Michael Atherton, Courtesy of The Times and The Australian, 17 March 2012
CRICKET is a game in thrall to numbers. For all Donald Bradman’s greatness, it is often the failure, by 0.06, that he is remembered for. Other numbers stick in the mind, too: for Brian Lara, the record for the highest score wasn’t enough, 501 sounded so much better. Half an eye on his brand, some quipped. For Sachin Tendulkar, the number obsession, rather like Bradman, is 99 and despite his unbelievable record, it was his failure rather than his great successes that interested people up to last night. He finally broke his drought in the Asia Cup last night against Bangladesh. His previous innings in the tournament when he was dismissed for six, elicited a tweet from an English cricket writer of long-standing: “Can someone just lob a few throw-downs to Tendulkar and get this ridiculous thing out of the way?”
“This ridiculous thing” was Tendulkar’s quest for his hundredth international hundred, a made-up statistic given that it combines different forms of the game, but one that probably will never be challenged again. It had been just over a year since Tendulkar scored a hundred. That came during the World Cup in Nagpur against South Africa, and the manner of it, freewheeling and exhilarating at the start and the finish, was in great contrast to the careworn batsman who has gone to the crease on most of the 367 days since.
I am indebted to Benedict Bermange, Sky Sports’ superb cricket statistician, for working out that this is Tendulkar’s longest wait for a hundred since the gap between his first – scored in Manchester in August 1990 – and his second, in Sydney 511 days later. Never, between then and now, has Tendulkar had to wait for more than a year to celebrate three figures.
What this obsession had done was to take a hardened, seasoned professional back to his sometimes uncertain youth. Recently he has been batting like a novice learning the ropes rather than someone who has learnt them better than virtually everyone else in history.
Ian Chappell, one of the game’s most astute observers, was no doubt forced to wear a hard hat after writing in an Indian daily about Tendulkar’s tour to Australia, which he described as a missed opportunity of a glorious farewell. Having watched the entire series, Chappell noticed moments of freedom, during the Melbourne and Sydney Tests, for example, and the one-day match in Hobart. But each time, as Tendulkar’s mind switched to the impending obstacle of three figures, his game lost its elasticity and tightened up and, like a muscle, eventually snapped.
Chappell pointed to his dismissal in Sydney, pushing half-forward defensively to the innocuous left-arm spin of Michael Clarke, as proof of Tendulkar’s faulty mindset. The more Tendulkar had coveted his hundred, the harder it had been for him to achieve it, a lesson to all sportsmen that wanting something too badly is not necessarily the best way to go.
The wait had not only become tiresome, it had also shone a harsh light on Tendulkar himself and what is motivating him to continue. There are many reasons for playing the game, but, as Chappell pointed out, the main one should always be to try to help your teammates to win games. Other considerations – financial, the challenge and especially personal statistics – should come second to that.
Tendulkar’s recent struggles suggest a man a little too self-absorbed for his own good and that of his team. For the past year, it has been as if the India team have been in limbo while Tendulkar stalked his milestone.
The process of moving on has begun with the retirement of the great Rahul Dravid, and the eulogies that marked his passing as a player should remind his more exalted colleague that numbers are not everything. Of all the words spilt over Dravid, only a fraction concentrated on his statistics, on the thousands of runs, the hundreds and his fifty-plus Test average.
Greatness cannot be achieved without some fundamental figures, but Dravid’s greatness was measured in much more than that. My favourite Dravid innings was at Headingley in 2002, when, on a difficult pitch and in often difficult light, he scored a technically superb hundred to help India to level the series (Tendulkar also scored a brilliant hundred in that match). Big runs, but big runs that mattered.
Dravid’s excellence was to the fore again during a difficult tour to England last summer, and through it all his selflessness stood out. While Tendulkar was an immovable object at No 4, no matter how much disruption there was to the order, Dravid was prepared to do whatever the team needed; whether keeping wicket at Lord’s or opening at Lord’s and the Oval, Dravid put his team’s needs above his wishes.
Others pointed to Dravid’s quiet dignity, his unfailing good manners and politeness and his evident regard for the history and spirit of the game, so that the end-portrait of a cricketer was one who gave colour, context and credence to the bare numbers.
The hope is that now Tendulkar has scored his hundredth hundred, we can all move on and celebrate someone who has been a truly wonderful cricketer in so many ways, rather than a humble number-cruncher.