Friday, December 30, 2011

Two great batsmen

Here are the career records of two great batsmen -- arguably, among the all-time greats.  These records compare favourably with the likes of Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd, even Greg Chappell and Wally Hammond.

Player 1:

M  Inn   NO   Runs   HS   Avg   100   50
95  152   15    7877   217  57.49   29   31

Player 2:

M  Inn   NO   Runs   HS   Avg   100   50
90  153   17    7411  248*  54.49   22   33

So who are these two greats?  You won't find these numbers in the record books, because...

Player 1 is Sachin Tendulkar (from d├ębut to May 2002*)
Player 2 is Sachin Tendulkar (May 2002* through December 2011)

* Note that the May 2002 cutoff is an arbitrary choice, to divide Sachin's career into approximately equal halves (by innings played).

Right up to the 1980s, until Gavaskar scaled the 10,000 run peak, an all-time great batsman would typically have 6000 to 8000 runs, an average in the 50s, and about 20 centuries.  Remember that Gary Sobers held the Test runs record (8032) for many years, Boycott went past and finished on 8114, and then Gavaskar took over.

By that measure, Sachin Tendulkar has had not one, but two great careers in cricket!  These days, most of his records that the media and fans focus on, are those related to his longevity -- 50 Test tons, 100 international tons, 15,000 Test runs, most Test 50s, etc.  And his longevity (and continued productivity) is truly amazing.  But what gets lost is that he would've been an all-time great batsman even if he had chosen to retire half-way through!

While this has been, so far, a purely statistical argument, you could set aside the weight of numbers and still make the case.  In his early years, Sachin was a significantly more attacking, aggressive batsman.  If you compared highlight reels of Player 1 and Player 2, you'd see that Player 1 essayed more of the 'raw' strokes -- cuts, pulls, hooks, and lofted drives, often dancing down the pitch to spinners.  We aren't even talking ODIs here.  He also had the most elegant drives of course -- cover drives and straight drives in particular.  And Player 1 was up against a terrific batch of fast bowlers -- Wasim Akram, Allan Donald, Curtly Ambrose, Waqar Younis, Craig McDermott, etc.  He still managed to score big, score rapidly, and score attractively.  What made it all the more remarkable was that he was so young (Player 1 started at 16, and 'retired' at the age of 29!).  But even if you ignore the romance associated with watching a  young kid take on the giants of the game -- both literally and figuratively -- one must concede that he had an all-time great kind of career.

And then came Player 2.  Clearly, Sachin adapted his game over the course of a couple of seasons in the early 2000s.  For whatever reasons (a more injury-prone body? a more cluttered mind? the match-fixing scars?), he felt that his batting approach needed to change.  The aggression was significantly toned down.  The mix of strokes changed -- fewer pulls and hooks and lofted drives, more glances and deflections to leg, newer delicate strokes like the paddle sweep, the upper cut, the punched drives, etc.  The beginning of the innings was more tentative and defensive.  Ironically, all this happened at a time when the Indian batting was at its strongest ever.  Sachin had great support in the form of Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly in the middle order, Sehwag at the top often providing great starts, a more resilient tail, etc.  Nevertheless, his methods proved successful -- not as successful as Player 1 to be sure, but then Player 2 was a 30+ year old suffering a spate of injuries through his career, playing a surfeit of cricket with more ODIs and T20s than Player 1 had to.  If Player 2 could have debuted at a more normal age (say, 22), one can imagine that the record would be even better.  His more cautious approach also resulted in bigger 100s -- more double-tons for example -- as well as more success for his team.  Clearly the India team with Player 2 was far more successful than that of Player 1.  So you can't really argue with his decision to change his batting style, after playing more than a decade at the Test level.

I would argue that Player 2 is also in the all-time great category, not merely a great batsman.  Those numbers were achieved over a large span of time as well as Tests.  They have been achieved against some great bowling too -- McGrath, Lee, Warne, Murali, Steyn, Pollock, Akhtar, etc.  They have included innings in tough conditions (e.g., that battle with Steyn and Morkel in South Africa), and in tough chases (e.g., the 100 vs. England in Chennai).  And while his batting may have become less aggressive, it has hardly become any less attractive to watch -- witness his recent innings in the first Test at Melbourne just this week.  He still pulls in the crowds; the crowds still leave or turn off their TVs when he gets out (well, in India at least).

So there you go, two great batsmen rolled into one!