I write this on Sachin Tendulkar’s 47th birthday. He made his Test debut, against Pakistan in Karachi, a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall. That is how long he has been part of our – the cricket world’s – lives.
It was partly his longevity, and in particular the fact that he was so young when he started, that led to the feeling that, somehow, Tendulkar belonged to the world, that he wasn’t “just” India’s. Of course his impact on his homeland was phenomenal: the burden of expectation, and all the rest of it. I have written before of the story told to me by a friend about Tendulkar visiting the office of an architect in Mumbai; by the time the meeting was over, the streets outside the office were impassable. Tendulkar’s Test batting average may not have been Bradmanesque – at 53.78 it’s not too shabby – but in other ways he is no less a figure than The Don, in particular in respect of the impact he had generally on his home country – almost, simply, the way he made people feel. Simon Barnes, writing in 2001, said that cricket had had three truly iconic figures – W G Grace, Bradman, and Tendulkar.
Of course Tendulkar “belonged” to India despite his universal popularity (in that latter respect the most accurate comparison is perhaps with Roger Federer) but if the outside world wanted to see what he really meant to his compatriots there was no better illustration than the extraordinary fallout from the second Test between South Africa and India at Port Elizabeth in 2001-02. The former England captain Mike Denness, reacting perhaps a little over-zealously to an edict from the International Cricket Council to be more vigilant with regard to player behaviour, imposed a variety of pains and penalties on no fewer than five Indian players (and non-South Africans). The most shocking was a suspended one match ban on Tendulkar, who had hitherto had a blameless disciplinary record. It was not entirely clear what he had been charged with. It finally emerged that it was “bringing the game into disrepute” by cleaning the ball without informing the umpires while he was bowling. (There had been no complaint from the umpires.) But it was widely reported – and denied by Denness – that he was being charged with ball-tampering. The very thought that somebody – anybody, let alone a match referee – could think that Tendulkar was a cheat caused outrage throughout India. There were street protests all round the country and questions were asked in Parliament. It was in the context of this bizarre event that Barnes made his comment about Tendulkar’s iconic status. “Tendulkar “, he said, “stands for Indian aspiration and India’s desire to fling off subservience and take a new station in the world.”
Tendulkar was not in any way fazed by the incredible pressure he was continually under. His utter stillness at the crease, his remarkable poise and balance while batting, seemed to reflect a measured and fairly phlegmatic character. Dignity was a word often used to describe his demeanour in all sorts of circumstances. In public, at least, his is a very different personality from that of his successor as India’s cricketing demi- god, Virat Kohli. That is not to say Kohli cannot be dignified. On the contrary, he is an exceptionally polished, effective performer with a microphone, self-effacing where necessary but with no false modesty. But on the field he can be like a man possessed. Tendulkar never let himself go in that way.
At his peak, which lasted a long time, Tendulkar had everything a batsman needed. Mike Brearley said that nobody else combined perfection of technique with the ability to compromise. The veteran Times correspondent, John Woodcock, Tendulkar “has a method based on showing the bowler the full face of the bat and yet the eye to play exotically when he chooses and he has an instinctive feel for the strategic possibilities of a situation. According to Tendulkar’s biographer, Gulu Exekiel, Woodcock thought he was as good as Bradman. Exekiel himself noted something the two men had in common (apart from stature: the Little Master is 5’5”, The Don variously reported as 5’6 and three-quarters and 5’8″): each had the ability to make a bowler bowl where he, the batsman, wanted. “It’s not that I expect [the bowler] to do this. Sometimes I compel the bowler to do this. I play in a particular fashion intentionally so he does something and I am prepared.” Jack Fingleton had made a similar observation about Bradman.
Still, when Five Cricketers of the Century, chosen by a hundred experts, were named in Wisden 2000, Tendulkar wasn’t among them. The Five were Bradman, Gary Sobers, Jack Hobbs, Shane Warne and Vivian Richards. Tendulkar was 17th equal. Of course, he had plenty of career left after 1999, but so did Warne. (But by September 1999 Tendulkar had scored only 19 of his 51 Test hundreds.)
Warne of course had many encounters with Tendulkar and their great contemporary Brian Lara. In his2018 autobiography, penned with/ by ghost Mark Nicholas, Warne said that during their playing days he had always put Tendulkar ahead (he always struggled against him in India, but that, as time went on, he found it harder to separate them. ”Sachin was the better technician but Brian the more destructive shot-maker so, if I had to send someone out to bat for my life it would be Tendulkar; if I needed someone to chase 400 on the last day, it would be Lara.”
That still seems to leave Tendulkar at the top of the tree for Indian batsmen. Probably. Or does it?
Who am I to judge? But it is lockdown and there is an opportunity to reflect on these things. And I have been to India, several times and always loved it. And I have watched one Test match in India.
