Saturday, November 14, 2009

After Bradman, it's got to be Tendulkar



Since that momentous tour to England in 1930, Don Bradman has been God in the pantheon of great batsmen. An endless, and still unresolved, debate has followed regarding the next best batsman in the history of cricket. At various times critics, fans and former players have floated warped theories, often confused with personal prejudices, about the likes of W.G. Grace, Victor Trumper and Jack Hobbs being as good - and even better - than Bradman. Modern observers have anointed super batsmen of the ilk of Garfield Sobers, Sunil Gavaskar, Vivian Richards and Brian Lara as being no. 2 to the peerless Bradman.

There can never be another Bradman. He was a phenomenon the like of which not only cricket, but all of sport has never seen, before or after. Bradman is not the greatest simply for his iconic Test average of 99.94, or the amazing manner in which he reeled off his double centuries and more, or because he scored 300 runs in a day in a Test match, or because of his mammoth aggregate of 974 runs in that 1930 Ashes series. The Don is inarguably the best-ever for the way he turned around Test series, for the stirring fightbacks that he engineered, for the way he clinched series for Australia, particularly the Ashes - the only real contest of those times - for his dominance of the bowlers, for the dominance of Australia through his career, save the infamous Bodyline series.

Bradman’s flawless 254 at Lord’s in 1930 is considered by critics, as well as The Don himself, as his best innings. It was followed in the next Test at Headingley by what was then the highest Test score of 334, comprising 309 in a single day. But it was in the final Test at The Oval with the series level at 1-1, that the 22-year-old knocked up a superb 232 to wrest the Ashes. That was to become Bradman’s hallmark.

After toying with the West Indies and South African bowling and squaring up to the scourge of Bodyline, Bradman once again swept through like a hurricane in epic partnerships with Bill Ponsford in the last two Test matches in 1934. He knocked up 304 at Headingley, and 244 and 77 at The Oval, regaining the Ashes once again. Never again during Bradman’s career did Australia to lose the Ashes, nor another series. This was a tour when Bradman was unwell right through, which resulted in poor form in some of the earlier matches. But as always, he came back with a vengeance. Then on the eve of departure for home, he fell seriously ill and for a few days hovered between life and death.

That might have finished anyone’s career, but Bradman was made of sterner stuff. He missed the entire domestic season of 1934-35 and the tour to South Africa in 1935-36. When the English came calling again in 1936-37, Bradman was faced with the biggest challenge of his days on the field. A number of stalwarts of the past decade or so were gone, and Bradman was now captain of a weak Australian team. He was making a comeback to the Test arena after a near-fatal experience. And then, England went two up in the five-Test series.

Suddenly, the knives were out. That was just the spur Bradman needed to unveil his magic once again. He carved out tremendous innings of 270, 212 and 169 in the last three Test matches, clinching the series yet again. That is the only instance in the 132-year history of Test cricket that a team won a five-Test series after being down 0-2. The bemused English captain, and good friend of The Don, Gubby Allen, could only remark wistfully, “The Australian XI is simply Bradman and no-one else.” He was dead right, of course.

In the 1938 Ashes series Bradman scored hundreds in all the three Tests in which he batted, and Australia were leading 1-0. On a flat track in the final Test at The Oval Len Hutton parked himself at the crease, piling up a record 364. Bradman broke his ankle while turning his arm over in order to relieve his weary bowlers. He could not bat in either innings and England won that timeless Test to square the series.

After the Second World War it seemed doubtful that Bradman would return to the Test arena. He was keeping indifferent health and age seemed to have taken away the edge. But again the incomparable Don confounded friends and critics alike. This time there were to be no fightbacks and turnarounds, but dominance instead right from the start. Like he did in the previous 1938 series, Bradman scored centuries in the first Tests of all his three Test series after the War, and hundreds in eight consecutive Test matches, the sequence beginning with the third game of the 1936-37 rubber and culminating with the second encounter of the 1946-47 faceoff.

Having weathered an uncertain start in his first Test innings after the War, Bradman went on to score 187 at Brisbane, and 234 in the next Test at Sydney. Australia went two up, and England could not fight back. India felt the full weight of Bradman’s bat on their maiden voyage to Australia in 1947-48. The Don crashed 185 in the first Test, hundred in each innings of the third Test, and a double century in the 4th Test. The Indian players could only hold this man in awe.

On his final tour to England in 1948 at the age of forty, Bradman yet again wrested the initiative with his 138 in the first Test. Then in his penultimate Test at his favourite English ground, Headingley, the champion combined in an incredible 301-run stand with Arthur Morris, successfully chasing a target of over 400 runs on the last day, returning unconquered with 173 to his name and minutes to spare. England were left shell-shocked. Bradman departed the scene with a first-class average in excess of 95.

It is indeed well nigh impossible for any batsman to come within light years of the immortal Don. The finest wielders of the willow will always be looking up reverentially at this Goliath of batsmanship. But of the rest down history, it can now safely be said that Sachin Tendulkar is the best. Bradman’s Test career lasted twenty years, interrupted by the War; Tendulkar has today completed twenty years in Test cricket, and shows no signs of hanging up his boots. It is not unlikely that he will play to the age that The Don did. By then he will have created benchmarks that will be hard to obliterate from the record books.

