Cricket is such a pernickety game, not just anyone can get termed a “great”. Indeed, of all major sports, only tennis and golf would have a more exclusive club of “all time greats.” A decade is a long time. It is long enough to end most careers.
It is not often that one gets to see players standing out consistently for such a period of time. Hence, when you decide to sit down and gauge the best of the best men over the past decade, the list is pretty short, and more easily compiled, than say when the plan is to pick a player of the year.
Due to the great variety of skills the game employs, I will be picking four different cricketers of the decade: a batsman, a bowler, a fielder and a wicketkeeper, each in a separate article.
I will also compile the best Test and ODI XIs for the decade (T20 has been omitted due to the relatively small amount of time spent in this decade) in additional pieces.
The reason I am going to pick only one set of players as the players of the decade, but different XIs is because the cricketer of the 2000s is, and should be, expected to excel consistently in all disciplines of the game to be considered as the best among his contemporaries.
Yet the functions these players play in the different forms of the game may differ. A player can only be considered outstanding if he outperforms his contemporaries in all forms of the game, not just one.
So let us begin with the most enigmatic element of Cricket.
Cricket fans have always been blessed with outstanding talent in front of them for as long as Test cricket has flourished. Grace, Bradman, Sobers, Greg Chappell, Richards, Gavaskar, all ruled the world in their time. Each of the aforementioned batsmen has been many a cut above the rest. Gavaskar and Richards enthralled crowds simultaneously, and set the benchmark for two geniuses to follow in the '90s, and much of the 2000s.
Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar followed in the footsteps of their respective countrymen from an era ago, and took the art of batsmanship to an all new high. Indeed Lara and Tendulkar were like Bradman split into two.
Tendulkar epitomized Bradman’s technical purity, competitive spirit, never dying hunger for the art and fierce temperament, while Lara took on the responsibility of reeling of batting marathons, absolutely scintillating stroke play, charismatic personality, and a peculiar fetish for the turning ball.
Between them, Tendulkar and Lara reduced the best pacemen and spinners, respectively, to club class players, sometimes even mere spectators.
Though the peak of their careers came in the '90s, the turn of the millennium didn’t deter either. While Tendulkar was hit with injury after injury and Lara with slumps in form and off field distractions, each came through and left his mark on the decade.
It is beyond doubt that both of these gents were at different times, the best of their time. Of course, their dominance of the profession was punctuated by others occupying their throne for brief periods of time.
Matthew Hayden and Jacques Kallis occupied the top spot ever so briefly. Hayden laid his claim by eclipsing Lara’s 375 against England, setting the record five runs higher. Kallis reached his peak when he went on a run of five consecutive matches in which he got a Test century. But each fell by the way side when it came to the test of Time.
Sterner competition came in the form of the two best number three batsmen the world has seen for eons. Ricky Ponting, the assertive Australian, and Rahul Dravid, India’s “Wall,” ran both the Genius and the Wizard close on numerous occasion. Dravid, synonym to the word "consistent," and Ponting, fearless stroke maker, dazzled crowds across the globe.
Dravid signaled his rise with a dramatic tour of England, where he held fort for the Indian middle order time and again in 2002. Ponting signaled his arrival with the highest score in a World Cup final in 2003 by a captain. The two have since achieved great peaks, Ponting winning back to back World Cups as captain, and the first Ashes whitewash since early in the 20th century.
And simultaneously, each has reached scandalous depths. Ponting won the un-enviable tag of becoming the first Australian captain in about two decades to lose the Ashes to England, and repeated the feat earlier this year.
Dravid, in the meanwhile, got thrown out of the ODI team right after he quit as captain, made a comeback, and then lost his place again and suffered a horrendous loss of form, a period in which he went four consecutive seasons averaging less than 40. Ponting has undergone a similar loss in form, with the loss of match winners in his team finally taking toll of the Australian captain’s batting.
Ponting is on the verge of finishing off his third consecutive year averaging below 50, averaging in the thirties for two of those three. Yet, the two remain, till date, the closest to the Tendulkar-Lara axis of all batsmen from the last two decades.
This vastly middle order party (barring Hayden, of course) has been crashed by a couple of openers in recent times. Graeme Smith took to captaining the South African team like a zebra to the forests of Africa.
Two double tons on his first Test tour as captain against England, was the cake, which Smith finished icing by beating Australia in Australia, the first captain to do so in over a decade.
The other opener in the list, probably the most entertaining batsman to grace the game since Viv Richards, maybe even Bradman, Virender Sehwag. India’s portly opener staked his claim on the back of two triple centuries, and total of six double centuries in the past five years, five of them in the top ten list of fastest double tons, in terms of ball faced, of all time.
Sehwag’s indomitable spirit and sheer consistency in all conditions, he averages over fifty against all but three test playing nations, England, New Zealand and Bangladesh, and averages over fifty in all but four countries, South Africa and the aforementioned three nations, makes it difficult to ignore this man’s credentials.
So who wins?
Hayden, Kallis and Smith have all been good at bursts, but fail to make the cut for the final list. Lara had a phenomenal start to the decade with THAT tour of Sri Lanka, and it continued with him reclaiming his record from Hayden for the highest individual inning with the 400* against England.
But he fell away into gloomy form far too often, and apart from the series against South Africa and Pakistan, and the innings at Adelaide apart, didn’t have too much to write home about. Add to it the fact that he retired in mid 2007 right after West Indies’ World Cup exit, and suddenly the great man’s case becomes weak.
