Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Sachin Years


There is already a stand named after him, his legacy has been permanently fortified by a Bharat Ratna which will arrive in short order, and I’m sure we’re not too far from the day when his birthday is declared a national holiday. 

Yet, for all the drama surrounding Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement from international cricket, the denouement felt suspiciously like a well-directed movie rather than a spontaneous sporting moment. Even in this oddity, it was not alone – after all, this is exactly what ESPN had done with LeBron James and ‘The Decision’ – but, given the token resistance the West Indies provided, it felt a little too perfect. 

I’m sure a movie will be made on Sachin some day and, of course, Sachin will make a hundred in his final innings in the movie but, for all the effort it took for us to suspend our disbelief just about long enough to treat his retirement as a genuine moment, nobody quite thought it’d end like this.


When the FTP calendar was rolled out a while back, those of us with fertile imaginations were already dreaming up a Sachin retirement on the back of a long-awaited away series win against a heavyweight team. 

We dreamed into existence the images of frantic, uncoordinated, typically indigenous celebrations in the moments after it happened that were almost too real to not be true. We constructed the perfectly imaginable looks of disbelieving joy etched on everyone’s faces, unable, in the moment, to grasp the significance of what had just transpired but ecstatic in the knowledge that it was monumental. And then, we imagined him, winning a man-of-the-match for another stirring Tendulkar special; the series win offering the best possible parting gift and lesson to the MS Dhoni-led younger generation. It would be fitting that he would teach us how to overturn a history of underachievement abroad that had, over the past twenty-plus seasons, so nearly consumed him.

The template for these visions was informed in spades by the truly other-worldly experience that was the 2011 World Cup final in Mumbai. But with Sachin having failed in the final, it was not difficult to imagine that he had a script for a finish very much like the one we had fantasy booked tucked away in the recesses of his mind. 

(Sachin’s lack of clarity on his retirement has been symptomatic of his inexplicable reticence on commenting on the state of the game in general. It wasn’t until after he retired that he told us why he had. I remember Mike Coward’s wonderful open letter to him during India’s ill-fated 1999-2000 tour of Australia, imploring him to speak up on the game’s big issues, given his pre-eminent status as the best batsman in the world. It’s as hard to contest anything Coward said in the letter as it is to explain why we don’t know what Sachin’s views on rule changes, match-fixing, retaining interest in Test cricket, umpiring, and a host of other crucial issues are. His retirement speech proved that it certainly isn’t because he can’t express his views eloquently.)     


Like many people of my generation, my first Sachin memory is of him being mobbed by his teammates after delivering a near-perfect 50th over under unimaginable pressure in the 1993 Hero Cup semi-final. More than the match that he won by bowling his first over in the final one of the match when South Africa needed six runs to win, what strikes me most when I go back to it now is how absurd it was: he was twenty-and-a-half years old and we’ve hardly seen anything like it since. 

Coming as it did during mid-Azhar India, in a team that seemed physiologically incapable of taking a chance, it painted Sachin as the boy who could do anything. And for those who allowed themselves the luxury, it finally changed their view of giving younger players big responsibility, which was a victory in itself for a setup that had seen Maninder Singh and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan crash and burn so spectacularly in the recent past. 

Looking back on a career that was rare in that it actually fulfilled its potential, it’s difficult to identify every individual contribution but, to my mind, shaking the cobwebs of that typically Indian slit-eyed suspicion towards young talent was as big a contribution as Sachin ever made to Indian cricket.


That Sachin’s place among cricket’s greatest batsmen has been over-analysed to vanishing point isn’t surprising at all. What is surprising, to my mind at least, is that the post-retirement retrospective from credible sources has been quite negative. (Sample this slating Sachin’s selfishness, this highlighting how Sachin’s was only the 29th greatest batting peak in Test history or even this, pointing out that he wasn’t the best player of his generation, or the best Indian player ever.) 

My default position is that I find the obsession with individual records tedious more than a little unhealthy. So while Sachin has the most runs and most centuries ever, he also has played more than anyone else and those records, of themselves, carry little value. There are those from whom this obsession with individual records can’t be entirely excoriated but it’s telling that 72 Tests (and not more) of Sachin’s 200 ended in victory, only 14 of those away from home in countries not called Bangladesh.

