Sachin Tendulkar showed early on in his career that he could carry the team on his young shoulders. He curbed his natural attacking game to bat out the last day at Old Trafford and save a Test match for India which had seemed all but lost. It was an innings of rare maturity from a cherubic figure all of 17 years old, and signalled the arrival on the world stage of a prodigious talent. It was the first of many individual milestones too, but on this first occasion, the milestone was incidental.
The objective was to save the game, and the young Tendulkar never lost sight of that as he defended stoutly hour after hour even as some of his seniors at the other end succumbed to pressure and got out to loose shots. He was dropped on 10 but overcame the impetuosity of youth to do what was required. By the time dusk fell, the boy wonder had denied England a victory that was within their grasp when they had half the Indian side back in the pavilion for 127.
Tendulkar ended up with 119 not out, sharing an unbroken seventh wicket stand of 160 with all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar, who made 67 not out. This was Tendulkar’s first Test century. Only Mushtaq Mohammed of Pakistan had got a Test century at a younger age.
A hundred too far
What a contrast that was to his hundredth international century 22 years later. Here, a man pushing 40, desperate to get to a milestone that had eluded him for more than a year, was making sure he closed it out against minnows Bangladesh on the easiest of batting wickets. In the process, he gave Bangladesh the opportunity to knock India out of the Asia Cup. If ever there was an example of a player batting for a milestone, this was it.
Normally, a well-set batsman would be expected to accelerate in a one-day match as the innings progressed, particularly when a side had wickets in hand. But Tendulkar took no chances, nurdling his way to the much-awaited milestone with singles, unmindful of the situation in the game.
It wasn’t just in the nervous nineties either; the safety play started much earlier. His second fifty took longer than the first, and had only three boundaries, compared to seven fours and a six in the first fifty.
Did the team require him to slow down and anchor a ship in trouble? Not in the least. India lost their second wicket in the 36th over, and were still only two down when Tendulkar finally reached his century off 138 balls in the 44th over. He took 13 balls to move single by single from 94 to 100 at a stage when the team needed to be going hell for leather with 8 wickets in hand.
A quickfire 50 at the other end from Suresh Raina was not enough to lift India past 300, which would have been no more than par for that flat course in Mirpur. After India lost the match, the bowlers were blamed for failing to defend 289 against a team like Bangladesh, while Tendulkar was feted for achieving his milestone. Nobody wanted to point out the elephant in the room – that India could easily have posted a much higher target on that ground, against that attack, had it not been for Tendulkar going along at a safe 4 runs an over between his 50 and 100 in a match where the average scoring rate was close to 6 an over. He got to a fifty in 63 balls, then took another 75 balls to reach his century; and this was on a pitch where Bangladesh chased down a target of 290 with four balls to spare and five wickets in hand. In the next match on that same pitch, India made short work of a target of 330 set by Pakistan. They did it with more than two overs to spare, thanks to 183 in 148 balls by Virat Kohli. Tendulkar’s slow 114 in 147 balls therefore had little to do with the conditions on the ground or state of the game, and more to do with the hype and obsession over his milestone.
Perhaps Tendulkar underestimated the Bangladeshis, and thought it would not matter if he just made sure he got his elusive hundredth century even at the cost of some runs for his team. But a spirited Bangladesh and perfect batting conditions put a much higher price tag on Tendulkar’s milestone, because it cost the team the game and eventually a place in the Asia Cup final.
What it did do for Tendulkar was to end the constant speculation before every match on whether he would reach the landmark, and acute embarrassment after each game over his inability to make it for so long. That he failed to add to his tally of centuries in three Test series at home over the course of the next year or so showed that he might have been on an endless hunt for that hundred if he hadn’t grabbed his opportunity to make it against Bangladesh. But really, Tendulkar would have been better off staying at a Bradmanesque 99 centuries instead of getting to a hundredth ton in such an inglorious fashion. Besides, it was only a milestone that had been drummed up for him by marketing mavens.
