Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book review: Sachin is God!

Just finished reading an interesting, different sort of cricket book, with the somewhat unwieldy title of "If Cricket is a Religion, Sachin is God".

At one level, it's just a biography of Sachin Tendulkar written by a couple of fans, and one might be tempted to dismiss it as a hagiography -- but it's not. It may read somewhat like a statistical analysis of his career, and those of his contemporaries. But it's much more than that -- the authors do a good job of bringing out the context to his achievements, both at the micro level ("he walked in at 14/2 with a first-innings deficit of 250 staring India in the face") as well as at the macro level ("he was probably battling not just his opponents but also some of his teammates" -- a reference to the match-fixing era). It reminded me a little of the Gavaskar vs. Richards, or even the same Tendulkar vs. Lara arguments we used to have on Usenet newsgroup rec.sport.cricket. But then the book also offers the occasional deep analysis of cricketing and social context, and an interesting comparison of Sachin's achievements with those of Vishwanathan Anand, the chess champ.

The two co-authors of the book, Vijay Santhanam and Shyam Balasubramanian, are both IIT + IIM-A graduates who describe themselves as big Sachin fans, but also "analysts". Both are of course followers of that religion, but they try hard to provide objective analysis. Starting with their analysis of Indian cricket fans and fanatics, and an attempt to explain why cricket has taken on a religious form in India, the book moves on to Sachin's career.

The 20 year career is neatly divided into phases -- the "wunderkind phase", the rise, the fall, and then the resurrection. Apart from bald statistics, the authors provide lots of quotes from cricketers, commentators and journalists. They analyse the criticism of Sachin by the likes of Ian Chappell, Sanjay Manjrekar and various Cricinfo columnists. They counter it with data, as well as opposing opinion -- for example, Ian Chappell's comments on Sachin's 241* at Sydney are contrasted with Shane Warne's, on the same innings.

The authors have made extensive use of Cricinfo's Statsguru to generate their data. One interesting phenomenon they seem to have uncovered is what they call "the thirty-three effect". Basically, around the age of 33 (give or take a year), many batsmen appear to undergo a drastic slump. This is usually preceded by a monster year or two, and equally interestingly, is followed by a reversion to mean. This effect is startlingly demonstrated using numbers for top batsmen like Gavaskar, Richards, Boycott, Sobers, Hayden, Dravid, Miandad, etc. Needless to mention, Sachin also suffered a slump around the age of 33, which also coincided with his injury problems.

Somewhat less surprising is the demonstration of just how critical Sachin is to India's chances of winning, of how rarely India win when he's out of the team. Again the authors use statistics to compare just how much Sachin has to lift his game for India to win -- how much higher his average is when India wins, vs. his career average. In contrast, the numbers for the likes of Ponting, Hayden etc. don't change a lot -- because they are ably supported by several teammates in the lineup. There is plenty more analysis, such as the performances of Sachin and his contemporary batting greats against Australia, or the Aussies against India, etc. In each case, using data as well as context, the authors demonstrate how Sachin is simply a class apart. The only comparable batsman in the last two decades is Lara, but he falls short of Sachin on consistency and adaptability. My only quibble is that the authors have perhaps focused a bit more on ODI statistics than Tests.

For a Sachin fan, it's fun to relive some of his great innings through this book -- amazing memories like the second-innings ton vs Australia at Chennai when he tamed Warne, and painful memories like the 136* at the same ground vs Pakistan, when India fell just short in the run-chase. Interestingly, there is no discussion of Sachin the captain, and hardly any mention of his bowling. The book is almost purely about his batting, and there too, it doesn't linger on his style, his technique or his range of strokes. It's all about data, team and social context.

The book ends with a touching story about one of the authors -- Vijay Santhanam -- who suffered a stroke, but willed himself into recovering in time to make it to an India match at the stadium in Mohali. There are also interesting personal anecdotes from the authors -- childhood hero worship, college hostel arguments, or changing hotels because they didn't have the cable channel telecasting the match!

All in all, a good read for Sachin fans (that's everybody, right?). The book is published by Harper Collins, and has a cover price of Rs.195.

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