Last hurrah for Sachin Tendulkar plays out in Oz

2007-12-22 00:00

SACHIN Tendulkar’s last tour of Australia starts in front of a huge crowd in Melbourne on Boxing Day. It is an eagerly awaited final appearance by one of the masters who graced the game in the 1990s.

Numerous gifted players emerged in that decade but three stood apart as more brilliant and compelling than the rest. Already two of them have departed to that rest home for ageing and famous cricketers, the Indian cricket league, where they will be feted and spoilt and admired because of the cricketers they have been. No longer able to dazzle, they will enjoy a last taste of fame and fortune.

In some opinions Brian Lara was the greatest batsmen of them all. Certainly, he was the most exhilarating to watch and at times the hardest to subdue. More than any batsmen since Viv Richards he could strike any ball to the boundary. Whereas the Antiguan brutalised the leather, though, dismissing it from his regal and yet intimidating presence, his Trinidadian successor relied on scintillating strokes produced not with muscle but with wrist. Where Richards, butchered, Lara dissected.

But the two mighty West Indians had one thing in common, a mercurial spirit, a moodiness that was part of their greatness and also its limitation. Neither was mechanical of stroke or outlook. Both responded to instinct. They have been lucky because they are remembered for their surges and forgiven for their lapses.

More than his fellow legends, Lara waxed and waned. In the middle of his career he repeatedly let down a team that looked towards him. Only as he approached the end of the road did he start to think about his legacy and then a better man appeared, one capable of rejuvenating the team.

Ultimately he was frustrated by the incompetence and lack of resolve shown by his colleagues.

On song, Lara could display formidable powers of concentration and an extraordinary will.

His series of innings against the Australians in the Caribbean was arguably the greatest collection seen from any batsman since Richards demolished England in 1976. But he lacked the stamina to maintain that level for years. Few champions have always been at their best. Even Don Bradman suffered long bouts of illness in his playing days. Yet he lived to a ripe old age.

Shane Warne was the finest bowler of his era. And the era did belong to him. Only the most remarkable spinner could have changed the game as did the Victorian.

Starting in an age of pace, the wrist-spinner revived a supposedly lost part of the game and thereby recaptured part of its heritage. Part con man, part genius, he tormented, teased and toyed with batsmen, tearing them apart with cruel beauty. He was supremely accurate, too, and and throughout seemed to have the ball dangling on a string. Otherwise he could not have worked his wonders.

Warne was flawed and could be frustrating, but he was also wonderfully theatrical and entertaining. In his early years a buzz went around the ground whenever he peeled off his sweater and began that slow, short, somehow amusing approach. At once he was as daft as a donkey and as cunning as a rat. And always he played to the gallery and understood the working of the game and the weak points of his opponents. He was a plotter and planner, and an artist with a ball in his hand.

Only Tendulkar remains of this astonishing threesome. He has been around for a long time, played in Warne’s first Test match, took part in the flogging of a portly tweaker no-one expected to see again. Ever since he has carried an extraordinary weight of expectation and has worn it more lightly than any reasonable person could expect. It is enough that he is still alive and well and playing cricket. But it goes further. He has a family and has led an almost blameless life despite the corruptions that appeared around him.

Highly regarded elsewhere, Tendulkar has found his home crowd hardest to please. Significantly, both Warne and Lara bow to him. Warne placed him top of an otherwise absurd list of distinguished contemporaries. Yet India continues to pick holes in him, complaining that he does not shine on the big occasions and has become cautious. It is odd that Warne was rebuked for remaining rash whilst the Indian is condemned for growing up. Now the last of the treasures begins with his last series downunder. Watching him bat has been the greatest pleasure the game has had to offer.

In some opinions Tendulkar and Lara are the last of the small batsmen. They argue that the game has been taken over by powerful men. We shall see. Over the years small batsmen have dominated cricket because they have been better balanced and able to score off both feet. Admittedly sport is nowadays dominated by massive figures but skill still has a part to play. Other veterans manage to hold the crown. Did not Chaminda Vaas disrupt England yesterday with gentle seamers?

Tendulkar is a giant. In most respects Warne and Lara have been his match but they have not carried his burden or played with his honour and therefore fall a short step behind.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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