Friday, October 17, 2008

A blessing and a curse

What might Sachin Tendulkar have done outside of a culture so obsessed with the individual?.

For Brian Charles Lara, the moment to capture in sepia came against one of the game's all-time greats. When Glenn McGrath drifted on to the pads on a belter of a pitch at the Adelaide Oval, Lara worked him down to fine leg for the single that took him past Allan Border on the all-time run-scorers' list. The record was the perfect way to end an Australian adventure that began with a sublime 277 at the SCG 12 years earlier.

Anonymous in the first two Tests of the series, Lara came alive on a pristine batting surface at one of the most beautiful grounds in the world. By the time he put AB in the shade, he had already gone past 200. The 226 that he finished with would have been a fitting farewell note to Australia if not for the fact that his second-innings failure and the seven-wicket defeat encapsulated the frailties that had seen the West Indies' star wane even as Lara continued to shine.

There was no legend confronting Sachin Tendulkar at the PCA Stadium the first ball after tea. The clock had just ticked past 2:30 when Peter Siddle set off on his long run to the bowling crease. A bustling workhorse rather than a pace thoroughbred, Siddle had done little wrong the first two sessions, but when the first ball of the third was pitched a touch too wide of off stump, Tendulkar opened the face and steered it down to third man as he'd done so many times before. Three runs scampered and history made, a generation after a similar stroke, albeit off an offspinner, took Sunil Gavaskar into hitherto uninhabited 10,000-run land.

The autumns of the two batting patriarchs of our age couldn't have been more different though. The last five years of Lara's career saw a batsman at ease with the world, freed of the burden that he had lugged around for a decade. The haplessness of those around him was probably a factor. Stadiums that were once island fortresses were easily breached by visiting sides, and away from home, West Indies had a record every bit as depressing as that of Bangladesh. With the team winning next to nothing and seldom coming close, Lara went out and expressed himself. In those 34 Tests, he averaged 57.50, well over his career figure, while scoring a staggering 13 centuries.

There was always something of the Caribbean joie de vivre in Lara's batting, an air of the carnival that brings his native Trinidad to a standstill. Even his Australian swansong was indicative of that, with the 226 runs amassed from just 298 balls in truly buccaneering fashion. The team may have been mediocre beyond belief, but Lara refused to be shackled by their limitations.

Tendulkar's journey took him in a very different direction. An often-solitary beacon capable of ravishing strokeplay when in his pomp, he has seldom enthralled over the past half decade. Injuries undoubtedly played a part, as did the fact that he was no longer the fulcrum of India's batting push. Virender Sehwag scored quicker, Rahul Dravid looked more resolute and VVS Laxman more elegant. And as India finally became a half-decent side away from home, the focus shifted to individual milestones. He has ticked them off one by one - 10,000 runs against Pakistan at the Eden Gardens in 2005, the 35th century that took him past Gavaskar (against Sri Lanka in Delhi in 2005) and now this.

Long before he even turned 30 though, Tendulkar had ceased to be just a cricketer. For a developing nation, aspiration is the name of the game but even then the expectations of him were so outré as to be ridiculous

Along the way, the audacious strokeplayer of old emerged from hibernation now and then, notably at Sydney and Adelaide last January, when you could glimpse the teenager who caught Sir Donald Bradman's eye with centuries at the SCG and the WACA. For the most part though, he became an efficient accumulator, albeit with troughs that were so uncommon during the halcyon years.

Long before he even turned 30 though, Tendulkar had ceased to be just a cricketer. For a developing nation, aspiration is the name of the game but even then the expectations of him were so outré as to be ridiculous. His life became reality TV, and all that was needed was the Police to reassemble and sing Every Breath You Take for the soundtrack. Newspapers would publish illustrations from Grey's Anatomy, while TV anchors would steel themselves to say "superior labral antero posterior tear".

Lara's failures, and there were a few given his cavalier style, evoked some disappointment, but never the sort of viciousness that accompanied a Tendulkar setback. It makes you wonder how many more runs he might have made had he lived in a country that didn't specialise in headlines like Endulkar, and where every other TV debate chaired by some stiff didn't ask the profound question: Is he past his best?

What might he have done outside of a culture so obsessed with the individual? Even the landmarks appeared to become troublesome chores rather than milestones to be bypassed as a matter of course. And even as he remained an intensely private person, an entire parallel universe was constructed around him, full of inane trivia such as a fondness for milk laced with turmeric at breakfast.

The career graph dipped, as it inevitably does even with the all-time greats, but he was still good enough to score 494 runs in Australia last winter. And until Siddle summoned up a fine delivery with the second new ball, he was on course for a tenth century against the team that have set the standards for most of his 19 years at the top.

Perhaps now, with all the records behind him, he can enjoy a second childhood and bat with something of the insouciance that made Lara so captivating to watch. Such comparisons are unfair though. If Lara's career was It's a Wonderful Life, Tendulkar's has been a Kieslowski, shot painstakingly and sometimes weighed down by the cares of the world. We're fortunate to have watched them both.