It was a wonderful and memorable experience which took place over the Christmas period of 1983. The match was the sixth Test between India and West Indies. West Indies had won three of the first five matches. The series followed the 1983 World Cup in England, when Kapil Dev’s India had shocked the cricketing world – and changed the global game – by beating West indies in the final, so Clive Lloyd’s team were no doubt anxious to exact revenge.
I arrived in Madras (now Chennai) from Singapore on 23 December. I had written to the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association about tickets and I can’t now recall what arrangement, if any, had been made about picking them up. I do remember though, being astonished when, on going into the arrival building my name was called out on the tannoy and I was asked to go immediately to the Air India desk. There, an impressively moustached official from the Cricket Association formally presented me with my tickets.
The match was due to start the next day, Christmas Eve, but once outside it became clear that Madras had been subjected to apocalyptic rainfall (I have vague and not especially pleasurable memories of virtually wading through the streets. It was quite obvious that there was goi g to be no cricket on the first day. I met up with an American friend whose ambition in coming to Madras (again, from Singapore) – alas, sadly thwarted, was to watch at least one day’s cricket, and we embarked on Plan B which was a mini- tour of Tamil Nadu, pausing only to secure the essential travel accessory, a liquor permit (the state was dry). Christmas Day was a rest day in the Test. We managed to take in Kanchipuram, one of the seven Hindu holy cities and the remarkable beach temples of Mahabalipuram. Christmas dinner was dosai (delicious) and a bottle of whisky.
We then returned to Madras and the hovel (not a misprint) which Rob had selected for our accommodation on Popham’s Broadway. (Unfortunately Rob could not stay for the cricket but we did manage to watch baseball together at the Yankee Stadium a few years later.)
Anyway the cricket started on time on the scheduled second day. The ground was pretty full and it was a great atmosphere. West Indies batted first and made 313; everyone got a start but nobody really got going. India’s batting star, Sunil Gavaskar, had had mixed fortunes in the series, with a century and a 90 and a few low scores, and it had been announced before the match that he would not be opening the innings. But he was batting by the middle of the third over with the score 0 for two, after two brilliant slip catches by Roger Harper off Malcolm Marshall.
Gavaskar made 236 not out (the match was drawn). The West Indians were convinced that he was caught at slip early on, and noticeably declined to clap on any of his landmarks. His score was then the highest score by an Indian Tests. It was his 30th Test century, a world record at the time. He was to finish with 34 and for a number of years he was the highest run-scorer in Tests, until overtaken by Allan Border.
His innings in Madras was not a great innings but you could see that it was the innings of a great player. He was another little master really but very different from Tendulkar, in part just from being an opener. He had an extraordinary record against the West Indies, the strongest team of his era and played some great innings in England too, notably his 221 in just over eight hours at The Oval in 1979.India were chasing 438, and finished on 429 for eight. Gavaskar’s innings, according to Wisden, was “inspiring and technically flawless.” In the Almanack’s quest for the Five Cricketers of the Century, he came 12th. But I don’t think Gavaskar himself would say he was a greater player than Tendulkar.
The obvious challenger is the man in possession, Kohli. He is a wonderful player to watch and his achievements, in all formats and in different conditions, are outstanding. He had had a trying time, to put it mildly, against James Anderson in 2014, averaging 13 in five Tests, but when he returned as captain in 2018 he averaged 59, starting with a magnificent 149 at Edgbaston. England still won the series four-one (which didn’t seem quite right, but a few months later he became the first Indian captain to lead his team to a series victory in Australia. He was not quite as dominant with the bat as on his previous tour of Australia but he was the most vibrant personality on either side.
Ramachandra Guha, one of India’s leading cricket historians, has said that “in all formats and in all situations Virat Kohli might already be India’s greatest- ever batsman.” Tunku Varadarejan, profiling. Kohli as Wisden 2019’s Leading Cricketer of the Year, said that Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Kapil were all respected, but unlike Kohli, they were not feared by opponents. He ends his piece with a quote from Richards on Kohli: “I also played the same game. Can you imagine Viv and Virat playing in the same team”
I am not sure it’s fair to say opponents did not fear Tendulkar. Warne used to have nightmares about him. But, despite Tendulkar’s global appeal, Kohli is a bigger figure on cricket’s world stage. This is mainly a result of India’s progress in cricket both on the field and off it. Tendulkar was part of a team, or teams, which lost quite a lot, at least abroad. He hung around long enough to win a World Cup. With Kohli it all feels different. And those of us who love Test cricket must not forget how lucky we are to have him. He knows it is the best and most challenging format. And now we should have some sympathy for him. Kohli is 31, younger than Hobbs at the start of World War One, older than Len Hutton and Denis Compton at the start of World War Two. In his prime in other words. Let’s hope the impact of COVID-19 is not quite so devastating.
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