Sachin Tendulkar ranks among four or five of the greatest batsmen to have played Test cricket. But in the one-day game, from which he retired on Sunday, he stands alone. Tendulkar might dispute the point himself, arguing that his idol, Sir Vivian Richards, was at least as great. Indeed the combination of Richards’s average (47) and strike-rate (90.20) is marginally superior, Tendulkar’s corresponding figures being 44.83 and 86.23. But the Indian did it for significantly longer, over a span of 463 matches, to the West Indian’s 187. Longevity is the most demanding test of greatness, for nothing escapes inquiry. And no one has succeeded at this test quite like Tendulkar. Curiously, the great man didn’t take to the one-day format as readily as he did to Test cricket: between 1989 and early 1994, when he batted in the middle-order, he averaged just over 31, his runs coming at the rate of 74 every 100 balls. It needed an accident — incumbent opener Navjot Singh Sidhu suffered a stiff neck in Auckland in March 1994 — to set a phenomenon in motion. Having convinced the team management that he should open, Tendulkar blitzed a match-winning 82 off just 49 balls. Neither he nor the one-day game was the same in India from that moment; the star and his stage were etched even deeper than before in the nation’s collective consciousness.
Tendulkar’s finest achievement was his finessing of one-day batting into a self-contained art form. Before him, there were, broadly, those who batted much like they did in Test cricket and those who had a ‘slog.’ Richards, Javed Miandad, and Dean Jones were exceptions; they introduced to their run-making, shades of pace — a quality that was seen in their Test play as well, but was employed more proactively in ODIs. Tendulkar expanded this quality and reinvented it constantly. In this way, he defied definition: during the course of an innings, he was several Tendulkars in one. He didn’t begin the trend of hitting the new ball over the top of the infield, but he adapted it in a manner that hadn’t been seen till then. He became a master at ticking it over in the middle overs, conserving energy for an onslaught in the final stages. But his genius lay in the nuance within this apparent template of ‘Attack, Consolidate, Attack’: he had great feel for an innings’ rhythm and the priceless ability to change it almost at will. Thus did he make 49 one-day centuries, one of them the game’s first double when he was very nearly 37. But runs to Tendulkar were only ever a means to winning. Little wonder that the World Cup triumph in 2011 is his most cherished one-day memory. Perhaps he should have retired from the format then; but the period since won’t tarnish a one-day career that appears impossible to surpass.