Combining meaningful records with meaningless ones, it’s also revealing that Sachin only ranks 12th on the list of runs scored in winning causes away from home, calculated from the time of his first away Test win. Most jarringly, he has played in 4 fewer of these wins than Rahul Dravid, and while he’s still got 65.05rpi for 2017 runs in those 20 Tests with 9 hundreds, crucially, of the top 100 performances by a winning batsman away at a particular opponent, only one of Sachin’s contributions qualifies – his 688 runs in Test wins in Bangladesh. 

[To put this in perspective, of his contemporaries, Ricky Ponting has three in the top 100, including two (v West Indies, v South Africa) in the top 15, Steve Waugh has two in the top 50, as does Justin Langer. Graeme Smith has three in the top 100, Dravid has two excluding Bangladesh in the top 100, Inzamam-ul-Haq has two excluding Zimbabwe in the top 100 and Saeed Anwar, Gary Kirsten and Mark Waugh all have two each in the top 100).]

Remove the six Test wins in Bangladesh and Sachin’s record in winning causes abroad is 55.37rpi for 1329 runs in 14 Tests, which isn’t particularly distinguishable from his overall Test batting record. 

And that’s telling.


Yet, one of the most frustrating aspects of watching cricket is the shocking lack of meaningful statistics. We have no statistics to speak of when looking at factors such as shot efficiency, aerial shots, session scores and strike rates, opportunity cost runs while approaching individual milestones, success rates against concerted bowling plans, match dynamics statistics when batting with the top- and lower-order, acceleration stats, shot selection alteration based on repeated modes of dismissal, comparative bowling line and length analysis for dismissals in specific conditions or at specific grounds. 

(On the last of these, the best we have right now are over-wise line arc summaries which offer little more than the knowledge that if the batsman had not been there - you know, in the not-at-all ridiculous hypothetical situation that the bowler had just been bowling at three stumps - that ball would’ve hit the stumps but this ball wouldn’t have or, worse, those 3D-colour-under-the-shaded-area graphs depicting bowling lengths which look like giant piles of poo and enable the commentator lucky enough to be on air at the time to inform us ‘he’s been so effective because he’s been bowling a lot fuller today’. Really? No way.) 

For the few statistics we do have, there are no popularly accepted metrics - run-rates sliced by blocks of overs (I don’t know if an average run rate of 7.5 to the over in the last 10 of a 50-over game is good enough) and dot ball percentages (I don’t know if a batsman who eats up 60% of deliveries faced as dots is a good player or not; moreover, I know a dot ball while chasing 6+ an over is a bad thing but I don’t know who has the best and worst figures on that specific metric) to name just two. 

I have a feeling it’d enrich our understanding of cricket no end if we had these details. They’d certainly make it easier to evaluate irritatingly frequent statements such as ‘Sachin is the best one-day player in history’.


Nevertheless, something that goes really underappreciated when evaluating Sachin’s career is just the sheer number of matches he played during his most productive years. 

This isn’t simply the boy-on-burning-deck narrative so lazily stapled onto Sachin in relation to the Indian team of the 1990s; one which, insidiously, lets pro-Sachin statisticians rely on performances in individual matches rather than full series. It is at least as much the ability to continually get up for big matches when you know you’re in a team that can’t consistently punch above its weight but is expected to. 

This period of Indian cricket history - from the time Sachin hit the main event at the beginning of the 1996 World Cup (February 1996) to the breaking of the 2000 match-fixing scandal (April 2000), which I will hence call The Sachin Years - is as remarkable for his numbers as it is for his workload. 

