Nearly four years into his One-Day International career, Sachin Tendulkar had played 60 innings. He averaged 30.86 and had made 12 half-centuries, with a highest of 84. There were mitigating factors, the main one being that he batted lower down the order, but any way you looked at it, those were ordinary numbers.
They paled into insignificance next to what he had already achieved in the Test arena. He wasn’t yet 21, but had scored hundreds in England, Australia (twice), South Africa, India and Sri Lanka. The Bradman comparisons had already begun.
In coloured clothes though, India’s Test Superman was a journeyman, someone whose breathtaking ability shone through all too rarely. To put those numbers after 60 innings into perspective, consider this. Hashim Amla, at the same stage of his career, has nearly twice as many runs at an average of 59.55. He’s made ten hundreds and 19 half-centuries. That is greatness. Tendulkar wasn’t even close.
Then, Eden Park happened. Opening the batting did for Tendulkar what the druid’s magic potion did for Asterix. In the years that followed, he didn’t just break one-day records. He obliterated them.
If he retires from Test cricket tomorrow, the body of work that he leaves behind will be hugely significant. But it’s not incomparable. You can think of around 20 batsmen, modern and from the game’s back pages, who could replicate the quality and consistency of his performances.
In one-day cricket, there is no such comparison. There is Tendulkar, daylight, and then some more daylight. Of those still playing the game today, Chris Gayle tops the hundreds chart with 20. Tendulkar finished with 49, despite his focus solely being on World Cup glory since January 2010. Either side of those nine World Cup matches in 2011, he played just 14 times in three years.
When discussing Tendulkar the one-day batsman, the numbers have little meaning. They just intimidate and overwhelm. What is worth talking about is the manner in which he constantly reinvented himself. There’s little doubt that, as with the boxing great Muhammad Ali, watching him was a more visceral and thrilling experience in the first half of his career. The two Desert Storm innings in 1998 were the Tendulkar equivalent of Ali outclassing Cleveland Williams – the athlete at the peak of his powers as the irresistible force.
But it’s not the destruction of Williams that Ali is most remembered for. It’s for the trilogy with Joe Frazier, and the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman. All those fights took place when he was either approaching 30 or past it, after he had experienced pain and disappointment and even defeat – after the illusions of invincibility had been shattered.
In the same way, Tendulkar’s finest one-day innings were probably played once he had had to familiarise himself with the idea of struggle. As the years passed, he understood one-day batting in a way that few others did. Few played the percentages better, or knew their strengths and weaknesses as well. There were times when he could bring to mind the teenager who had discovered the cheat codes to a video game.
Sadly, when people talk of him, the hype often overshadows the substance. Take the 98 against Pakistan at Centurion during the 2003 World Cup. Almost always, the discussions are about that six over third man. Great shot, yes, but there was enough width there for a top batsman to take advantage of. The stroke that really deflated the Pakistan fielders and the fans watching on TV came later in the over.
Back of a length from Shoaib Akhtar, and no more than an apologetic push from Tendulkar. The ball sped past the mid-on fielder and teased him all the way to the rope. If anyone ever asks you to think of a shot that exemplified Tendulkar the limited-overs batsman, it should be that.
The greatest tribute to Tendulkar hasn’t come in the form of words or gestures or awards. It’s come from the batting of Virat Kohli. He may still be finding his way in Test cricket, but Kohli the one-day bat is well on the way to being a master. And the similarities with Tendulkar are unmistakable.
The latter-day Tendulkar played in his own bubble, aware that he knew the permutations and combinations better than anyone else. In the World Cup game against England last year, he took 43 deliveries to ease to 24. The trigger fingers in press boxes and on social-networking sites had already been given a workout. Off the next 60 balls he faced, he scored 78 runs. There were few strokes he didn’t play. Kohli, possibly having observed that, also marches to his own beat.
The 49 centuries will be mentioned countless times, especially the 200 against Dale Steyn and friends when he was nearly 37. But like the Centurion innings, some of his finest never saw him raise the bat for three figures. There was a 90 against Australia in front of his home crowd during the 1996 World Cup, and a 95 against Pakistan in Lahore in 2006, less than a fortnight after newspapers had led with ‘Endulkar’ headlines.
We spoke at length about that Lahore innings a few months later. Mohammad Asif bowled a dream spell that night under lights, getting movement in the air and off the pitch. Rahul Dravid, whose mastery of the defensive arts is beyond dispute, was moved this way and that like a marionette on a string.
Tendulkar’s judgment was incredible. It wasn’t the shots he played, so much as the one he didn’t. He’d watched the ball like a hawk out of Asif’s hand, he told me. But on occasion, he’d also needed to cover the movement off the seam. Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni saw India home that night, but it was Tendulkar’s 95 that was instrumental in setting up the game.
You could sense his excitement when he spoke of that Asif spell, just as you could see the animation on his face when he spoke of Warne and McGrath and Steyn. It’s perhaps fitting that his last great one-day innings came in Nagpur, against South Africa on a day when a fired-up Steyn turned out to be the match-winner. As long as Tendulkar was out there, batting appeared all too easy. Once he was dismissed, Steyn ran amok.
He’ll obviously be remembered for the records, many of which will never be surpassed. Most of all though, we should recall that urge to push on, the endeavour to improve no matter what the circumstances. R Kaushik, my colleague, and I often talk of a net session at Centurion at the end of a one-day series (2006) in which India had been comprehensively outclassed. It took us a while to figure out what was happening.
Ian Frazer, Greg Chappell’s assistant, was giving throwdowns from 10 yards. Before each ball, he would yell out a name – “Pollock”, “Ntini”, “Nel” – and the angle and trajectory of the throw would change accordingly. India lost miserably the following day, but Tendulkar made 55 – not pretty, but workmanlike and bereft of exceptional highlights.
That innings, towards the end of one of the worst years of his career, was also a wonderful illustration of his greatness. He chased excellence, and fleetingly managed to grasp perfection.