The end of Sachin Tendulkar’s career is going to set off an outpouring of emotion rarely seen in the sports world. India will be awash with sentiment as it celebrates and mourns one of the great batsmen the game has seen.
Even someone like me, who is not prone to sentimentality, will have conflicting emotions. It is times like this that it is worth remembering the words of Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened”.
My fondest memories of Sachin revolve around the early part of his career when he played with uncluttered abandon. It was in this period that Lady Bradman made her famous observation that Sachin was the one who reminded her most of the Don in his prime.
It may have had something to do with the fact that Don and Sachin were of a similar height, if not exactly the same in build, but I think there was more to it. Tendulkar made batting look effortless. It seemed that he could score runs at will.
I didn’t have the pleasure of watching the Don bat live, but I have seen enough of the archival footage to know that he was in a class of his own. He was the player who could take the unfettered thinking of a training session out into the middle better than anyone else.
Simplicity of thinking was the key to Bradman’s success. A young Sachin must have gone close to achieving a similar clarity at the crease and this may have been what Lady Bradman recognised in the young prodigy.
So where does Sachin sit in the pantheon of other great players that I have seen over the past 50 years?
Apart from Tendulkar, my top ten, plus one, boasts the talents and creativity of Neil Harvey, Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting. My plus one is Adam Gilchrist.
None of these players would look out of place batting with the great man and might even upstage him on their best day.
Because they didn’t all play in the same era, it is hard to compare them, but it is fair to say that each was a champion player in his own era and would have been an outstanding player in any other era.
Each of them was a game-changing batsman.
Harvey was a hero of mine when I was growing up. His will-of-the-wisp footwork and wristy stroke-play captured my imagination once my father identified him to me as someone whom I should watch and learn from. This became my early benchmark against which I measured the best players who would follow.
Kanhai was the next one to take my breath away. His centuries in each innings of the fourth Test of the West Indies tour of Australia in 1960/61 captured my attention and encouraged me to practise my cover drives going down on one knee. If it wasn’t for Sobers playing at the same time, Kanhai may have been considered the best batsman of his era.
Following the West Indies tour, Sobers came to South Australia to play for the next few seasons. His batting had a very different look from Kanhai’s.
The lithe, languid, left-handed Sobers blasted 251 against a Test-strength New South Wales attack including Davidson, Misson, Benaud and Simpson. His straight six from the bowling of Davidson to the longest boundary at Adelaide Oval was awe-inspiring for an impressionable teenager.
I then got to play for South Australia with Richards. It was a master-class in batting each time I saw him bat. Rarely hurried, he punished anything slightly full, short or wide. His 356 in a day against Western Australia in 1970 was both brutal and surgical.
Richards appeared to stand stock-still until he had ascertained line and length and then he uncoiled like a viper, striking the ball with power and precision on both sides of the wicket, from front and back foot. We worked together that summer and we often talked about batting. I was the student learning from the professor.
Fabulous display Sobers and Pollock then put on some fabulous batting exhibitions for a Rest of the World team on a tour of Australia in 1971/72. I was lucky enough to be able to watch their performances from inside the boundary.
The brutality of Pollock’s stroke-play in his century at Adelaide Oval inspired me to explore heavier bats. I was using a bat weighing 2 pounds 4 ounces (970 grams) at the time. Pollock’s bat was over 3 pounds (1360 grams) and he hit the ball with immense power. We were similar in height, but he was much more powerfully built.
Because Pollock hit the ball hard with effortless power, I thought the extra weight might help me. I soon learnt that extra weight came at a cost. Past a certain weight, it became an exercise in diminishing returns. I found that I was restricted with certain shots; especially the cross bat shots.
In the end I found that an extra three ounces (97 grams) was the point at which I gained power without giving away any stroke options. I learnt more from this exercise than in any physics lesson at school.
Viv Richards was the next great player who scored runs with an effortless ease. Early in his career, he made the majority of his runs through the leg side, but opposition captains and bowlers soon concentrated so much on a line outside off stump that he became equally destructive through the off side as well.
It is hard to imagine that Bradman was more destructive and more of a match-changer than Viv Richards in his prime.
Gavaskar on the other hand was much gentler and kinder to bowlers. He took them apart with deft flicks and cuts. His strength was his mind and his ability to last longer than the bowlers. His record as an opener in an era of quality fast bowling is a tribute to his skill and his courage.
Other kings of modern era
Lara and Ponting have been the other kings of the modern era. Each was a star in his own right. That they are talked of in the same breath as Tendulkar is a big compliment indeed.
Lara made the really big scores consistently. A friend of mine once asked him why it was that he made more big scores than other players. His answer was that he chose bowlers and moments when he could accelerate an innings and rack up large chunks of runs quickly.
Others, he said, played their innings at a more even pace. Lara had an appetite for the big scores that only Bradman exceeded.
I include Gilchrist in my list of champions because I think he was an amazing talent who could have been even better had he been selected as a specialist batsman first and foremost. Every one of his game-changing centuries was exceptional. They each contained a combination of audacious and brilliant strokeplay rarely seen.
All of them were great players. Tendulkar in his prime was as good as any of them; often better. It was a privilege to watch him play and every time I think of his many fine innings, a smile comes naturally.