Overall, Sachin played ODIs on successive days on twenty-three different occasions in his career, the majority of which were during The Sachin Years: on seven separate occasions in Sharjah (October 1991, April 1996, November 1998, March 2000, October 2000), four times (including three in three days) in Toronto (September 1996, September 1997), thrice in Colombo (September 1994, September 1997, January 2000), twice in Adelaide (December 1991), once in England (remarkable because the first game was in Leeds, the second the next day in Manchester in May 1996), once in Durban (February 1997), once in Port of Spain (April 1997), once in Gwalior (March 1993), once in Dhaka (January 1998), once in Bulawayo (September 1998) and once in Singapore (September 1999). 

Wake up in the morning, warm-up, play an eight-hour one day international cricket match and go back with the knowledge that you have to do it all over again the very next day. Twenty-three times in all. Add up the 38 Tests and 144 ODIs he played during this Killer Kalendar and it averages out to just a tick under one day of international cricket that he signed up for every four-and-a-half days. As in, one day every four-and-a-half days of his life.

His record in winning causes in this time is 3585 runs in 60 ODIs at 73.16 with a strike rate of 94.56, 17 hundreds and 12 fifties (heck, even his bowling record in the same period of time – 27 wickets at 34.9 and a wicket every 40.5 balls is borderline acceptable). His record in matches not won in this time is 2311 runs in 84 ODIs at 28.88, with a strike rate of 81.05, 4 hundreds and 12 fifties. 

These were The Sachin Years, in the days before squad rotation, at a time when calling India a team of Sachin-plus-ten may have been insulting but it’s exactly how many India fans thought of India as well. 

(Bizarrely, my clearest memory from this time is not an international match but the Princess Diana memorial match at Lord’s where my intrigue was based on watching Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble - both of whom I had a lot of time for - bowl at Sachin. I distinctly remember the thought crossing my mind that this is how the Indian nets probably look like everyday. Allan Donald later said Sachin’s whole innings of 125 - 84 of which were from hits to the fence - was as though he was having a net. It was the one time I stood convinced that Sachin was, by a distance, the best batsman in the world.)


The chain of events that catalysed The Sachin Years, like most great stories, was born out of accident. On a cool morning in Auckland on March 27, 1994, with Navjot Singh Sidhu indisposed, the Indian team management took another rare chance and pushed Sachin up to open a chase of 142 in 50 overs. 

I remember watching the match on our faulty old Nelco Blue Diamond TV with my mouth open, gobsmacked by what I was seeing. It wasn’t so much the kind of shots he was playing, it was just the unerring certainty and confidence with which he was finding the boundary, like a hyperactive bat-wielding Energizer bunny. Even my sadness brought on by Matthew Hart getting him for two runs short of his then-highest ODI score of 84 was buried in the tectonic shift in the nature of approaching ODI cricket that I instantly knew I had witnessed. 

The whole thing was over in an hour, the match an afterthought, and, even in surveying the wreckage of that whirlwind innings at a distance of twenty minutes after the game, the expert panel in the post-match TV coverage found it impossible not to wonder if this wondrous young man in far-away New Zealand was going to change world cricket forever. 

To this day, despite the T20 excesses that are now commonplace, that innings ranks as one of the most astonishing display of sustained and controlled aerial hitting I have seen in my life.


In a classic bit of reverse-Baazigar irony that was the hallmark of 1990s India, Auckland 1994 was a template that Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana of Sri Lanka picked up and amplified with staggering and, frankly, emasculating success, especially against India, including at the 1996 World Cup. 

I speak not of the Calcutta semi-final where Srinath so memorably got them both caught in the first over of the innings, allowing Aravinda De Silva to claim credit for setting up that era’s staple India choke but of the league game at Delhi. It was here that Sachin’s dominance of a very competent Sri Lankan spin attack in a heart-stopping run-a-ball 137 was blown to pieces by a referee-stoppage-in-the-first-minute-style pulverisation of India’s opening bowlers. I recall they were particularly severe on Manoj Prabhakar, whose first two overs went for thirty-three runs - a number so mind-bending that it doesn’t need to be adjusted for 2013 run inflation. 