When he started out as a child prodigy in 1989, Tendulkar wanted to dominate the bowlers in the manner that Vivian Richards did, characterized by that rasping pull off the front foot, dismissing the fast bowlers contemptuously in that first decade. Then his back trouble forced him to take away that awesome shot from his repertoire. In the early stages of his career he would have the bowling at his mercy, then lose interest after scoring a big hundred and give away his wicket. He overcame that and the double centuries started to come and for another two years he continued in his attacking mode.

If the 1991-92 series in Australia turned Sachin into India’s best Test batsman at the age of eighteen, the tour to New Zealand in 1994 saw him assume the mantle in the One-day game as well. Asked to open the batting, his breathtaking straight hitting sent the pulses racing, and he has not looked back since. His sublime strokeplay in the 1996 World Cup, the hammering of Australia at Sharjah, the furious assault on arguably the best-ever leg-spinner Shane Warne, are now part of folklore. By 2001-02, his Test average was close to 60.

Then suddenly in 2001-02, he found that his reflexes were slowing, perhaps he was sighting the ball just that trifle of a second later. He tried to curb himself, and bat in the Gavaskar mould in Test cricket, cautious, cutting out the risks, being selective in his strokeplay.. The trip to the Caribbean in 2002 saw him dismissed for a succession of low Test scores. Was the great Tendulkar’s career on the wane, everyone wanted to know. They had not reckoned with the Tendulkar spirit, his grit, determination and passion for the game.

The little man fought back and was on a high again in the 2003 World Cup. Showing exemplary consistency, he was the single-most important factor in India reaching the final. His demolition of the Pakistani pace attack that boasted of the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar is a saga that will never be forgotten in the annals of the game. He was player-of-the-tournament even as Australia ran away with the final. Then followed another in a series of injuries, entailing an operation to his hand.

Tendulkar was desperately seeking a new avatar. He was not quite himself, and his quest to
redefine his batting led to an extraordinary, if not bizarre, innings in the fourth and final Test at Sydney in January 2004, Steve Waugh’s swansong. Tendulkar hardly played a shot on the off-side, yet scored an unbeaten 241, his highest Test score then, and earned the man-of-the-match prize. That was nothing else but determination, innovation and genius. Even when he was not playing well, he was hitting up a huge score against the best side in the world.

There was more anguish to follow. He was dogged by a tennis elbow and his plight was not dissimilar to that of Bradman in 1946-47. Tendulkar himself was worried that his career might be over. In 2005 he looked a pale shadow of himself. There was no spontaneity about his batting, he seemed leaden-footed, and was making a conscious and laboured effort to move his foot forward. It was a sad sight, and many began write the obituary of his days at the crease.

Once again the fabled Tendulkar tenacity came to the fore. Since the spring of 2007, he started to find the right balance between attack and defence, confidence began to override diffidence and self-doubt, the fear of failure receded. Though he lost his wicket a number of times in the 90s, he was aggressive in the One-dayers, and solid in the Test matches. India won the Test series in England thanks in large measure to his resilience.

The tour Down Under in 2007-08 saw the final transition of Tendulkar into a happy blend of Sunil Gavaskar for his technical excellence, and Vivian Richards for his awesome strokeplay, with inimitable innovation to boot. All the time he carried the team on his shoulders. His aggressive batting nearly snatched the Test series from Australia, the umpiring howlers in the acrimonious Sydney Test also having a hand. Tendulkar played a major part in the humiliation of Australia in the One-day triangular , and in India winning the trophy.

2008 saw the little champion surpass Lara’s record Test aggregate, and later help India chase down a target of nearly 400 runs in the fourth innings of the Chennai Test against England with his superb unbeaten century. He marches on in 2009, the latest evidence of which was that breathtaking and valiant 175 in the One-dayer against Australia at Hyderabad. How far this remarkable, lovable little character will go is now impossible to fathom.

He has already made a mockery of people’s projections of the number of runs and hundreds they thought he would score. Already approaching 13,000 runs in Test cricket with an average close to 55 and 42 centuries, and past 17,000 runs in One-day Internationals at nearly 45 per innings and a strike-rate in excess of 85, with 45 tons, the Tendulkar treasure trove has grown to mind-boggling proportions.

It is never wise to get ahead of oneself, to speculate about the future but, barring injuries, a final tally of 15,000 runs in Test matches, 20,000 runs in the One-dayers and 100 hundreds in the two versions put together is not beyond the capability of this astonishing player. Or will he upset our calculations again?

It needed two great batsmen to equal Bradman. If Tendulkar is Gavaskar and Viv rolled into one, if The Don himself said that Tendulkar plays like him, if he has scored such an amazing number of runs at the highest level, is the highest run-getter and scorer of tons in both forms of the game, if he has carried the expectations of a billion of his countrymen with unprecedented success for two decades, if he shows no signs of giving up or giving in, then there can be no question: Tendulkar has to be the next best after Bradman.

(Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’ which is a biography of Don Bradman and a panorama of batting from W.G. Grace to Sachin Tendulkar will appear on the bookshelves soon).

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