Having deliberated on the reasons for Sachin Tendulkar's Numero-Uno standing in Indian cricket in the previous post, let me attempt to answer the question that divides opinion on Sachin in the most damning fashion, the one question that can get fans and critics wound up almost immediately and possibly the one question that gets added importance when the great batsman is in the final lap of his long cricketing career, the eternal - "Is he an All-time great test player or a merely great player of his era". Based on reader feedback, have decided to suspend the writing style that sacrificed brevity. Also suspended would be the (enormous) self-restraint that I placed on myself in order to be objective. Having written a long piece on how the Sachin polarizes opinion among average Indian fans, it would be presumptuous of me to be non-opinionated. God Forbid, No.
In the era where there is a thin line separating freedom of speech from conflict-inciting rhetoric, I will begin my piece with a request to all of the 3 people or so reading this piece to view this piece in the right light and promptly fight off all thoughts of inflicting grievous physical injury on the writer.
To begin with, let us set the context right. What we are trying to ascertain is not a statistical evaluation of the cricketing achievements of Sachin, neither are we trying to see whether he is the most important cricketing icon of the country, nor is this an attempt to compare Sachin with other members of the Indian team and measure his performance. We are not trying to ascertain how fans would evaluate Sachin; we are trying to evaluate how history would. And in order to have a more active discussion on "All-Time" greats, we have limited our context to Test cricket and excluded ODI's. Otherwise, we would be like Americans playing "World Series" Baseball if we discussed the "All time greats" in a version of sport that has had a relevant history of 25 years, in 16 of which the protagonist has played in. The distinction between a contemporary good performer and an All-time great would be thinner than the icy ground I would be standing on once I have slowly veered the reader towards my own prejudices.
In order to evaluate this question seriously while still keeping it simple, I have listed but three criteria to distinguish between the great and the merely good. The first and most simple criteria would be the time-span spent at the top of the pile among contemporary players. Every player hits a purple patch, but consistent performances over a period of time and against varied opposition would only merit a place among all time greats. The obvious extension of this criterion would be that the aspiring-to-be-great player must not have an Achilles Heel. In other words, there must not be a facet of the sportsman that can be considered as an obvious weakness, or stated in more severe terms removing the benefit of doubt away from the player; there must be demonstrated capability for playing on all surfaces, against all opposition in all conditions. Players like Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Carl Hooper would fall at the first hurdle while Ian Botham with his none-too-impressive record against the West Indies and Ricky Ponting with his so-far-not-proven record in India would fall at the second.
The second criteria that I wish to establish is that the player should have the ability to hold center stage in a match and force the direction of play. He should have the ability to dominate the opposition, an ability to have a devastating period of play and therefore impact the entire course of the series. The player should have this intangible presence at the crease that allows fans to dream of possibilities even in dire situations and evokes fear and respect in opposition players who have a constant awareness of the threat posed by that one player; a presence because of which opposition players say "the match isn’t really over until we dismiss him, or, see off his spell". This presence can be brought on by the sheer genius of the player making an impact with his huge talent, a la Vivian Richards, or Keith Miller, or by a presence acquired by the not-so-gifted by sheer weight of performances under trying circumstances, as in the case of the indomitable Stephen Waugh (a quality, that for all his talent, his brother Mark Waugh sadly never did acquire). Notable good players that would fail to make the cut because of not having this "quality" would be Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock. I know that criteria no. 2 seems like a contrived factor through I which I can eliminate players whom I don’t have a particular liking to in the forthcoming (likely) scenario of these three criteria becoming the accepted international benchmarks for assessing greatness, but then I did warn you that I would make my prejudices count.