(Prabhakar was actually brought back for a couple of overs later in the innings as Sri Lanka cruised towards a victory that was never in doubt and, so traumatised was he by his opening spell, that he actually bowled off-spinners. No dice. Sri Lanka carted him for fourteen more and eventually won with six wickets and eight balls to spare. Prabhakar never played for India again, though he did provide A-Class entertainment a few years later by hosting Indian cricket’s and, thus far, only travelling drinking and bitching roadshow marathon with the infamous Tehelka tapes, which established once and for all that men gossip way-hey more than women. The reason why he couldn’t or didn’t want to entrap Sachin as part of his fail investigative journalism is something that isn’t apparent but it’s quite incredible that, even in circumstances so primed to destroy characters and careers with no one the wiser, Sachin emerges, to the best of my knowledge, entirely unscathed.)


Despite that particular setback, the future was here – hit the ball in the air, clear the infield, but do it with percentage hitting – and Sachin’s contribution to setting it in motion was immeasurable. This change in approach is also incredible for how sudden, almost overnight, it was. 

Pre-Auckland, Sachin had 1758 runs in 69 games at 30.84 with a strike rate of 74.36. To put that in context, only ten of the fifty highest ODI run-scorers in the period between Sachin’s ODI debut and his Auckland innings had strike rates higher than his and only four of those ten regularly batted in the top three. Yet, post-Auckland, he’s suddenly striking at 89.56 for 7356 runs and fifty-eight 50+ scores and thirty-two Man of the Match awards in almost exactly six years.

Breaking down that strike rate shift further, the only people with higher strike rates over that period are Jayasuriya, Shahid Afridi, Lance Klusener and Adam Gilchrist. Of these, Afridi, Klusener and Gilchrist are distinctly post-Sachin risk-takers whose numbers have been roughly similar throughout their careers. Jayasuriya’s numbers are the consequence of a more dramatic transformation (going from a 1989-to-pre-Auckland tally of 639 runs striking at 69.98 and an average of 14.20 - yes, you read that right - suggesting to me that his batting talent was not so much underutilized, as Sachin’s was, but undiscovered) to striking at 93.91 for 4613 runs in The Sachin Years. 

So not only does Sachin have an extra 2743 runs in the same six-year period but, significantly, he’s going at 42.32rpi as against Jayasuriya’s 31.59rpi, so he’s a qualitative level above in terms of reliability of run-making for roughly the same rate of output. 

And so it continued to the end of the 1990s, a glorious decade where every year, every big event and every Sachin innings (the latter two frequently overlapping categories) is marked out clearly. To think that Sachin has only retired now, in 2013, makes you open your eyes to how long the 2000s actually were. All those games, moments, wins and losses that we just assumed were time-compressed have actually been a sustained period of time every bit as real as the 1990s, a stark contrast to the utter indistinguishability of one day from the next over the same period of time we have now retrofitted into our cricketing memory.


The end of The Sachin Years, to my mind, was the approximate marker for the beginning of possibly the most simultaneously rewarding and frustrating period of his career. 

The captaincy issue is sorted. (There were rumours in the summer of 2001 that Sachin wanted the captaincy back at some point in the as-yet undetermined future - rumours serious enough for Sachin to address and politely clarify as baseless in an extraordinarily lengthy interview to The Times of India. If anything, this only went to strengthen Sourav Ganguly’s resolve to do better at the job.) A battery of middle-order batsmen are hitting the main event at the same time. Kumble is finally figuring out how to bowl well abroad (121 in 27 Tests at 32.9, sharpening to 52 wickets in 10 away Test wins at 21.3; compared with 101 wickets in 30 Tests at 39.4 previously, during which India won one Test abroad). Zaheer Khan is doing a more-than-passable impression of a venue-agnostic strike bowler (he’s actually the highest away wicket-taker in Test cricket bar none since 2000, if you’d believe that). Irfan Pathan has made his hard-to-believe-now start to international cricket (65 wickets in 13 Tests at 25 in this period), and generally a lot of feelgood stars are aligning type stuff. Several Test wins are about to arrive. 

Sachin, at the start of this period, shockingly, is still only 27.

