Thursday, April 21, 2011

How great is Tendulkar? || Ben Dirs

There is, I will admit, something slightly absurd about journalists ranking the deeds of our finest sportsmen and women: who am I, to whom greatness is a stranger, to judge greatness in others? And how 'great', really, is someone who happens to have been conferred with the talent of ball control? Mandela-great? Give me a break.

Yet there was lionisation of gladiators in ancient Rome and wrestlers in ancient Greece, suggesting it is inherent in humans to be awed by the athletic prowess of others. No pub bores back in Neolithic times, but there were probably caves full of blokes arguing over who was the greatest tree-climber ever. Even Nelson Mandela, usually taken up with more cerebral matters, admits one of his biggest heroes is Muhammad Ali.

So, let's have it then: how great is Sachin Tendulkar, who goes into Saturday's World Cup final needing to score one century to have amassed 100 in international cricket and one win away from sending the nation of India into meltdown? To answer that question, first it is necessary to define sporting greatness. Then we must address whether Tendulkar fits each component part of that definition.

Don't worry, this isn't a university thesis. But Tendulkar hagiographies are everywhere, and for a full-on love letter to 'The Little Master', you can read a blog I wrote before the World Cup kicked off in earnest, what seems like a eternity ago.

When Andrew Flintoff retired from cricket in 2009 arguments raged in the media and in pubs across the land as to whether he was great or not. I said not, because the first component part of greatness is cold hard statistics.

In 79 Tests and 141 one-day internationals, Flintoff scored eight centuries and took five five-wicket hauls, and never a 10-fer. South Africa's Jacques Kallis has to date played 145 Tests and 314 ODIs, scoring 57 centuries and taking seven five-wicket hauls. In addition, his bowling average in Tests is better than Flintoff's (the Englishman's ODI bowling average is, admittedly, markedly lower).

If a great cricketer is someone whose numbers are comparatively better than all or almost all of his contemporaries, then Kallis qualifies. Flintoff does not. Tendulkar, meanwhile, has scored 30 more tons than the next highest century-maker in international cricket, Ricky Ponting, which puts the Indian out on his own. Miles out, in fact, just like Don Bradman's vertiginous batting average.

Flintoff was a cricketer who occasionally did great things, which is different from being a great cricketer. Which takes us to our next component parts of greatness - longevity and consistency of performance.

To have scored 99 international centuries, it has been necessary for Tendulkar to be at the top of the game for more than 20 years, which in any sport is extraordinary. In that time, he has suffered nary a blip. He had a rough time in Tests in 2006, but the following year he scored 776 runs at an average of 55.4. Not much of a blip.

Paul Gascoigne, one of my few footballing heroes, had more talent in his big toe than most England footballers playing today. But truly great? I would have to say no - too few highlights, far too many lows.

John Daly has won two majors in golf, but only one tournament since claiming the Open Championship in 1995. Does that make him a better golfer than Colin Montgomerie, who has 40 professional wins to his name spanning 18 years, but none of them a major? And if so, does it follow that Daly is necessarily a great? Again, I would have to say no.

Longevity was a big part of Ali's greatness - he won Olympic gold in 1960 and regained the heavyweight world title 18 years later. Mike Tyson, past his best by the age of 24, does not even make venerable boxing historian Bert Sugar's all-time heavyweight top 10.

Sugar, meanwhile, has Britain's Lennox Lewis down at 18 in his list. This is frankly bizarre, but I can understand his thinking: Lewis' achievements, Sugar would no doubt argue, are downgraded by a lack of competition. Competition and rivalry are also significant factors in greatness.

Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal are considered by some to be the two greatest tennis players of all time, and that is in large part down to the fact they have amassed 25 Grand Slam titles between them by having to beat each other on a regular basis.

In Tendulkar's first Test, against Pakistan in Karachi in 1989, the 16-year-old faced fearsome pace duo Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis and he played during the last flourishing of great West Indian quicks. Against Australia, the world's best team for much of the last 20 years, he averages 46 in ODIs and more than 60 in Tests. Like Federer and Nadal, like Nicklaus and Palmer, he thrived against the best.

But where, I hear some of you ask, are Tendulkar's medals, concrete proof of a sportsperson's greatness? Truth is, Tendulkar has won nothing of note. But this is often the way with team sports, especially modern cricket, where the best play almost exclusively in the international arena and the World Cup is the only thing of note to win.

A better gauge of the greatness of team players is how they perform on the biggest stage, and to that end Tendulkar is peerless. In six World Cups, Tendulkar has scored the most runs (2,260 to date), most centuries (six), most 50+ scores (21) and the most runs in a single tournament (673 in 2003). Sure, he has not won a World Cup (yet), but Italy rugby captain Sergio Parisse has a fair few Six Nations Wooden Spoons in his imaginary utensil drawer and is considered at number eight for any world XV.

Last, it is necessary to look at how Tendulkar has gone about his business - the manner in which he has achieved what he has. Personally, I don't subscribe to the view that Tiger Woods is any less great because of his personal travails or because he spits and curses on the course. But there are those who think Tom Watson, for example, is the greater golfer because of his more dignified nature.

Temperament-wise, Tendulkar is more Watson than Woods. During three decades at the pinnacle of his sport, under the glare of more than a billion countrymen, there has been barely a hint of controversy. Indeed, some would argue he has been a little bit dull, that a bit of off-field strife or outspokenness would have made him a more engaging figure.

But it is impossible to imagine the pressure Tendulkar is under. As the signs at his home ground in Mumbai will say on Saturday: "If cricket is a religion, then Sachin is God." The poor bloke has enough on his plate without inviting more attention, and perhaps only Manny Pacquiao, whose fights stop wars in his native Philippines, can truly empathise.

Where Tendulkar is concerned, it is not a case of whether he is great, but how great. Ask a member of England's Rugby World Cup-winning side of 2003 who the most important member of the team was and there is a good chance he will say Richard Hill. Hill is a bona fide great, but he is fortunate in that he can stroll round his local supermarket and hardly anyone will recognise him.

The true greats - the really, really, really great - transcend their sport, become almost god-like, and gods don't go to the supermarket for their shopping. Tendulkar, a legend in his own career, is on the top table, up there with Tiger and Jordan and Pele. Not the greatest, though - I'm with Mandela, that simply has to be Ali, the greatest great there has ever been and probably ever will be.

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