Comparing Cricket Legends
Sachin Tendulkar has been in the news recently for being the first Indian to win the prestigious "Laureus award", which is considered to be the equivalent of Oscar awards in the sports arena. He won the award for his role in scripting the “Sporting moment of the year”. This award, which is based on popular vote, was presented to Tendulkar for India winning the 2011 ICC World Cup, which unified the country, demonstrating the powers of sports in this regard. It was in the fitness of things that the most popular as well as the revered player that the country has produced was bestowed with this honor, despite the fact that he was not the captain or the key performer in the final match.
This award should again spawn a debate on Tendulkar’s achievements and how they fare in comparison with that of present-day national captain Virat Kohli, who has blossomed into one of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket. Rather than doing a comparison based solely on runs scored and pure statistical figures, it would be interesting to see how each would fare based on the quality of bowling they had to face and the formats of the game they played. This would give a true understanding of the extent and nature of challenges each had to confront to reach the pinnacle of batsmanship.
Test Cricket Entry
When Tendulkar made his bow into international cricket in 1989, test cricket was the most popular version of the game. The large majority of the matches petered out into inconclusive draws despite the sides toiling it out for five days in the middle. Limited overs cricket comprised solely of one day matches, with 50 overs a side and colored apparel had not made its appearance. The restrictions on the placement of fielders were minimal and penalties for slow bowling rate hardly ever imposed. Playing conditions for domestic first-class cricket in India did not allow covering of pitches when the match was in progress to protect them from being damaged by rain.
Tendulkar had to face the fast bowing trio of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, who have a total of 2249 wickets in international cricket, in his debut series. Playing Pakistan side led by Imran on their home turf was one of the toughest assignments in international cricket during the 1980’s and Tendulkar had a baptism of fire, from which he emerged with his spurs intact. He was hit on his face, faced heavy sledging, heard catcalls and nasty remarks from the partisan crowds and was subjected to all the pressures that an Indian player could face on a visit to Pakistan. Though he scored only two half centuries, he showed his class and courage by standing upto the Pakistani bowlers without flinching and steering his side to safety in the last test.
After that India toured New Zealand, who had in their ranks, Richard Hadlee, the sultan of swing and cut and the first bowler ever to reach the tally of 400 wickets in test matches. Tendulkar tackled this challenge remarkably well and came very close to hitting his first test century during this series. His next series was against England where he reached the coveted three figure mark during the third test at Manchester. After a one off test against Sri Lanka at home, national squad toured Australia in 1991-92 where Tendulkar made the cricketing world sit up and take notice by his splendid performances that included two centuries against an attack comprising of Craig McDermott, Bruce Reid and Merv Hughes.
This was followed by the ICC World Cup in 1992 where Tendulkar performed well, but without setting the stadia on fire. He was still batting in the middle order in limited-overs’ matches which meant that he did not get too many opportunities to play long innings. But he showed that he could handle the pressure cooker situation that an India-Pakistan match could bring about by bagging the Man of the Match title in this clash, which ended in a defeat for the ultimate champions. Tendulkar was one of the few Indian batsmen who handled with comfort the pace of Allan Donald during India’s maiden tour to South Africa in 1992-93, where he scored a ton in the second test.
It was only towards end 1993, a good four years since making his debut, that Tendulkar could get to play a full test series at home. The initial four years of international cricket where he had to test his mettle against the best bowlers in contemporary cricket set the pace for his distinguished career. Thus, by the time he turned 20 years of age, Tendulkar had tamed the best fast bowlers in the world in their own dens. It is also significant that he started opening the innings in limited-overs’ matches only after this phase, by which time he had matured into a complete batsman in international cricket.
The next decade and a half of Tendulkar’s career saw him consolidate his position as the best batsman in the world in both longer as well as shorter duration versions of the game. This was also the period when spin bowlers made a comeback into the big stage with all time greats as Shane Warne and Muthaiah Muralitharan running through batting line ups and bagging wickets by the dozen. The leading fast bowlers during that phase were Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee, who could hurl the red cherry at speeds reaching 100 miles per hour while Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock were the masters of seam and swing bowling,. However, none of them ever troubled Tendulkar. He could dominate the bowling in a manner reminiscent of Viv Richards in his prime, while at the same time being able to play the long innings’ wearing down the bowlers. It was not that he did not suffer the dip in form which happens to every cricketer at some point in his career but here also Tendulkar showed that he was different by fighting hard to emerge out of it by eschewing risky shots and scoring a double century.
Unlike Tendulkar, Kohli came through the ranks in junior cricket and shot into fame leading India to victory in Under-19 World Cup in 2007. He began his international career in limited-overs’ cricket a couple of months before his twentieth birthday, in 2008, and graduated to playing test matches only in 2012. He did not taste success in either version initially and had to overcome many a hurdle before he could establish himself in the national squad. It was only by 2014-15 that he could come into his own in test cricket and make tall scores against quality opposition on difficult tracks.
When one considers the bowlers that he had to tackle, one would find that apart from Dale Steyn of South Africa, James Anderson and Stuart Broad of England and Mitchell Johnson of Australia there are hardly any names that would figure in the same league as the ones who bowled to Tendulkar in his prime. Another significant observation is that there are hardly any top quality spin bowlers in international cricket at present. Thus the bowling that Kohli has faced is definitely of lesser quality than the one Tendulkar was required to tackle.
As on date Kohli has 70 centuries in international cricket to his credit- 27 in tests and 43 in one day matches. An analysis of these tons would reveal that more hundreds have been scored abroad in both versions and he has not had many easy pickings against weak sides either. An interesting facet of his batting has been that 27 out of the 43 hundreds in limited over matches have come when India was chasing a target and the side had lost only on six occasions when he scored a century. Tendulkar on the other hand scored 100 centuries- 51 in test matches, out of which 27 were on grounds located abroad, and 49 in limited over version, where only 19 came from wickets at home. It can thus be seen that while both these batsmen have shown their class on pitches in all parts of the world, Kohli has been a better performer while chasing targets in one day matches.
Kohli had a stroke of good fortune in that the commencement of his career coincided with the launch of Indian Premier League (IPL). This provided him with the opportunity to play along with the best players in contemporary cricket, share dressing rooms and practise with them. This helped to sharpen his cricketing skills considerably as well as to iron out flaws in his technique and temperament at an early age. Tendulkar, on the other hand, could hone and perfect his skillsets only through the hard grind of domestic cricket, which after a certain stage held lesser challenges for a player of his genius and prowess.
Comparisons Not Fair
Before concluding, it merits mention that it is not fair to compare players of different generations. The difficulties that Don Bradman had to face were different from the ones that confronted Sunil Gavaskar 30 years later. Similarly, the players of the present age have less to worry about intimidatory bowling or risk of crippling physical injury. On the other hand, players of yore did not require the exacting standards of physical fitness to play around the year which is the norm at present nor have to adapt their technique to succeed in three different formats of the game. As the game evolves the nature of challenges would also keep varying and only the truly great can rise up to meet and conquer them.
In the final analysis, Tendulkar was schooled to become a batsman in test cricket but adapted his technique to become a top-order performer in one-day internationals as well. Kohli, on the other hand, despite being trained as a batsman for limited-overs’ a version has matured into one of the best of his kind in contemporary test cricket. Though Tendulkar had to face better quality bowling throughout his career, Kohli deserves credit for making the more difficult transformation- from being a limited-overs’ specialist to a test batsman- which he could achieve only through constant practice and refinement of his technique.