Somehow, it just doesn’t click. And it’s not just a matter of him struggling to accept a role requiring him to slot his vocals into the overall team harmony. His raw figures from this period in ODIs are fine but, with injuries catching up, he’s missing games and - not that this is an insult - has less ODI runs in this time than Dravid. Curiously, this is also around the time when, to my mind, bat starts to irreversibly dominate ball and big-hitting becomes the dominant factor in cricket. 

(This profound realisation hit me while watching Sehwag’s first ODI hundred: that this is what international cricket is now. That the true tests – Australia away, South Africa away, England away – are few and far between and, indeed, if you were to take India’s cricketing calendar for the next five years and mix it all up, the mean would be closer to this kind of contrived, manufactured cricket than challenging tours of any description.)

Remove Sachin’s average-steroiding centuries at home to Zimbabwe and away to Bangladesh and he’s actually down to 41.5rpi in Tests. In terms of pure run-scoring, he lies 14th on this list, behind such distinctly time-slot hits as Herschelle Gibbs and Marcus Trescothick and even Gilchrist, who rarely, if ever, batted higher than number six in an extremely dominant Australian batting lineup. (Distilling further, his 2005-2007 figures are of the look-away-now variety: 1487 runs at 39.1rpi, 29th on the international run-scorer list and Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Dravid, Ganguly and - wait for it - Wasim Jaffer, all have more Test runs in that period.) 

So when a similar bad spell over the last three seasons started to become too apparent to ignore (substitute Gibbs and Trescothick in 2005-2007 with Azhar Ali and Kane Williamson in 2011-2013), it is more than understandable that Sachin decided to call time on his playing career.   


However, what that doesn’t explain is the three seasons (2008-2011) in between, because what happened in that time really ought not to have happened. There’s no way a broken-down 34-year-old - seriously hurting, confidence shot, murmurs of retirement louder by the day - ought to have done what he did.

But he did. 

He scored lots of runs. 3166 (second behind Sehwag in the equivalent period) in 33 Tests with twenty-four 50+ scores in 57 innings. Big runs (1675 in 16 away Tests at 57.75rpi, second behind Alastair Cook in that specific classification). Important runs (1680 in 16 Test wins at 64.61rpi, second again behind Sehwag). Lots of big, important runs (five 50+ scores for 658 runs in 7 away Test wins).

It was a second wind of epic proportions. Four of his six ‘series defining performances’ (new addition to vocabulary) came in the 2008-2011 period. Outside this phase, his decline was very much terminal (much as it was for his predecessor Gavaskar, whose career graph dropped off alarmingly post-30). 

But this ‘phase’ was still 3166 runs in 33 Tests. It defies logic.


And then the 2011 World Cup happened. His two hundreds in the group phase were superb displays of ruthless manipulation of fielders and some smart hitting in the fielding restrictions, just like The Sachin Years. But a long tournament started to visibly take its toll and, by the time he scratched his way to his freakishly lucky 85 in the Pakistan semi-final, I had a quiet internal conversation, telling myself I had probably seen Sachin’s last great innings - and this wasn’t it. (A lot of recent Sachin tribute pieces have praised how he buckled down and fought it out as if this revealed some heretofore undisclosed element of his cricketing ability, with the general refrain being that this innings finally silenced all questions about his mental fortitude. How about this for a real question: it’s a World Cup semi-final against Pakistan, you expected him to not to try? You wanted him to gift his wicket away? Trust me, he tried the latter - the Pakistanis kept returning it.)

This innings also made me realise that Sachin’s remaining appeal to me was that of a survivor, a sort of homely bridge between the generation I watched fade away before my eyes and the swaggering, any-ODI-target-chasing, bowlingless Indian team of today. This realisation wasn’t saddening, it was almost liberating because, by this point, my cycle of Sachin expectation had just about run its course. 

It was almost a guarantee, I thought, that he would flop in the final. He did. Thinking back on it now, the World Cup win could and should have been the perfect send-off. A lot of people said so at the time and Mark Nicholas said so again recently, in a piece marked by uncharacteristic sycophancy. 

But he played on.


I don’t know what made him play on but he certainly ‘made’ a few other things. 

