If Tendulkar had found an honest mirror three years ago and asked the question; "Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the best batsman of all?" It would've answered; "Brian Charles Lara." If he asked that same mirror right now; "Mirror, mirror on the wall should I retire?" The answer would be; "Yes."
Ian Chappell, in his column on Cricinfo. I should say I have no real opinion on whether or not Tendulkar should retire. Actually, let me rephrase that. I do have an opinion on whether or not Tendulkar should retire, but I simply don't care whether or not Tendulkar retires. His time as a world-class force in the game ended more than three years ago, and really, who cares when an average (Chappell's words, not mine. Well, mine too) player retires?
I should say that from around 1996 to 2000, Sachin Tendulkar was the best batsman in the game (not the greatest, but the best. If you don't understand the difference, then you don't understand sport). The things he did to Australia in series after series were just astounding. But it wasn't just his runs against the best team in the world. I remember when I was in 8th grade, in the winter of 1996-97, India went on a disastrous tour to South Africa. Time after time they would crumble, because none of them could handle pace, bounce, swing or seam. But not Tendulkar. He'd play those punchy cover drives off the back foot, the vicious cuts, the disdainful pulls, and my favourite Tendulkar shot of all (one that no player I've seen has ever managed to play successfully): the on-drive/push from the crease, to a ball around his hips, through straightish mid-wicket/wide mid-on. Unless you've actually played the game, you have no idea how difficult that shot is. I only ever played at school level, and I can't even fathom attempting it against 17 year-olds bowling at 65 mph, let alone pulling it off against the McGraths of the world. The amount of power required in the wrists and forearms for that shot boggles the mind, because you're essentially forcing away a ball still rising, at pace, at an extremely difficult angle with a ramrod straight arms and a high elbow.
It's really too bad for India and Tendulkar that his best never coincided either with (a) Dravid's best or (b) the introduction of relatively ballsy guys like Dhoni and Yuvraj. Dravid became a man on that 1999 tour of New Zealand and from there he went from strength to strength, to the point where, some time around 2002, teams started regarding him as India's best player (even if commentators would continue to pay lip service to the idea that Tendulkar was still the Man, everyone deep down knew he wasn't even the Man in India's middle order). Meanwhile, the Ganguly era saw India bring in new players that weren't wussy losers who were as easily pushed around as some of the 90s players (Prabhakar, Raju, Azharuddin etc). Unfortunately, both these developments kicked in when Tendulkar was past his absolute peak, so, in essence, Tendulkar's brilliance was as close to wasted as 25,000 runs in international cricket can get.
No one, though, will ever convince me that Tendulkar was the best player of his generation. I don't even think he was one of the three best players of his generation. If you happen to be Indian while reading this, relax, take a deep breath, ask yourself this question and try to answer it as honestly as possible: if you could trade Lara's career for Tendulkar's, would you? I say you would have to. Furthermore (and perhaps more controversially), would you trade Dravid's career for Tendulkar's? I would again say yes, you would. Finally, (and perhaps most controversially), would you trade Ponting's career for Tendulkar's? I, once again, would say yes, you would.
I can examine the Ponting and Dravid claims on another day. But insofar as the Lara comparisons are concerned, I think the difference did not lie in whether or not Lara "won" more matches for West Indies than Tendulkar did for India. I say this because Lara had the benefit of playing with two of the top fifteen quick bowlers of all time in Ambrose and Walsh for a significant chunk of his career and, as everyone knows, it's bowlers who, by and large, win matches. As an example, think of perhaps Lara's most famous match-winning innings - the 153 not out at Barbados against Australia in 1999. I myself have gone on the record as saying that Lara won this match for the Windies. It would be remiss of us, however, to forget that Ambrose and Walsh shared seven wickets in Australia's second innings total of 150-odd that kept the fourth innings target relatively chaseable. Put India in the same situation, and the eventual target would have been 550, not 310. The Aussies would have eaten the likes of Srinath and Prasad for dinner. In that situation, could one really hold it against Tendulkar if he didn't "win" the match for India? I think not. I do, however, believe that Lara is/was the better player under pressure, for whatever it's worth. Put it this way: Lara would never have tried to hoik Saqlain out of Chennai and holed out 15 runs short of a famous test victory. Not saying he wouldn't have gotten out in some other way, just saying he wouldn't have tried what was essentially a cross-batted slog when only the tail was left.
As I said, I don't think the win-loss records really tell us about the true difference between Sachin and Sir Brian Charles. No, the gap between them was something intrinsically more difficult to measure, something statistics or records couldn't capture. I'm trying to find the perfect word to explicate what I mean but am failing to do so. The closest I can come up with is presence. Simply put, Tendulkar at the crease and Lara at the crease mean(t) two entirely different things. With the Tendulkar at the crease, you got the model of perfection. The perfect stance, the perfect back-and-across trigger movement, the perfect straight bat. The pretty boy, good-guy, always-saying-the-right-things image didn't help either. Tendulkar always seemed a little artificial to me, both in the way he carried himself and the way he batted. If a computer scientist designed a batsman, the result would be Tendulkar.
Lara? Oh my goodness. The backlift that went on forever, almost touching the back of his head. The flashing blade. The shimmy down the pitch to spinners. The one-legged swivel-pull that he, for some unimaginable reason, abandoned in the latter part of his career (why, God, why?). The "stand at leg stump and flail wildly to a wide half-volley without moving the feet anywhere close to the ball" shot. No true follower of cricket, not even the most devout of Indian followers, can deny the following claim: Lara with the bat in his hand was the most beautiful sight in cricket for the last twenty years. You know how I said Tendulkar would be the result if a computer scientist designed a batsman? Well, Lara would be the result if an artist designed a batsman. That's the difference.
One especially pertinent point that Chappell makes in his column is how Lara never really changed as a player. Tendulkar did. This difference too can be reduced to the artist-computer scientist dichotomy. When a computer starts under-performing, what do you do? You troubleshoot it, you call the guy at Dell, you stop running some programs (the Limewires of the world), perhaps install a new virus scanner and so on and so forth. The point is that you try and adjust the computer (or any other machine) to its new surroundings. What about the artist? He's completely different. He never adjusts to the environment. He says I'm doing things my way, and that's the way I'm doing them till I'm out of here. Remember Kurt Cobain's suicide note? "It's better to burn out than to fade away"? You will never, ever, ever catch Lara fading away. He's too much of a genius and respects his skills too much for that. Tendulkar? He's been fading for three years. Every machine, now matter how smooth, has a shelf-life. Maybe, in Tendulkar's case, it's time to stop trying to fix it, and simply get rid of it.