A force of nature vs a natural

2010-07-31 00:00

SACHIN Tendulkar’s latest Test double hundred has prompted even more garlands for the audacious youngster turned classical sage.

Most particularly it has renewed debate about his standing in the game. Of course he is an important figure. Already he has scored 94 centuries in international cricket and, injuries permitting, few doubt that he will attain three figures.

It is a mind boggling achievement. Where, though, does he stand amongst the exalted. Don Bradman belonged in a category of his own. After all he averaged 35 more per innings than any contemporary. That brooks no augment. A fairer comparison is with that other master of the last 50 years, Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards.

Richards and Tendulkar expressed their prodigious talent in different ways that reflected different dispositions; one a force of nature, the other a natural. Apart from the runs they scored and a slightly amused willingness to try their hand at various bowling styles, they have little in common.

Richards made his presence felt with urgings and a hauteur defined by a nose that might have belonged to an eagle. His involvement was passionate and pointed. Always it was personal, always it was about something: a neglected island, a scorned people, a disdained colour, a patronised county. Always there was a certain wrath. Repose was not his temper. Consider his highest moments, the onslaught in ’76 after Tony Greig said he wanted to make the West Indians grovel, the attacks on Bob Willis, whose supposedly belittling remarks of years ago remained in his mind. Richards could not bat to score runs; the practice itself was not enough. There had to be a reason.

Tendulkar has never been an avenging angel. It is hard to remember him losing his temper. Always he wants to bring down his opponents, but it is never personal or nationalistic. He has always been comfortable in his own skin and country and team and colour and creed. Richards came to cricket with causes, for Tendulkar cricket is the cause.

Even their walks onto the field were different. Richards used to wait in the rooms till the departing man had almost left the field. Perhaps he had been snoozing in the rooms — never sleeping for he was too wary for that. Deep inside he felt that the world was against him and his kind. He’d stir himself, dance a few steps trying to get a sweat up. Eventually he’d put on his cap and gloves and head erect and mouth chewing gum, walk onto the field with a defiant swagger. It was an entrance.

Tendulkar practises no such arts, does not turn a park into a battleground. It is enough for him that cricket is a game, his favourite game. He does not need anything else. The most underestimated thing about him has been his longevity, his constancy. Has any cricketer changed less? Throughout 20 years of intense pressure and unrelenting exposure he has retained his delight. Remaining simple is damnably difficult. To an extraordinary extent he bats the same way and plays for the same reasons as in his youth. It’s not that he has failed to grow up; just that from the outset he saw the game in its true light. Always it has been an end in itself.

Richards and Tendulkar also used the bat differently. In Richards’s hand it was not a tool, but a weapon. The niceties were not for him. He did not dwell upon technique. Despairing of his form, Eldine Baptiste once came to seek his advice. Hours later he left much uplifted and with tears in his eyes. Richards did not say anything about cricket, instead told him what it means to be a man. To him cricket was a game of character not feet and elbow.

His batting was mostly instinctive. In 1973 he emerged as a lithe back-foot player with a compelling cut and a thunderous straight drive. He made it look easy and partners were inspired. Adapting to English conditions, within two years he was stepping forward and across his stumps and flicking anything within reach through mid-wicket, or else pulled it off his chest. This was a time of youth and eye and conquest. Towards the end, not trusting himself quite as much, still wearing a cap but slower of reflex, he began to play more towards extra-cover, even began to give himself time to settle. Of course he could defend. A masterly hundred compiled against Derek Underwood on a crumbling county pitch lingers in the memory. It was an essay in skill.

Tendulkar has been a polished player, in command of himself, contemplative yet rarely hesitant, stylish yet not giving style more than its due. He is a purist, a cricketer capable of giving himself so completely to his activity that it becomes him. Richards was a performer, the Indian is a player. And he immerses himself without conscious effort. He does not need to force himself to focus; it is part of his essence. Hence he scores as many runs in minor matches as on the great stages. It does not take an occasion to rouse him. He is stimulated by the activity itself.

Richards’s bat was an expression of his personality; Tendulkar’s willow is an extension of his being. His technique is well nigh flawless, yet it is not the product of supreme dedication. According to the coaches of his youth, he could play all the shots correctly without instruction. From the start he understood the advantages obtained from precise strokeplay, realised that he could bat longer and score more runs by these means. And he found he could reproduce the shots that existed in his mind without undue difficulty. Natural and classical were interwoven at birth.

Of course, it is idle to compare sportsmen from different eras. Suffice it to say that Richards has been the most withering, charismatic and exciting batsman to appear in the last 40 years. Suffice it to say that Tendulkar has been both the most productive and loveliest to watch. Tendulkar, though, has had much more on his plate, the expectations of millions, the match-fixing scandal, the raising of a family. He has lasted the course better than anyone could reasonably have expected. All things consi­dered, he has been the best of them all (excepting Bradman). No one has scored more hundreds in the highest company and no one has given more pleasure. To watch a Tendulkar straight drive is to observe the attainment of an ideal.


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

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