The world’s best cricketer is on British soil this summer, in what may be his final tour of England. Sachin Tendulkar of India is here. There is a strong case that he is not only the greatest cricketer, but also at present the greatest sportsman in the world.
Tendulkar was born in Mumbai in 1973; his father, Ramesh, was a Marathi-language novelist. Sachin has always been special. In 1988, during a school match, he and a partner scored 664 runs between them, a record for any form of the game. Such was the ferocity of the onslaught that the bowlers were reduced to tears. This got him noticed, and the following year he was selected to make his first-class debut for Bombay aged only 15. Playing against professional cricketers, the boy scored a century. The following year he made his Test match debut for India against Pakistan. The Test match is the five-day long, most demanding form of the game. While batting, he was surprised by a quick delivery that hit him in the face, causing a nosebleed. Tendulkar did not leave the field and continued playing in a bloodstained shirt.
It was a harsh introduction, but since then his achievements in the international game have been astounding. He has scored more runs for India than any other player has ever scored for their country. In Test matches, for example, he has scored 14,692 runs—a fifth more again than the second-placed batsman, Ricky Ponting of Australia. In one-day international matches, the gap is even wider: Tendulkar has put away 18,111 runs, almost 35 per cent more than his nearest rival Sanath Jayasuria of Sri Lanka. Tendulkar is quantitatively the greatest batsman in the game. Discussions are underway to build a museum to his career in the city of Pune. There are no current bowlers of equivalent stature
now that Australia’s Shane Warne and Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan have retired.
But numbers are not all—the aesthetic must not be overlooked. Some batsmen have risen in the game on account of their physical strength. Tendulkar, nicknamed the “Little Master,” stands only five feet four. He has become the best through a combination of hand-eye co-ordination and elegance. As the West Indian writer CLR James noted in his famous book Beyond a Boundary, “cricket does… contain genuinely artistic elements.” If this is true, then Tendulkar’s play is the strongest example of this artistry currently in existence.
A similar point was made in Prospect in June, though in relation to tennis. The writer Geoff Dyer noted Roger Federer had shown that: “The most effective way to play, not just in terms of results but in terms of wear and tear on the body, was also the most graceful.” What Federer has proved for tennis, Tendulkar has shown for cricket.
At which point, a question arises: can Federer, perhaps the greatest ever tennis player, be measured alongside Tendulkar? One instructive comparison is the distance by which each leads the trailing pack. Federer has won 16 Grand Slam tennis titles. In second place is Pete Sampras on 14, which makes Federer 14 per cent more successful than his nearest competitor. Tendulkar has scored a total of 32,803 runs for India in Test and one-day internationals combined. Ponting, in second place, has scored 25,769, meaning that Tendulkar has scored 27.3 per cent more again than his nearest rival. His lead is nearly twice that of Federer.
There are other great individuals in world sport—can any challenge the suggestion that Tendulkar is the greatest? Lionel Messi, the Barcelona forward, is too young for the accolade. Tiger Woods’s career has hit the buffers after personal troubles and the assorted stars of baseball and American football are too parochial. Tendulkar stands above these—Federer included.
Added to which, of course, Roger Federer does not have 1.2bn Swiss people hanging on his every shot. Tendulkar has carried the expectations of all India for his entire career. When his playing days were beginning in 1991, India fell into economic crisis and came close to default. But since then, the economy has surged. Growth has been at more than 7 per cent a year since 1997 and GDP stands at $1.5 trillion. It is now the 12th largest economy in the world. India and its biggest star rose together; Tendulkar is symbolic of this ascent.
He is not, however, the greatest cricketer of all time. The immortal Donald Bradman still holds that accolade. His batting average, 99.94, is almost 64 per cent more again than the player in second place (Graeme Pollock of South Africa). The Australian was an outlier in the true sense—his average will never be equalled. But Bradman, who died in 2001, was a fan of Tendulkar and he made sure to watch him during India’s tours of Australia. His assessment of Tendulkar’s capabilities is perhaps the greatest sporting compliment ever paid. “He reminds me,” said Bradman, “of myself.”