A battle within a battle is the additional spice that gives flavour to any cricket series. The seven-match ODI series between India and Australia is the battlefield after India’s first round exit from the Champions Trophy.
The tale of two champions, Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar, is an indirect scrap within the direct clash. Tendulkar has had an indifferent start to the series; failing in the first two games while Ponting, with a first match 74, has started well.
After India’s first round exit from the 2007 World Cup, former Australian captain Ian Chappell in his column for Mumbai-based tabloid Mid-Day wrote:
“If he (Tendulkar) had found an honest mirror three years ago and asked the question; 'Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the best batsman of all?' It would’ve answered; 'Brian Charles Lara.'
"If he asked that same mirror right now; 'Mirror, mirror on the wall should I retire?' The answer would be; 'Yes.'
Ian is an astute reader of the game and his brother Greg a batting legend; but like ordinary mortals they too can and have been proven wrong. The biggest mistake in the 2007 World Cup, in my view, was to push Tendulkar down the order.
In 61 innings at No. 4 Tendulkar has 4 hundreds and 15 fifties at 38.84 with a strike rate of 77.08. At the top of the order he has 40 hundreds and 70 fifties at an average of 48.08 with a strike rate of 87.56—the simplest reason for where he should bat is in front.
I’ll come to the Chappell brothers later and pick a few points in the contemporary debate. After 18 Tests, Ponting had 2 hundreds and 6 fifties at 37.25 while Tendulkar at the same juncture had 3 hundreds and 4 fifties at 38.68; not any significant disparity. The difference was in the circumstances and the manner: "God is in the details," as architect Ludwig Mies said.
Tendulkar was a name doing the rounds even before his debut as the cricketing grapevine circulates in Test-playing nations. Cricket journalist Mark Ray wrote in The Sunday Age of how he lingered at the nets to see India’s "Boy Wonder" bat early in the 1992 Australian tour.
The Wisden Almanack report after the Old Trafford Test in August 1990 said: “Of the six individual centuries scored in this fascinating contest, none was more outstanding than Tendulkar’s; which rescued India on the final afternoon.
More significantly, after several of his colleagues had fallen to reckless strokes, Tendulkar held the England attack at bay with a display of immense maturity.” He was 17 years and 112 days old at that time.
The legend, though, was born in the fifth Test played at the Western Australia Cricket Association Ground, Perth from Feb 1-5, 1992. The conversation in the Australian dressing room among sweaty and burly hard men turned to a cherubic-faced young boy about three months shy of turning 19 and born and brought up on low and slow Indian wickets.
The boy had defied a steaming four-pronged Australian pace attack for over four hours on the fastest and the bounciest pitch in the world with a mixture of grace and power that his opponents found hard to fathom in one so young.
Merv Hughes cracked open a beer and turned to his captain, Allan Border; the tough Aussie credited with rebuilding the side. “This little prick’s going to get more runs than you, AB.”*
Tendulkar had announced himself with a 148 not out in Sydney—the debut match of Shane Warne—but it was not until the fifth Test at the WACA, where the ball whizzed around his ears and he scored 114 that he made a major impression. “The one in Perth, he made them in tough conditions and he looked as though he was at home,” Hughes said.
The next time Australia played in a Test match in Perth with four quicks and no specialist spinner was on January 16, 2008 in the third Test against India. The Test where India became the first team from the subcontinent to win at Perth.
The boy was too young in 1992 and in 2008 doubts lingered that the man may be too old; it didn’t matter to the man and like the boy he also reached Perth having made runs in Sydney—this time a 154 not out. Tendulkar made an audacious 71 before falling to an unlucky lbw decision. He finished with 493 runs at 70.42; his best ever return from any series.
The little master’s peak years in the mid- and late-nineties, when he decimated bowling attacks all around the world have been well-documented and can be left for this specific argument. On the third of November 2002 Tendulkar had 31 hundreds and 34 fifties at an average of 58.46 in 103 Tests; he was 19 hundreds and 18 fifties clear of Ponting.
It was a gap that could only have been bridged if Ponting had a few out of the world seasons and Tendulkar remained stationary. That is how it went, almost.
The incredible passage of play from the Brisbane Test in 2002 to the end of the 2nd Ashes Test in Adelaide 2006 established Ponting as a modern great; he played 48 Tests and scored 21 hundreds and 19 fifties at a phenomenal average of 73.86 in this period. Perhaps the best run for such a lengthy period in the modern era.
Tendulkar, in this period, played 30 Test matches and made 4 hundreds at 43.23—an injury-marred passage in which he underwent two surgeries and made three international comebacks.
After Adelaide in 2006 Ponting has played 29 Tests and added 5 hundreds and 13 fifties at 42.97. Tendulkar after December 18, 2006 has played 26 Tests and scored 7 hundreds and 12 fifties at 52.23. In the last two seasons the little master’s graph is again climbing; in the Test matches he has played with a combination of compact technique and eclectic stroke-play.
In the limited overs Tendulkar returned to the opening slot after the 2007 World Cup. In the 46 games after that he has scored three hundreds and 14 fifties at 47.04 and a strike rate of 85.39.
All three hundreds have been match-winning knocks and two of them have been in tournament finals; seven of his fifties have been scores of 90 plus. He has scored higher than his overall average since the World Cup match. There is no one in the same vicinity to even think of any comparison here.
Ian Chappell wrote in a 2005 Mid-Day column after the Ganguly-Greg Chappell controversy: “However, if you don’t want to hear the truth, then don’t ask him (Greg) for a frank opinion. Greg Chappell grew up in a household where frank opinions were served up at the breakfast table more often than cereal and fruit juice.”
Being upfront is a virtue that our cricket administration or our administration in general can benefit from and there should be no issue with the Chappell brothers on that count. An honest mirror at this stage, though, would tell Tendulkar that his wish is the only command. He has defied enough studio pundits for any mirror to be able to speculate on his future.
The Chappell brothers, though, can benefit from an honest mirror, as it may tell them frankly that prophecy is not their strong point and they should resist playing soothsayers.
*Sources: Chloe Saltau for The Age and for stats and Wisden Almanack opinions — Crininfo and Cricinfo archives