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By Suresh Menon
Sachin Tendulkar is the greatest player to have batted in coloured clothes. For nearly two decades after he made his one-day international debut, Tendulkar was the king without a crown. That crown – a World Cup title – came in his sixth attempt, last year in India. Unlike in the longer format of the game where you had to take in elements other than pure cricket to bolster your case, in one-day cricket there has never been any doubt. Tendulkar was the best.
There were two options in Tendulkar's bag guaranteed to wipe away the frustration and the public humiliation of recent months. He could have scored a series of centuries, or he could have announced his retirement. The recent disappointments should not colour our appraisal of an all-time great. That he announced his decision to retire on the day the selectors were choosing an Indian team might suggest a kindness he certainly deserved. It does not matter now.
By quitting ODI four months short of his 40th birthday, Tendulkar has left his options open in Test cricket. He played less than a third of India's 37 ODI matches since the World Cup win, and the light was surely dimming. Yet the decision, symbolically arrived at on the longest night of the year, will usurp on-field events as the biggest cricket story of the year. Even partial retirements remind us of life's inevitabilities.
More remarkable than the runs he scored has been the manner in which Tendulkar retained his passion and his fitness over 23 years. Periodically, his body parts which threatened to end his career – from the shoulder to the heel and everything in between – became national news. But each time Tendulkar came back with renewed vigour, greater hunger and despite the breaks starred in more than half the ODI ever played by India.
And since shorter the game, greater the importance of statistics, here are some: Tendulkar played more games (463), made more runs (18,426), and more centuries (49) than anybody else. Of the Top 10 batsmen – those with over ten thousand runs – only Jacques Kallis has the marginally better average, only Sanat Jayasuriya the better strike rate and only Ricky Ponting held more catches than Tendulkar (140). In that list, only Jayasuriya had more wickets than Tendulkar's 154. This is one of those cases where the stats do not lie – Tendulkar was indeed the best of the lot, the first choice in a game for Earth versus Mars.
Tendulkar made his first century in his 79th match, having made the career-changing move to opening the batting in his 70th match after Navjot Sidhu pulled out with a strained neck in Auckland. Tendulkar, then a few days short of his 21st birthday, smashed 82 off just 49 deliveries with 15 boundaries and two sixes. The greatest ODI opener, and the greatest ODI century-maker had been set on his way over six months and ten matches – the greatest all-time ODI batsman followed inevitably.
At 16, on his first tour of Pakistan, Tendulkar was not expected to play ODI. And then came Peshawar. Tendulkar's treatment of Abdul Qadir, the great leg spinner is part of folklore now. The boy had curly hair, curiosity in his eyes, and steel in his wrists. He played only because it was not an official match, and Kapil Dev was nursing a stiff neck. At that stage there was no plan to play Tendulkar in ODI at all. But after that he couldn't be denied.
Eighteen deliveries changed everything. In that time he made 53 (unbeaten), hitting Mushtaq Ahmed for two huge sixes, and then Abdul Qadir for 27 runs in a single over, with three sixes in a row. There was no wild slogging. When Qadir dropped one short as Tendulkar stepped out, the batsman had the arrogance to go through with his shot anyway. The bat made a lovely arc, and for all we know the ball is still travelling - no one could find it.
At the other end was the captain, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, no slouch himself. Later that evening he said, referring to the one-day series, "The little bugger must play now." The little bugger has been playing ever since, while many of those he played with are coming to terms with the challenges of middle age.
Whereas in Test cricket, Tendulkar has played some great innings but few definitive ones, in ODI, he has played both. The centuries in Sharjah, for instance, twice in succession against Australia, the 98 in the World Cup, the double century in Gwalior against South Africa. If the Sharjah centuries were made by a sportsman at the peak of his powers, the double came off the bat of a mature run-gatherer who hardly played a single stroke that was not in the coaching manual.
And therein lay Tendulkar's greatness as a batsman in the shorter format – he combined orthodoxy and innovation to a degree unmatched by any of his contemporaries. He could slash over third man with panache or whip the ball from outside the off stump past mid on with power. He could be beaten and still recover to hit a boundary. But above all, he could frustrate the best bowlers by playing with a straight bat and a sense of mischief.
He set such high standards that not only was he expected to score a century every time he went out to bat, he was expected to pulverise the bowling. He did both ithrough most of his career, and that spoilt us. Perhaps our greed was greater than his ambition which from an early age was no longer exclusively his alone. Every thousand runs was seen merely as the starting point for the next thousand. In the end, we had to be content with fewer than 20,000 runs and 50 centuries. Such seductive round figures, but increasingly less meaningful to a player who had achieved so much.
The Tendulkar-shaped hole at the top of the order will always remind us of the man who occupied that space, took Indian cricket to great heights, and in the end bowed out leaving behind the figures, and the memories. Our grandchildren will ask us: Did such a man really exist?