Mahinda Wijesinghe, Courtesy of the Island, 14 October 2010
There have been many outstanding batsmen in the 133-year old history of international cricket. The first was England’s controversial Dr. W. G. Grace (1848 – 1915) who not only revolutionized the art of batting by mastering the skill of forward and back play but also assisted in bringing the game up to the level of a spectator-sport. Although he played all of his 22 Test matches in the latter part of the 19th century – the last, against England, when he was on the verge of becoming 51 years of age! – his performances, when compared with the modern era seems insignificant; averaging 32.29 with an aggregate of 1098 Test runs is not something to write home about, but amassing a colossal 54,000-plus runs in the first-class circuit in 870 games (average 32.39) including 124 centuries was another matter. Rightfully, he earned the sobriquet of ‘The Champion’.
Hardly a decade passed before the next crème de la crème of batsmen arrived on the scene, namely, John Berry Hobbs (1882 – 1963) who played his first Test for England at Melbourne in January 1908. His last was in 1930 at The Oval, when aged 48. Eldest in a family of 12 children and always referred to as ‘Jack’, possibly since his father’s name too was John, this accomplished opening batsman took batsmanship to yet another level. His technique on all types of wicket was reckoned almost perfect earning him the epithet of ‘Master’ and most described his batting as the coaching manual “come alive”.
In 61 Test matches he aggregated 5,410 runs at a commendable average of 56.9 including 15 hundreds but his piece-de-resistance was the colossal 61,237 first-class runs he accumulated including a staggering 197 hundreds making him easily the most prolific batsman in the history of the game. Later, the Association of Cricket Statisticians added two more hundreds which Hobbs scored for the Maharajah of Vizianagram’s XI during a tour of Ceylon, taking the final tally to a breath-taking 199 hundreds – a figure that would indeed be impossible to surpass. The more significant aspect of this feat is that 98 of these hundreds were made after the age of 40 years! In recognition of his conduct both on and off the field, he was knighted in 1953 for his services to cricket becoming the first professional cricketer to attain such status.
Coincidentally, Hobb’s last Test series in 1930, versus traditional rivals Australia, heralded the advent of the next champion, Donald George Bradman. Indeed, the previous champion watched 21-year old Bradman, on his debut series, plundering a monumental 974 runs in 7 innings – a figure that still stands unchallenged after 80 years. After fielding during this carnage here’s what Hobbs had to say of Bradman: “I recall that we said “Well played” to him so often – ‘Well played, Bradman, well played Don!’ – that it became really monotonus”. A new champion was born, one who practically demolished opposing bowlers with clinical precision and ended his career with a Himalayan Test average of 99.94. Here again, just as in the careers of Grace and Hobbs, The Don’s performances in a career extending almost two decades (with the World War II intervening just as World War I interrupted Hobbs’s career) ending in 1948, would certainly remain untouched. Interestingly, though Bradman saw Hobbs in action when the latter was well past his best, at 46 years of age, yet commented: “I could detect no flaw in attack or defence. His footwork was always correct, stroke production sound, and he seemed to get out simply because he was a fallible mortal and made errors of judgement.” What a tribute from one champion to another.
For the next four decades there were many outstanding batsmen, such as the West Indian trio of Weekes, Worrell and Walcott, followed by Sobers and Viv Richards, England’s Len Hutton, Peter May and Denis Compton, Australia’s Neil Harvey & Arthur Morris, New Zealander Bert Sutcliffe, Pakistani Hanif Mohammed, Indian Sunil Gavaskar, and not forgetting the fleeting appearances of the South Africans, Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards. However, none could be deemed to wear the mantle of the aforementioned champions.
In 1989, however a cherubic faced 16-year old Indian, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, made a relatively quiet Test debut, against traditional rivals Pakistan, in an away series. The right hander did not shake the cricket world, as the previous champion did in his first Test series. A mere aggregate of 215 runs in 6 innings was Tendulkar’s first contribution, including two half-centuries, as his mite towards the Indian totals. His first hundred, against England at Manchester, was registered in only his 14th innings. Bradman, on the other hand, had recorded 3 single hundreds, one double and one triple century – the latter he reached in a day’s play! – during his first 14 innings.
However, in the next few years, a story was going to unfold that entitled the Indian to become the current champion batsman and to take over the baton from Bradman though it took some time. The Don himself had reportedly stated that Tendulkar’s stroke production reminded him of his own style. Unlike The Don, Tendulkar’s Achilles heel was consistency. Tendulkar’s batting average is only a tad more than half Bradman’s. Of course, in mitigation one could claim that to retain consistency in the modern merry-go-round of international cricket may have even taxed the former champion. As mentioned earlier, Tendulkar took his own time to lay claim to the crown. In his first ten years at the top level, he registered 22 hundreds, then in the next, he churned out 27 and there’s no telling when he will stop though now aged 37 years. Tendulkar has now registered 14,240 Test runs, 17,598 runs in ODI’s – the highest by any single player. This package also includes the most Test & ODI hundreds, 49 & 46 respectively. One need not be a fortune teller to predict a career record of 50 hundreds in both forms of the game before he retires.
Just like Hobbs and Bradman, Tendulkar was not subject to histrionics on the field and always conducted himself in a manner that is an ideal role model for youngsters to follow. The other common factor between Hobbs and Tendulkar – unlike Bradman who had the temperament and the ability to annihilate opposing bowlers with a technique that is his own when the occasion demanded – was that both followed the coaching manual almost religiously. Finally, just as Hobbs reserved his best for the latter part of his career (98 of his 199 hundreds when past the age of 40) it appears that Tendulkar is on a similar track (27 of his 49 hundreds has been recorded in the second phase of his career). Both these legendary players, like good wine, got better with maturity.
No wonder, Hobbs was known as the ‘Master’ while the 5 ft. 5 ins. Tendulkar is referred to as the ‘Little Master’.