The figure of hundred tons was got by combining performances in two different formats of the game, and that’s not a stat normally used to describe a player. Do we ever hear of any other player’s total number of international centuries?
When a Test series is on, it’s obviously a player’s Test record that people look at, and similarly a player’s ODI numbers will be trotted out only in an ODI series. Thus the combo stat that was Tendulkar’s so-called hundredth century, adding up his Test and ODI centuries, had more of a marketing spin to it than cricketing relevance. That Tendulkar, by his own admission, felt so much pressure to achieve such a contrived milestone indicated the extent to which his once sublime game had been taken over by the Tendulkar brand and the stats that are its bulwark.
Somebody who has played at the international level for 24 years is bound to have highest this and highest that on every conceivable batting yardstick. By mixing and matching some of those, one can derive even more exalted numbers. These Test and ODI stats can probably never be surpassed because it is difficult to imagine another cricketer starting to notch them up before the age of 16 and carrying on past 40. But while it is to Tendulkar’s credit that he was not only a child prodigy but also survived for so long on the international circuit, stats based on longevity tell us little about a cricketer’s value to his team at any given point of time. Nor do they reveal the circumstances in which the records were accumulated. Stats should be a measure of a player’s excellence, and in a team sport, that basically means his contribution towards team goals. When a record comes in the manner of Tendulkar’s hundredth ton, it should really be discounted, and not treated as a feather in the player’s cap.
Consider Tendulkar’s pursuit of that century of centuries. He had opted out of one ODI series after another following the 2011 World Cup, but chose to return to the 50-over game after failing to score a single century in three Test series against England, the West Indies and Australia. He then failed to reach even 50 – let alone a hundred – in seven matches of an ODI triseries with Australia and Sri Lanka. That’s how the Asia Cup, where he would get to play against Bangladesh, became so attractive as an opportunity to reach this ever-receding milestone. But at what cost? His century indirectly contributed to the ignominy of the world champions’ loss to Bangladesh in the Asia Cup. Wasn’t that a century for Bangladesh to cheer, rather than for India to cherish?
At the end of it all, statistically, Tendulkar had attained what was hyped up to be another pinnacle in the sport: 100 centuries. Ironically, however, this was also the lowest point in Tendulkar’s career, which had come a full circle from that first match-saving century at Old Trafford.
Scores that matter
The Asia Cup wasn’t the only occasion when Tendulkar appeared self-centred in his batting, although it was perhaps the starkest example. His 241 not out in Sydney at a steady scoring rate, when some acceleration in the latter half of the innings might have increased the chances of India winning that Test and series in 2004, has largely gone under the radar. His 194 not out in Multan a couple of months later was similar in nature, although Rahul Dravid’s declaration at that juncture drew attention to how Tendulkar had been inching towards his double century instead of getting a move on to help the team put pressure on Pakistan. (Those two knocks have been discussed in more detail in chapters one and six.)
Individual scores, records and milestones in cricket have little value if they don’t contribute to a team’s success. They only keep statisticians employed or give some commentators the grist for their hype mill.
Sometimes a century not scored is remembered more fondly than one achieved in a selfish manner. Think of Rahul Dravid in Adelaide. He was the embodiment of resilience under pressure when he shepherded India through to their first victory on Australian soil in 23 years. His 72 not out in 170 balls that day in Adelaide stood out even more because he was the last specialist batsman standing: all the others, including Sehwag, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman, had fallen by the wayside during the run chase of 233 on a dicey fourth innings wicket on which the Aussies had been bowled out for 196. In fact, no other batsman from either side crossed fifty in the second innings of that match.
A performance like that, where a batsman grits his teeth and shoulders the responsibility of taking the team across the finish line in a big game, with only a bowler for company at the other end, has eluded Tendulkar in his Test career of two decades and a half. The closest he came to doing that was in 1999, when he was at his best, as we shall see in the next chapter.
(Excerpted from Master Laster: What They Don’t Tell You About Sachin Tendulkar, authored by Sumit Chakraberty and published by Hay House)