He made us feel sorry for him as Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson knocked him over again and again and again and again and again (I’m not overdoing the agains; they actually did dismiss him five times in four Tests in England) in 2011. He made us sit through that painfully slow 100th hundred against Bangladesh in a game that India contrived and deserved to lose. He made us donate mindspace to the two farcical Tests against the West Indies that serves as his retirement series when we could’ve had a proper Test series in South Africa. And eventually, he made sure that he played long enough to retire with a Test average lower than that of Vinod Kambli. (This was pointed out to me by a friend on WhatsApp the other day and, given the difficulties of discerning tone over text message, I remain unclear on whether irony was intended.)       

Yet, incredibly, not only did he hang around in some capacity for two and a half years following the 2011 World Cup, he played in the IPL as well, which produced some of his most wince-inducing moments. However, his overall IPL stats reveal that, though his impact in an otherwise big-hitting team was objectively lukewarm, he was almost impossibly and - notice the irony here - against expectation, absurdly successful at it by traditional metrics. The Mumbai Indians’ 2013 IPL winning run was just one more addition to everyone’s abnormally large database of memories which name-checks Sachin.


So, from its birth in the blast furnace of Pakistan 1989 (and, by association, retconning a degree of historical importance entirely unjustified for a four-Test series that finished 0-0), the Sachin story was almost immediately blazing a trail in the early years with talent exceptional enough that it soon merited recognition as world-class. This developed into an aura of consistent brilliance during mid-Azhar, dragging performances out of a team in a manner that was cruel in terms of how much hope it offered a nation. These hopes and dreams were soon held exclusively in the palm of his hand in the midst of a six-season streak so white hot that the gap between him and the other claimants to the title of best in the world was so demonstrably great (and greater still when compared with his own teammates) that you could, with no great effort, fathom the near-identical thought processes that compelled the single track idolatory that engulfed every wannabe cricketer of that generation. 

Yet, from late-Ganguly through pre-Dhoni, the time when Sachin seemed most primed to render all individual batting records obsolete, there was an odd inversion of the progress chart and Sachin, as a batsman, appeared to be swallowed whole by the supernova his persona had become: a persona that created an extraordinary expectation to be the fearless, destructive and selfless batsman that he no longer had the capacity to consistently be. Then came the defining white star of early-Dhoni, a time of disconcerting largesse - best typified by the sudden glut of Test hundreds at home - that supplied the fully-developed richness of success (and, in the context of the tense individual battles with his closest contemporaries, statistical volume) that provided the makeweight for fashioning Sachin’s position as many fans’ ‘1B’ to Bradman. 

Even so, this was largesse, complete with undeserved Test No. 1 ranking, that India didn’t really know how to accept, and the karmic cycle duly forced the black, empty vacuum of the post-World Cup 0-8 in England and Australia. From these ashes came India’s first, once-inconceivable, entirely Sachin-free recovery back to a stable, if worrying, position of batting-fuelled optimism, simultaneously and hastily rendering ever-distant the alarming and corrosive decline that so many fans already seem eager to write out of Tendulkar’s freshly-minted history.

For those of you who haven’t managed to decipher the shallow, garbled metaphor that I’ve been scratching at for the last four hundred words, Sachin was a star, plain and simple. And while his longevity became an increasingly heavy cross to bear rather than the hallmark it is celebrated as, perhaps the biggest reason he’ll forever remain irreplaceable is because, to those of us who grew addicted to cricket during The Sachin Years, he spoiled us by offering us the guiltiest pleasure of all: the thrill of winning matches which - we can finally admit to each other - we didn’t deserve to win. 

I'm not sure if there's a point to this story but I'm going to tell it again.

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I've been wilfully caught up in the self-defeating quest to get to know myself for years. I've never expected anything beneficial to result from such a quest. I tend to evoke extremely polarised reactions from people I get to know in passing. Consequently, only those people who know me inside-out would honestly claim that I'm a person who's just "alright." It's not a coincidence that the description I've laid out above has no fewer than, title included, eleven references to me (make that twelve). I'm affectionately referred to as "Ego." I think that last statement might have given away a tad too much. Welcome Aboard.

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