The third criteria which would distinguish a great career would have to be a series of defining performances, a series of testaments attesting the proof of the pudding, signature knocks, legendary bowling spells, outstanding series, match-winning performances, marks on sporting history that become part of cricketing folklore, a timeless testimony of talent that has found fulfillment. History has a bias towards events that sometimes undeservedly relegates eras to second position; sporting history is no different. Stories of Curtly Ambrose turning in a fiery spell after being irked by Steve Waugh will be retold by generations, while Ambrose's overall statistics will rarely get discussed. Exceptional performances have this happy habit of being retained for posterity, while patient accumulation does not. The obvious caveat for judging greatness based on signature performances would be that they should not be one-off. Graham Gooch's outstanding 154 against West Indies or Mike Atherton's excellent 182 against SA would be noted in cricketing history as a one-off brilliant performance by a steady performer, but not as a signature performance by a great player.
Now, having set the context in which to discuss Sachin Tendulkar's career, we can go to the onerous task of actually ascertaining his position in history. The sheer weight of the runs he has scored and his awe-inspiring presence at the crease make the evaluation along the first 2 criteria a no-brainer. It is in the third criterion that Sachin Tendulkar might fail to make the cut.
My contention is that Sachin has rarely ever played innings that have determined the course of an entire series. In fact, barring a wonderfully belligerent 155* in the Chennai test of the India-Australia series in 1999 where he showed Shane Warne who was boss, there haven’t been any innings that have been series-determining. It is unfortunate that some of his best overseas innings like Perth 1992, Edgbaston 1996(?), Johannesburg 1999(?) and in Wellington 2001(?) have been in lost causes. Though these have been masterclasses in batsmanship, their impact on the course of the series has been minimal. Unfortunate circumstances, a laughable bowling attack and a mediocre support cast have all been contributed in ample measure for this state, but the bottom line remains that there is a clear blot on Sachin's CV which provides ample ammunition for his critics to point at when Cricketing Hall of fame comes beckoning. When history judges Sachin's performances, he could get slotted into that fateful "Special mention" category, instead of marching on as one of the winners. A slot not different from the one occupied by the Dutch Football team in the World cup context or by Ivan Lendl in Wimbledon.
According to me, Sachin Tendulkar seamlessly transformed from a player with extraordinary promise who was set to rule the world to a player who, albeit being past his prime was a great player nevertheless. There was a phase in his career, when every pundit said "If he is this good now, how will he be a few years from now"; a few years later these same pundits were saying "Even at this age, after these many years in international cricket, he is still one of the best in the world". What I find disconcerting is that this promised "peak" of Sachin never came. As a once-die-hard fan of Sachin Tendulkar, I am still awaiting for that one fantastic series, one run of extraordinary innings, one stamp of class that puts distance between him and Number 2. The only difference being that, at the beginning there was an eager expectation before each series of witnessing a defining performance from Sachin; this slowly gave way to desperate hope that he would finally deliver that great innings to silence his critics. Now what remains is just a prayer for that final swansong, a la Marlon Brando in Godfather. That promised "peak" never came. (The heart still says the promised peak "hasn’t come yet", but years of disappointment have made the brain a touch cynical)
Perhaps this is because of the weight of the promise that was made to us Sachin fans at the beginning of his career, or perhaps it was our own fault in building our expectations to such spectacular levels that even Sachin could not achieve, but the truth is that there remains a lack of complete fulfillment when looking back at Sachins career. Too many "could-have-beens" casting their lengthy shadows. Too few instances when the prodigious talent has found expression in a sufficiently forceful manner to impact important series.
Now, for all my smugness at having arrived at the foolproof method of assessing "greatness" in cricketers, I realize that this entire process is merely an exercise to express one side of a long-running debate and attempt (rather feebly) to pass it off as a verdict. Any half-wit can easily evolve a set of criteria for assessing greatness that could contrive to create anomalies. And it would be just as easy to pick holes in any set of criteria presented and discredit the assessment. (The obvious 'hole' in this set of criteria would be the fact that there has been a deliberate super-positioning of team's performance in an individual's assessment. My defense is that context super-cedes statistics in historic assessment, and series outcome is as good a proxy for context as anything else. But this contention is imminently debatable)
This is today's post. Feel free to revile.