Australia and West Indies have each owned eras of cricket. With Clive Lloyd’s battery of fast bowlers, all that he had to do as a captain was toss the ball to his bowlers and watch batsmen struggle.
Similarly, the Australian team under Steve Waugh toyed with the opposition.
Today, both those champion sides are struggling because they are without match-winners. Ricky Ponting recently said if he had Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar unbeaten overnight in a Test match, he would be worried about Lara as he was more likely to run away with a victory. To him Lara was a match-winner. However, Tendulkar was way ahead of his contemporaries till injuries began to hinder him. His absence from international cricket not only affected his performance in figures but also altered his batting.
During the same period, Lara was in sublime form, connecting everything from the middle of the bat. No situation, however tense, could rattle him. Singlehandedly he was raising the flag of a depleted West Indies team high!
Perhaps the instance of 1999 was fresh in Ponting’s mind. The West Indies needed 308 runs to win at Kensington Oval, Bridgetown. And it was an unbeaten knock of 153 from Lara that helped West Indies win the Test in dramatic fashion. During a 54-run ninth-wicket partnership with Curtly Ambrose and then with the last man Courtney Walsh, Lara attacked the bowling of McGrath, Gillespie and Warne.
Contrary to Ponting’s statement, the difference in match-winning performances between Lara and Tendulkar is minimal if one considers the 131 Tests played by Lara. The West Indian left-hander scored 2,929 runs (eight centuries) at an average of 61.02 in 32 wins. During his first 131 Test matches, Tendulkar scored 3,464 runs (12 centuries) at an average of 64.07 in 41 Indian wins.
While Tendulkar was responsible for 15.45 per cent of his team’s runs in these victories, Lara made 18.72 per cent of his team’s.
Though some like Ponting might think Tendulkar less dangerous than Lara, it has mainly been the result of injuries. After suffering a sesamoid bone injury in the foot during the Zimbabwe tour of 2001, Tendulkar slowed down a bit. Some years later, it was the tennis elbow that blocked some of his strokes. Injuries have constantly hampered him. It would have demoralised any other player much earlier. But Tendulkar continues to spend more and more time on the field playing one format or the other and spreading joy among people.
However, he stands at a juncture where questions about his retirement are getting louder. Some think that he should quit with grace, while others think that the selection committee should have a word with him.
The tour of South Africa will determine his longevity as a Test player.
As Tendulkar walks on to the field to bat against South Africa this winter, the cheers will be of a different kind. They will hold the sadness of knowing that this might be his last outing.
Amidst the cheers, there may also be some hoots of those who think he should retire.
Sunil Gavaskar is the only Indian cricketer who didn’t give any opportunity to the selectors to drop him. He chose the venue and the date. When it comes to Tendulkar and cricket, it is an affair that only the two of them should decide together — cricket and Tendulkar. It would be sad if selectors are compelled to intervene. Tendulkar is God’s gift to this noble game. He and the selectors need to carefully consider how long he can play so that he may have the option of leaving on a high note.