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Friday, October 17, 2008

LEADER ARTICLE: Is Sachin The Greatest?

When Sachin Tendulkar broke Brian Lara's record for the most runs on Friday, the old question raised its head once again. Is Tendulkar the grea
test ever cricketer? It's a debate that can never be settled with any kind of finality. This is especially so because such a question inevitably leads to comparisons across generations, contexts and timeframes, which are distinctive and also profoundly different from each other. Perhaps such comparisons are unfair as well. More so, because we don't have the resources to make such comparisons. Yet, these comparisons are inevitable. They add to the aura of modern sports, offer talking points and animate cricket fans across the world.

For example, when a Donald Bradman inspired millions of Australians to come out of the Great Depression in the 1930s and once again catapulted cricket to the forefront of Australia's national imagination with his unrivalled run-scoring abilities, how much pressure was he under? Or when Garfield Sobers led the charge in a Caribbean plagued by apartheid, what did it mean to his countrymen? Were they under more or less pressure than what Tendulkar has had to face for nearly two decades? When a billion-plus people are ready to deconstruct his every gesture, what must be going through his mind? These are the ingredients that spice up comparisons and make modern cricket the most talked about Indian obsession.

When Sunil Gavaskar left India's cricketscape, we did not want a player to fill the void; we needed a saviour who could help us overcome the crisis the nation was facing. The Tendulkar phenomenon may be linked to the medieval Indian practice of bhakti and the visual economy of darshan where the devotee worships the divine object of his desire. No contemporary icon has possibly had to face such intense scrutiny. That's why Tendulkar, who has under-gone this ordeal with perfection for nearly two decades, stands above other cricketers.

What does Tendulkar mean to Indians? Simply put, he is anything but a mere cricketer. He is a phenomenon we have collectively worshipped for 19 long years ever since he made his debut in 1989. He has given our cricket muscle and taught us to believe that we can be the best in the world. He is the cricketing equivalent of Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan, who is capable of hammering the very best villains, be it a Shoaib Akhtar or the legendary Shane Warne.

Tendulkar is our answer to every ace that the others might have in their bag. He has allowed Indian cricket fans to stand up tall even when the Indian team has collectively failed. From Tendulkar, the nation of a billion brooks no failure. No mortal could have lived with such expectations for years and yet achieve what he has. While it is true that Lara scored his runs in 20 fewer Tests, his volatile character and his inability to lift West Indies cricket out of the doldrums will always make him second best in any comparison with Tendulkar.

When Tendulkar disappoints, it hurts us all. When he got out for 88 against debutant Peter Siddle at Mohali — interestingly he has given his wicket to more than 10 debutants, including Craig White in the last Test — the entire country was in shock. The reaction was similar to what we witnessed in Bangalore a week earlier. Uniquely for him, it has been the same for two decades.

In recent times, questions have been raised over whether he is the champion he once was, whether he can still tear bowlers apart and whether he still deserves the mantle of the world's best batsman? However, all of these doubts have been laid to rest with several gritty performances over the last few years. These innings might not have had the flair of Tendulkar's earlier knocks but they are worth their weight in gold.

In this age of hyper nationalistic sport, Tendulkar is perhaps the only player who receives a standing ovation every time he steps out to the middle. It is the same everywhere in the world. For example, when Tendulkar stepped out to bat at Sydney in January 2008, it was a hugely satisfying moment as an Indian fan to see the entire stadium standing up to applaud a champion.

It was even better at Lord's in 2007. It remains one of the few grounds that Tendulkar has failed to make his own. When he got out to Monty Panesar in India's second innings in July 2007, even the Lord's Long Room — the most conservative as also the most strongly nationalist of bastions — groaned in sorrow. They wanted the master to leave his mark. It was as if Lord's lost out on something precious with Tendulkar getting out cheaply.

Against the Australians, who boast of the best cricketing infrastructure, excellent faci-lities, a great sporting culture and intensely competitive domestic cricket, our refrain has always been, "We have Tendulkar". This refrain hasn't changed for nearly two decades; chances are it will continue in the same vein for some more time.

The writer is a sports historian.

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