During a post-match presentation, a visibly delighted Robin Jackman initiated the player of the match conversation as – “Sachin! Thank you for the entertainment”. This was during the 2003 World Cup, after the great man demoralized a pace troika – unmatched in pace, skill and experience – in a match against the arch-rivals that probably attracted more viewers than the final a few weeks later. At that time, it was tough to articulate whether Jackman’s emotional reverence was limited to the particular innings or Tendulkar’s overall career till then.
On that day, when one man was once again the difference between the two sides, it was impractical to presume that after around 13 years, the entertainment still had more than a decade to go – a period which is recognized as a decent international career in itself. The plot was currently in ‘rising action’, the magician was still busy engaging his audience with ‘the turn’.
Ahead of the curve
Cricket has evolved over time with an amalgamation of superior technology and a marriage of science with training and nutrition. Modern-day batsmen (and bowlers) have the assistance of video analysis to identify chinks in their technique. They subsequently spend hours in the nets on the right stance, trigger movement, backlift, feet movement etc. to improve.
The three best batsmen of the current era have their own trigger movements with Virat Kohli comfortable to move across, Kane Williamson rotating his bat in his hands while hanging on the backfoot and Steve Smith with a one of a kind approach that is more of a trigger ritual than just a movement.
Tendulkar possessed a very simple technique throughout his career. His approach involved no trigger movement but just the ability to react to the ball. Sourav Ganguly, who spent hours watching him from the other end since their under-15 days, once recalled how Tendulkar could change his trigger movements in the middle of an innings. Unlike others who would stick to their style, especially if it was delivering, Tendulkar, after assessing the pitch and the bowlers, was no longer a slave to his rehearsal but could improvise on the go.
While a modern-day player would choose to replenish himself with a protein shake and some electrolytes before going out to bat, Tendulkar chose to finish a big bowl of ice-cream before taking strike against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup.
In a career that almost equally spanned across either side of the millennium, Tendulkar’s dominance cruised past the test of time. Comparing Tendulkar to his peers - players batting at numbers 3 to 5 in Tests, were the best in all teams batting average-wise then – the above table suggests that either side of the year 2000, Tendulkar was at a level above his contemporaries across different countries.
To add some weightage to the everlasting debate of the sudden drop in bowling standards in the first decade of the 2000s - since Tendulkar’s debut up till the end of 2000, there were 23 bowlers with 100+ wickets in this period at an average of less than 30. This number reduced to 14 since 2001 till the end of Tendulkar’s career.
Like two sides of a coin, a shift in batting averages across countries as seen above can also be a reflection of players like Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid maturing as batsmen, or two bowling powerhouses in Pakistan and West Indies losing their way post the turn of the decade.
The very fact that Tendulkar finished his career with around 5000 ODI runs and 20 centuries more than any of his contemporaries prove his sheer supremacy in ODIs. Over the years when it is a norm for teams and players to just stick to winning at home, Tendulkar was a gift that kept giving across conditions and formats.
A child born on the day Tendulkar made his debut could legally have a beer while celebrating the great man’s career on the day of his retirement. While there is a basic necessity of keeping the body and mind fit to survive the crests and troughs in a career this long, the externalities that linger in a country like India can be almost impossible to handle for a sportsman.
During Tendulkar’s era, the nation consisted of two types of people – those to whom he was the reason to watch cricket and for a few others who were always on the lookout for an occasion to point out how Tendulkar was not good enough. The numbers for the latter increased further after the rise of other good players in the second half of his career. In an attempt to sit outside the cult, they were quick to explain how some other cricketer was a bigger match-winner for India or analyze that another cricketer has a better century per innings ratio.
A lot of these theories were logical, as there were other players in the game as well with as much hunger as Tendulkar, but after everything is said and done, he remains the only player to average 40 or above in every nation he played Tests in. In a consistency that ruled upon a generation of cricketers, his achievements are unmatched by the best before and after him as well – Sir Viv Richards did not enjoy touring New Zealand much, averaging 19.3 while Steve Smith is yet to figure out a way to counter the plethora of left-arm spinners in the dust-bowls of Bangladesh to improve upon his average of 29.8 there.
Coming back to life
There were moments in Tendulkar’s career when the end seemed near. In 2004-05 when he was nursing a tennis elbow injury and after the disappointment at the 2007 World Cup, when he seriously considered retirement. A phone call from Sir Viv and a discussion with family about the opportunity to play the final of the 2011 World Cup in his hometown - Mumbai - four years later helped him to continue playing.
In a perfect example of ‘good things come to those who wait’, it was the fourth quartile of his career when after sticking to his game through thick and thin, Tendulkar finally got a chance to reap rewards.
Before his arrival to the international circuit, India’s international success was limited to a brief period in the 1970s under Ajit Wadekar when India won Test series’ in England and the Caribbean, and during 1983-85, when they enjoyed success in white-ball cricket in multi-nation tournaments.
Since then and through most of the first half of Tendulkar’s career, the team never came close to global supremacy. All of this changed after the debacle in the 2007 World Cup. Tendulkar, now a part of the team under a new leader, with a crop of well-groomed cricketers in white-ball cricket and some experienced heads in the longer format, first helped the team to win a tri-series in Australia with a century and a 90+ score in consecutive finals of a best-of-three final series.
A year later, India climbed to the top of the ICC Test rankings as well. With significant away victories that propelled the ratings, Tendulkar was the second-highest run-scorer in the away win in New Zealand in 2008-09 and the first-ever drawn series for India in South Africa in 2010-11. The later came against a raging Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, a spell that Tendulkar himself described as the most challenging he ever faced. Even after more than two decades of international cricket, in the 2010 season of the IPL, Tendulkar challenged himself to prove that he possessed a game suited for even the next decade of cricket.
To top it all, Tendulkar inspired the entire unit during the 2011 World Cup, a tournament that all the players – most of whom grew up idolizing him - unanimously played for him. Just like his career, his contributions were not limited to spirit only. He ended the tournament as the team’s leading run-getter and second-highest overall.
In living memory, Tendulkar remains unmatched in the quantum of interest a cricketer generated across various cadres of the global audience. During the Asia Cup in 2004, an official in the UAE team even went to the extent of literally putting a prize on Tendulkar’s wicket, offering a $1000 to the bowler who managed to dismiss him.
The idea of a farewell series did not sit well to the insignificant few whom Tendulkar failed to impress. In a world where it is very easy to shatter a story, a journey that accomplished everything before its climax was an oddity. It is only fitting that after over two decades of delivering with numbers and emotions under an unimaginable burden of expectations, the entire country got the opportunity to thank Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar for the entertainment.