Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The trouble with Sachin's numbers

Part I of a two-part series, as promised here.

The backdrop: World Cup 2003. Tendulkar had been its top-scorer, and its player of the tournament, but the finals accentuated a feeling growing amongst supporters here that he "doesn't perform when the team needs him." It had been him who appealed to the fans for patience after a couple of lacklustre Indian performances had them baying for blood (a disastrous tour to New Zealand just prior to the World Cup not having helped the mood much), and it was he who then led the way with a couple of stirring performances, most famously against England and Pakistan, that saw India charge to the finals. And then, chasing 360 against McGrath and Lee, he fell for 4. It was clearly his failure that cost us the Cup.

And that was what prompted me to write an essay on Tendulkar, which was as much a defence of him as a celebration of his talents. And when I published it here on my blog, it was in 2008, just at the start of his astonishing second wind, when, for all money, it had looked like the genius had run its course.

The point is, therefore, that in the current climate where Tendulkar is untouchable, where Virat Kohli told a teary nation moments after winning the Cup: "Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It is time we carried him on our shoulders," this new post of mine is going to be a lot less defensive and prickly. It will instead merely voice a vague disquiet (my life is a collection of vague disquiets).

What does Tendulkar mean to us? No really, serious question. Up till 2003, we could've got away with the answer that he's nothing more than the nation's greatest artist, willow-wielder supreme, and therefore national treasure. But then, when the injuries took their toll and his numbers started to lose their lustre, we showed our ugly side, culminating with that sad day at the very stadium where, five years later, he would get his lap of honour. It's an extension of the "delicate sort of question" that people have started to ask: do Indians still love the actual game of cricket?

In the last 3 years, Tendulkar has got back his numbers. He's pulled so far ahead of Ricky Ponting that it's unlikely the Australian will ever catch up with him. Experts routinely say that he's batting as well as he's ever done; and, at the twilight of a magnificent career, the records are tumbling almost with every innings. There was the 35th ton with which he went past Gavaskar, the 40th Test ton, then the 50th, now his 100th international ton up ahead, also the 50th ODI ton, and of course the overtaking of Lara on the run-scorers list, the 14,000 Test runs, the 15,000th Test run soon to follow... It's got to the point where any innings he plays that isn't a century is considered a failure, like those two vital half-centuries against Australia and Pakistan in the knockouts: the sense of anti-climax was palpable.

There probably isn't a more effective way of burying the legend of Tendulkar than under this mountain of statistics. This centuries business, for instance. It means little more than the addition of an extra digit on the scoreboard. Some of his most memorable innings - be it from the spectator viewpoint, or in terms of value for the team - aren't three-figure knocks. I could name another half a dozen World Cup knocks of his that would blow the six centuries he has in the tourney out of the water. And yet we keep piling the pressure on him. Every innings he plays, every single one, is hyped as about some record or the other. Would it really surprise anyone if he had a melt-down a la Joe Pesci in "My Cousin Vinny"?

For contrast, let's look at Rohan Kanhai (picked for sentimental reasons). I've never seen the bloke bat, nor do I know a single statistic about him. But all I have to know about him is that he is one of brightest jewels in the West Indian school of batsmanship, purveyor of the falling sweep, and of whom Sunil Gavaskar not only wrote, "To say that he is the greatest batsman I have ever seen so far is to put it mildly," but also named his son after. The imagination takes care of the rest. So much more diverting than 99.94, that sort of stuff. That is the sort of legacy that Tendulkar, who introduced my generation to cricket, deserves; not a serving of numbers, bland and boring.

Tendulkar is no Jacques Kallis: walking proof that consistency is really the last refuge of the unimaginative. And the last three years are not the best of his career. No way. Not even close. Maybe his average is better than ever before, and maybe his strike rate is as good as it has ever been, and maybe Team India is winning more than ever. But there is more to batting than averages and strike rates and wins: there is the question of oomph. Sure, he's aged gracefully, his technique as solid as ever, his experience unmatched. But can you really expect a 38-year-old to have the same sizzle in his batting as that of a 25-year-old?

If he's Stanley Kubrick now, his genius tempered by thought, every shot seemingly practised a 100 times before, then the Tendulkar of the 90s was murderous, unpredictable, practically unhinged even; of whom Gavaskar said that no other batsman has ever before combined classical technique with raw aggression. This was a man against whom the accusation was often laid of throwing his wicket away, of having two shots to every ball, and then getting out playing the third. The Tendulkar you see now is treated with respect by his opponents. The Tendulkar of old made them quake in their boots.

Look at some of the clips of his centuries against South Africa in Cape Town and Bloemfontein, and against Australia in Chennai - the latter two being practically run-a-ball efforts. And couple that with the situations he played those in: the 169 in Cape Town was when India were reeling at 58 for 5, the 155 in Bloemfontein when at 68 for 4. The 155 in Chennai came from a relatively comfortable second-innings position of 44 for 2, but it came against the backdrop of the most-hyped battle of the decade: Tendulkar vs Warne, meeting for the first time in the subcontinent, and with Warne having already dismissed Tendulkar for 4 in the first innings. But if you were to watch any of those videos linked, does the savagery of his batting contain any inkling at all of the pressure he must be under? And he did it over and over, innings after innings.

Look at the movement of his feet, the quality of those backfoot drives, the numerous shots in the air, the sixes, the one-bounce fours. He has now cut down on the risks, keeps the ball more along the ground, and dabs and nudges a fair bit. Compare the way he played Steyn in South Africa with the way he played Donald and Warne in those videos. Look, this isn't a whinge. I'm glad he's adapted his game to prevent a decline like Viv Richards had in his twilight. It's a marvel that Tendulkar at 38, when his reflexes must be nowhere near what it was in his youth, was able to keep the deadliest fast bowler in a couple of decades at bay, when his teammates were being rolled over around him. But it was still the immovable object that presented itself to Steyn, and not the whirlwind that went about dismantling Donald and Warne. And that gale is how I'd like Tendulkar to be remembered.

There was once a bunch of 9-year-old kids who gave not a damn about whether India won or lost. They just wanted the opposition to take three quick Indian wickets, so that the little Number Five would walk in and go about his business. As they grew older, the inevitable corruption of their spirits happened and it became the done thing to wish for Indian victories, for team over individual glory. What I realise now is, I think I care more about the individual. A team going about collecting trophies, no matter how efficiently, does not have the same attraction for me as sublime skill at its rawest. When Tendulkar's gone and when Laxman follows him into retirement, there will be none left in that batting line-up I'd watch without reservation. Perhaps if Pujara fulfills his promise...

I watch less and less cricket these days, and the day is not far when I stop watching it altogether. The memories that top the list should a stranger tap me on the shoulder and, in answer to my enquiring eyebrow, break the silence with "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?" will not be of Dhoni holding aloft the World Cup, or any number of trophies won in Australia or South Africa. It will be of Tendulkar in the 90s, caught in a floundering team, but all the more magnificent for it. Tendulkar the record breaker, Tendulkar the accumulator, has his place, but the real legend is someone else. The strokes he conjured: some of it from the textbook - like those backfoot drives and that straight drive of his - and some very unorthodox ones, like the upper cut and the paddle sweep... those, I'd never forget. I hope that when his career is remembered, it is the kid that comes first to mind; before the icon, before the record books, before the scalpel, there was the curly-haired bully and his cleaver. Tendulkar is so much more than just some numbers and Indian wins.

For auld lang syne, my dear. For days of auld lang syne.

1 comment:

Madhav said...

You've articulated every bit of emotion of yours and most of the Sachin lovers', to the best!

A very true emotion that is..