where deep set defensive fields were virtually unknown.

However, I wish you had put that statement in the context I made it in -- if my 'bright young' memory serves me right, the point I was making to you at the time was that it was inadvisable to compare players of different eras, because the way cricket is played, the tactics employed, change with such dramatic suddenness from decade to decade.

You have, however, taken that statement out of context, and then refuted it -- "not acceptable", you say -- by pointing out that Harold Larwood returned an economy rate of 2.40 runs off 834 overs on the Australian tour of 1928-'29....

With due respect, Arvind, I find that a cynical use of statistics. Simply because you omitted one important fact -- in that year, against an Australian side led by Bradman, England won by the margin of four Tests to one, Australia's sole win coming at the end of a dead rubber, after it had been systematically demolished by England in the first four Tests on the trot.

When one team beats another by four Tests to one, wouldn't you expect the lead bowler of the winning side to have good figures? Just what does it prove, besides the fact -- surely not the fact you set out to prove, though -- that Bradman, too, has in his time found himself on the heavily losing side?

I could go on and on, answering each statistic you threw into that piece with another. But I won't bother, because, Arvind, the point I made in course of our conversation that day, is something I adhere to even today. Namely, that comparisons across generations are odious -- and they can never be conclusive, one way or the other. Who is to say Tendulkar would have made runs against the Bodyline attack? Who is to say that Bradman would have been as prolific in these days of reverse swing? Could Bradman, who as pointed out above, muffed it against Verity, have coped with the wiles of Warne and Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq? How do you ever prove, or disprove, these things? And if you can't, then why bother trying?

You choose the occasion of Tendulkar's 26th birthday to, in your own words, "burst the Sachin bubble". Let me take you back a year in time, almost to the day, to remind you of just what that "bubble" is all about.

Cast your mind back to April 22, 1998 -- the final league match, in the Coca Cola Cup, in Sharjah, against Australia, with India fighting for a final berth, and the Aussies hell bent on stopping them. 284/7, thanks to some wonderful batting by the likes of Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Michael Bevan, meant that India had to get to 254 to pip the Kiwis on the run rate, and edge into the finals.

Remember how, in your article, you had mentioned the number of times Tendulkar had contributed little or nothing when India needed him to fire? This was one of those games when the team needed not just Tendulkar, but every single batsman, to click, and big time at that. And what happens? While Tendulkar watches at the other end, Ganguly goes for 17. Mongia makes 35. Azharuddin, coming in next, gets 14. Jadeja gets one. This, chasing 254 for a final berth.

Now throw your mind back to that time when you sat in front of your television screen, rivetted in place by one of the most awesome batting displays of recent memory. At the end of the 30 over mark, India were down and almost out, the score standing on 141/4 (the four batsmen back in the hut having contributed 67 runs to that total). An over later, the Sharjah ground is enveloped by a fierce dust storm, the players race back into the pavilion choking, gasping for breath.

When they come back, India's task has been made that much more difficult -- four overs had been knocked off the 50 permissible, 8 runs had been reduced from the target, and India to win needed 276 to win at 8.86 per over, or 246 to get to the final.

Sachin Tendulkar, batting 50 off 57 deliveries, steps up to the plate. And reduces not just you and me and several million fans like us, but the 11 Australians on the field as well, to the role of fascinated, enthralled spectators.

Remember how it went? Remember watching as Sachin single handedly took the score alonog, to 165/4 in 35; 205/4 in 40? Remember wondering if there were any limits to this man's abilities, as he smashed 92 more runs off 74 deliveries (Laxman contributed 20 in a partnership of 104, Tendulkar's last 37 runs came off 17 deliveries...), in conditions inimical to batting, to not only take India into the finals, but almost pull off an improbable win against all the odds -- stopped at the last hurdle not by any lack of ability, but by a completely misjudged decision by umpire Ian Robinson?

On that day, I am sure, you forgot all the little statistical quibbles, and applauded. You were not alone, were you, Arvind? All of India, all of Australia, applaued a demonstration of sheer dominance that has few parallels in cricket folklore.

Think back to that innings, and to what it meant to you and me and all of us -- pride. Pride, that we have amidst us one man who, no matter what the odds, could fight -- and brilliantly at that -- and never give up. One man who could fly in the face of fate, who could defy circumstance, who could single-handedly take on one of the best ODI sides in the world and bring it to its knees (in case it needs reminding, he was to do that yet again, two days later -- to single-handedly win the final against Australia).

Pride -- of the kind Tendulkar gave us that day -- is not something you will find in a book of statistics. It is not something you can calculate by cold numbers. Rather, it is something you have to look deep within your heart to find -- and if you can find it there today, it was because Tendulkar put it there, on April 22, 1998.

That is why Ajay Jadeja once said: "Ten years from now, my children won't be asking me, 'Papa, tell me how you played'; rather, they will ask, 'Tell me how it felt to play alongside the great Sachin'."

That is why, when I got to the end of your piece, I thought to myself: it doesn't matter whether Tendulkar is > or < than Bradman, Gavaskar et al. All that matters is that this young man, just 26 years of age, has given us back our passion, our pride.

If a Tendulkar didn't exist, Arvind, we might have had to invent him.

Much regards

Prem Panicker

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