Ponting has been the highest run getter in either forms of the game. Dravid has probably been the most consistent. But both have succumbed to terrible lows without any external injury concerns. Ponting especially has failed to address his weakness against spin bowling and the swinging conditions of England.
His captaincy, too, has come under question, with series defeats to South Africa, England, India and close shaves at home to India in 2007-08 and the recently concluded series against lowly West Indies coupled with repeated failures in the limited overs format.
So that leaves us with the two Indian heavy weights, the pair that was once dubbed “The Guru and Chela ” (Teacher and Pupil), Sachin and Sehwag. The fact that a lad, unknown in the '90s when Tendulkar was already the best batsman in the world is today competing with the man he credits with igniting the cricketing flame in him is credit to both.
To Sehwag, because it has been one of the most entertaining decade of Test cricket since the Second World War, and definitely the most entertaining since Richards hung his boots. Even Gilchrist’s late order bursts couldn’t match up to Sehwag’s antics at the very top of the order against the likes of Lee, McGrath, Steyn, Akhtar, in short the best fast bowlers in the world.
At the same time he has taken the likes of Warne and Murali to the cleaners too. Each of his centuries since he was promoted to open the innings for India have been magnificent to watch, and have elevated him above Tendulkar and Dravid to become probably India’s most important batsman.
Whether chasing a score in the fourth inning of a Test match, or trying to set up a match in the first, Sehwag’s wicket is fast turning out to be the most important. M.S. Dhoni has won seven matches as captain, and Sehwag has been the catalyst in most of them.
To Tendulkar, because it adds another feather to his burgeoning hat, that of longevity. Twenty years after he first set foot in a ground as a player for the Indian national team, Tendulkar still retains the same youthful exuberance for the game at the age of 36 that he did at sixteen.
When Ryan Giggs was crowned the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the whole award show was criticized for lacking credibility and turning it into a “Lifetime Achievement Award” instead. There would be no such criticism if Tendulkar were chosen as the best batsman of the past decade.
Through thick and thin, Tendulkar has held out to produce breathtaking moments time and again. It’s tough to pick the moments simply because there have been so many. So many centuries, so many records broken, so many salutes to the crowd, so many jaw dropping moments, so many waving of the fore arm by umpires, so many tributes, so many criticisms, so many nay sayers, so many non believers.
Indeed, so many injuries. From Ian Chappell to Moin Khan, from hair line fractures to tennis elbow, Tendulkar has weathered a storm, body and soul, which no cricketer ever has. A combined total of over 600 international appearances later, it is phenomenal that people are wondering whether he is at his best.
It is especially surreal because just two years ago we had Ian Chappell finishing off his career, in newspaper columns anyway. We had past cricketers such as Moin Khan suggesting to us that Tendulkar was afraid and couldn’t stand the pressure of the modern day game.
The decade has seen Tendulkar at his most vulnerable. Indeed, the tennis elbow threatened to end the great man’s career at one point. The whole period from mid 2004 right up until the end of 2006, the tennis elbow haunted not only cricket’s greatest icon of all time, but also the entire cricketing nation of India.
But right up till that disastrous day in the Netherlands and ever since his complete recovery from the wound Tendulkar has been at his enthralling best. Highs included some outstanding innings in electrifying run chases against the likes of Pakistan and Australia. Not once has Tendulkar hit a bad patch when fit.
Arguably his worst Test year was 2003 when he didn’t manage a single ton, but he more than made up for that with a most memorable World Cup, the leading force behind India’s run to its first World Cup Final appearance in exactly twenty years. A Man of the Tournament performance was capped by impressive outings against Australia and New Zealand at home and culminating in that memorable inning at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
While 2004 was an injury plagued year, Tendulkar sill managed nearly a thousand runs in Test cricket at a Bradmanesque average. Repeated surgeries then ravaged Tendulkar’s game, forcing a very tame Tendulkar to appear on the pitch, that is, when he did appear.
Sporadic bursts of form were the only windows of joy during an otherwise gloomy period. His 55 against Australia at Mumbai was a throwback into a time which was by then nearly forgotten, Tendulkar repeatedly charging Australia’s rooky spinners. The innings helped India win the match and redeem some respect from a series which saw India surrender a final frontier to the Ausies.
But all Tendulkar needed was a fine run of regular match practice and he was back in the groove by the time India travelled to South Africa in the winter (summer down under) of 2006. He repeatedly got starts, but failed to convert them.
It was almost a relearning curve for Tendulkar, as he made his way back into the spot light of batting-dom. Back to back centuries against Bangladesh did little to justify selector’s faith in him after the World Cup debacle, but a stoic Test tour of England, and an explosive pair of ODI series against South Africa (in Ireland, preceding the Test series versus England) was followed by a short but effective series against Pakistan.
A brief injury scare later, Tendulkar was ready to take on his favourite team in their backyard, Australia.
That series re-established him in the eyes of many as the pinnacle of modern day batting. Three centuries and an ODI tournament victory over the hosts later, Tendulkar was set.
He was crowned the No. 1 batsman in ODI’s by the ICC, and he has been ahead of all the other nominated batsmen on this list ever since.
His recent exploits need to reminding, but it must be done for justice. An unbeaten hundred in the thrilling chase against England in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack, surpassing Lara as the highest run getter in Test cricket, and most recently scoring the highest score ever by a batsman against Australia, that too in a thrilling run chase, Tendulkar’s 175 took him past the 17,000 run mark.
As I write this piece, Tendulkar is in the middle of another fruitful series against Sri Lanka.
Batsman of the Decade: Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar