Without a doubt, this is the most exciting yet most un-researched of questions the game of cricket has ever offered up for debate.
Beyond question, Sachin Tendulkar and Rob Key are both gods of the game, but who really is the best?
Is it the Little Master? Yes, he does know how to hold a bat—no question—but does he really hold a candle to the bustling no-nonsense bruiser that is the former England batsman Robert Key?
I would just like to point out that, in the interest of fairness, I will not take into account either player's ODI records, as I see this as a bad method of comparison. Key has only played a handful of games, making it unwise to try and rate any player in such circumstances.
Where to start? Surely the greatest measure of any cricketer is where and when and indeed against whom you score your highest innings, as it is beyond question the pinnacle of any player's career.
Tendulkar boasts a marvelous 248* against the whipping boys of Bangladesh in Dhaka 2004, a truly great achievement, no doubt.
But Key's highest test innings is an extravagant and breathtaking 221 versus the once all-conquering West Indies at none other than the home of cricket, Lord's—a feat the Little Master has yet to accomplish, despite playing over 150 more test matches! Key really has the edge on him in this department, then, no doubt.
The other great yard stick for measuring just how great any player is or has been is to look at how they fared against the best of the best. Only then can a player be deemed great among his peers. Throughout the 1980s the West Indies were the greatest test team in the world beyond any measure, drawing comparisons with even Bradman's invincibles.
Looking at the two great players in question, the statistics don't lie. In 16 matches versus the Windies, Tendulkar has scored only three hundreds, an average of over one every five games. Though in his defence, to which I am proud to be, his average has been a truly great 57.73 against them. Compared to players the world over this is truly a remarkable feat!
But what about Key? Well, his record if anything goes above and beyond the mighty Tendulkar's against the once all-conquering West Indies. In only four tests he scored a double hundred, something Tendulkar has yet to manage against them in 16 games.
This also means that he averages a hundred against them with far greater consistency than Tendulkar could dream of! And to rub salt into the wounds, he also averages over 60 against them. Far more than Sachin.
So far this comparison is looking rather gloomy for the Little Master...
I think my next question should really focus on how these players handle the pressure of being international cricketing superstars. Both are obviously under huge strain playing at the highest level, but, looking at the two players logically, I struggle to see how there is any comparison whatsoever!
Key has played under far more scrutiny than Tendulkar could ever imagine! Tendulkar can rely on a fan base in excess of what must be nearly the global population of cricketing fans! And who is supporting Key? No one.
So which is harder to play with? Billions of people adoring your every move safely in the knowledge that you're never going to get dropped...or nobody, just critics waiting like hawks for your first sign of weakness. Give me Tendulkar's fan base any day!
Finally, and most significantly, I shall examine how these two Goliaths of international cricket have really fared. Are they real winners?
Well, in 166 test matches to date...Tendulkar has won less than a third! A THIRD! (166 matches, 56 won, 44 lost, 66 drawn.) I think this is a real revelation!
A player that is deemed by whole generations as the greatest ever has only won a third of all his games in over 20 years? Though, upon reflection, this is hardly surprising...take the recent series against South Africa, for instance—Tendulkar may have scored two centuries, but it was a draw...
Key, on the other hand, boasts a winning record that people can only dream of. In 15 tests he has won eight! OVER HALF! Wow...This really puts Tendulkar in his rather considerable shadow, despite the smaller sample size.
And take into account his last series against South Africa, just for fairness—even though his only contribution was an 83 in Johannesburg, it effectively brought England the series win. And by what margin did they win? Seventy-seven runs...so, realistically, without Key England would more than likely have lost the series, and don't be fooled, it wasn't even a batsman-friendly track, as even Matthew Hoggard picked up a 12-wicket match haul.
This debate will surely go on for years and years to come. But please, let's face the facts, on the records as they stand.
Key is more of a legend than Tendulkar will ever be...but there is always time for Tendulkar to improve, and I'm not going to be the one to stop the little fella from trying.