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Farewell to the Little Master: we will not see the likes of Sachin Tendulkar again.

13 November 2013

4:34 PM

13 November 2013

4:34 PM

As you know, only seven batsmen have scored more than 50,000 first-class runs. Hobbs, Woolley, Hendren, Mead, Grace, Sutcliffe and Hammond are untouchable. We shall not see their like again. The game changes and old records written on parchment are left unmolested, gathering dust.

Comparisons between the great players of a single era are troublesome enough; fashioning them between the cricketers of the prelapsarian past and those of today is an exercise easily considered futile. And yet the hunger to do so is a craving that can never be wholly pacified.

The 50,000 run mark is an arbitrary figure, for sure, but if you add-up all the runs scored in all accredited forms of senior cricket you find only another eight batsmen have plundered bowlers for more than half a hundred thousand runs.

By this measure, in fact, Graham Gooch (67,057) outstrips even Jack Hobbs (61760). So too does Graham Hick (64, 372). The others to have passed the 50,000 mark are: Geoffrey Boycott (58, 521), Gordon Greenidge (53,703), Vivian Richards (53,207), Mike Gatting (51,025), Mark Ramprakash (50,651) and, last but not by any stretch least, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar who, with one match still to come, has made 50,118 runs in his career.

You will notice that Tendulkar is the only one of these men who never played a significant amount of county cricket (a single, youthful, season at Yorkshire being his sole exposure to the joys and comfy picking of the English circuit). He is 10,000 runs ahead of even his greatest contemporaries, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis.

Of course, not all runs are created equal. Restrictions on fielding and bowling plus friendly pitches make some limited-overs runs cheap; against that, some first-class runs are comfortable too. Moreover, of course, the time-limited nature of a one-day innings necessarily places a brake upon accumulating runs. What the gods give with one hand, they snatch away with the other.

It has long been my fancy that when all the variations in laws and pitches and tactics and equipment are considered and when this is offset by that and that’s offset by this the end result is a kind of happy equilibrium. The giants of any era would find a way to thrive in any other.

Even so, to score more than 50,000 runs without spending summers in England is an astonishing achievement. No-one else in history comes close to matching it (though of course Bradman might had he enjoyed the opportunities afforded by limited-overs cricket). 57% of Sachin Tendulkar’s innings have been made in limited-overs cricket. That is, most of the time he has had to score his runs within a maximum of 50 overs. As for his first-class exploits, 67% of his long-form innings have come in test cricket, the highest, best, most demanding arena of all.

I mention all this because, amidst all else, this may be the most notable of all Tendulkar’s many achievements and one that helps fix his record in a broader, longer, historical context. Had he played in a slightly earlier (and much different) era, had he, that is, played a decade of county cricket (like Richards or Greenidge) he’d likely have passed 40,000 first-class runs and made at least 120 first-class centuries.

As it is, in all senior cricket he has his 50,000 runs and 142 centuries. There cannot be a cricket tragic in the world who does not wish to see him make that 143 in Bombay this week. One last bow for the Little Master in his last hurrah. All India is agog; all India will mourn his retirement. So will cricket fans everywhere.

It has been, forgive me, quite an innings. The photograph adorning this post shows Tendulkar leaving the field at Old Trafford just after registering first test century. That was in 1990. He has been with us ever since; a man for all formats.

As I remarked in a piece I wrote about Ricky Ponting’s recessional, Tendulkar has been playing Test cricket since before I became eligible to vote, since before I sat my GCSEs in fact. He has been part of my life all my adult life. Calling time on his career is a kind of sunset for me and many others too. The end of an era.

The end of many eras in fact. Tendulkar, first and greatest of the Indian batting musketeers, is also the last to sheathe his bat for the final time. Like Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman he has given us all we could hope for and, plausibly, as much as we deserve.

And he has done it with a poise, a balance, a sense of proportion that would be remarkable in any sportsman let alone one tasked with shouldering the fears and hopes of a billion people. It is hard to think of any controversy far less any scandal that has attached itself to Tendulkar. In an age of celebrity, gossip and manufactured rumpuses that is no small achievement in itself.

He has, of course, become phenomenally rich. And yet in an age in which commercialism has sometimes swamped cricket, a time in which the game’s administrators often give the impression of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, he has, despite all his lucrative endorsements, somehow remained unsullied and untarnished. He has not become a mere shill.

Perhaps this is because, as Ed Smith observed today, Tendulkar has remained oddly unknowable. His career, great as it has been, has also been oddly undramatic. The more we have seen him, the more we have had cause to wonder at his otherworldly composure. He has never lost plot nor head. There has been a remarkable absence of sturm und drang.

We crave explanations for genius, we seek to unravel mystery and magic. But Tendulkar has always seemed serene and unapproachable. Not in the sense that he is isolated from his fans but in the way in which his batting has resisted dramatic – or melodramatic – interpretation. The contrast with Lara is notable. Lara offered what scriptwriters deem a narrative arc. From the greatest highs to the lowest depths, Lara’s genius was a matter of swagger yet also something fragile, prone to brittleness.

Tendulkar’s genius is of a different kind. A genius of serenity. He has not endured Hammond’s demons, nor suffered from jealousy like Hammond did. Tendulkar has just batted. Superbly. He has always been hungry for runs but his appetite, in contrast to a Matthew Hayden, has never seemed gluttonous. It has, instead, just seemed appropriate, proper, seemly. Even, somehow and perhaps paradoxically, oddly modest.

Consistency is less sexy than the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune. But consistency is what Tendulkar has delivered. He averages above 40 against all opponents and he averages above 40 in every test playing country. None of his rivals, not Ponting, not Kallis, not Lara, can match that.

And we have wanted to protect him too. These past two years have been difficult. There has been some pathos in Tendulkar’s inevitable decline. You can understand why some folk have suggested that it would have been better for him to have retired after 2010, his last seven-centuried annus mirabilis. Perhaps it would have been but cricket is not quite as cruel as boxing (at least not always) and Sachin has surely earned the right to go at a time of his own choosing.

But we always wanted to protect him, even in his pomp. There was always, even in his most dominant years, something childlike about Tendulkar’s batting. He began his career in pads handed-down from his own idol, Sunil Gavaskar, that made the 16 year-old Sachin seem impossibly young and impossibly small for test cricket. His bat seemed too large and too heavy for him too. And even as the years and runs rolled on he never quite lost that air of innocence playing in a cynical world.

There was plenty of joy in Tendulkar’s batting but there was also always something of the studious, dutiful teenager. Batting was a serious business, not something to be treated frivolously. Tendulkar needed, you felt, to impress his elders; more importantly, perhaps, he needed to impress himself. Genius is rare and not to be wasted. And so, if you like, his career has been one of applied genius and genius treated with great care.

In his latter years, of course, he has sometimes been content to play a supporting role, shepherding the next generation of Indian batsmen along their road to stardom. When India won the World Cup it was not just a fitting coda to Tendulkar’s one-day career it was also, in some fashion, a means by which his team-mates could thank him for all he has done. If the tribute was as full and generous as it could be it remained an insufficient gesture. For twenty years now India and Tendulkar have been synonymous with one another.

I have seen more spectacular batsmen (Lara) and more destructive batsmen (Richards) but I have never seen a more complete batsman. His record bears this out. Tendulkar is, beyond doubt I think, the greatest limited-overs batsman the world has yet seen. But he is also one of the greatest test match batsmen of all time. The modern age runs towards specialism yet Tendulkar has been the great all-round batsman. Give him a bat and regardless of format he will find a way to score.

He can be an inventive batsman but, in a reminder of the old adage that class is permanent, his invention has been based upon classical technique. He has resisted fashion and instead trusted the old ways. Here too cricket’s details may change but the fundamentals endure unaltered.

Let us leave Bradman, the great incomparable, out of the discussion. Suffice it to say that of all the old masters Hobbs is the one whom Tendulkar most seems to resemble. Completeness is all.

In a Golden Age for batsmanship Tendulkar’s star has shone brightest in a constellation of brilliant stars. For 24 years now he has delighted us and even if we know that all eras must come to an end parting is still a matter of some sweet sorrow. We may reasonably wonder if any of us who watch his final appearance will ever see quite his like again.

There will be stars and heroes aplenty in the future, for sure, but for now let us enjoy the moment as the great man and Little Master scuttles out to bat for the last time.

So long Sachin, thanks for the memories and for everything else.


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