hope it nurtures the usual debate along more fruitful lines.
here goes: Is Lara better than Tendulkar?
by RAHUL NAIR The morning session of the fifth day of the recently concluded second Test match between the all-conquering Aussies and an under-construction West Indian team at the Queen’s Park Oval saw Brian Lara participate in an epic duel lasting about seven overs with speedster Brett Lee.
Lara weathered the storm and went on to score his first hundred on his home ground. West Indies, unfortunately, went on to lose the match by a fairly wide margin, despite Lara raising visions of another improbable victory against the Aussies in his backyard. Ever since, cricket forums around the world have once again been flooded with more posts about the same old debate: is Lara a better batsman than India’s Sachin Tendulkar?
STATISTICS First off, let’s match up their raw statistics, up until the last Test at QPO:
Brian Charles Lara (WI):
M I NO Runs HS Ave SR 100 50 Ct St
Batting/Fielding 92 161 4 7921 375 50.45 59.55 20 38 116 0
Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar (IND):
M I NO Runs HS Ave SR 100 50 Ct St
Batting/Fielding 105 169 16 8811 217 57.58 55.25* 31 35 68 0
+ 27 wickets at 45.18
* Some 200 runs scored by Tendulkar at the beginning of his career do not have the balls faced statistic.
Many have said that the Prince of Trinidad has performed more decisively in crunch situations and has single-handedly won matches for his team (which is an opinion that does gross disservice to the yeoman bowling efforts of the warhorses Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh). But just to keep the debate going, let’s look at their second innings stats: Lara averages 42.31 while Tendulkar averages 48.45 in second innings knocks. However, Lara holds a slight edge over the Mumbai Maestro in fourth inning performances with an average of 37.17 to an average of 35.68 for Tendulkar.
Looking at these stats, it would seem that Tendulkar is ahead on points, but then there are those who say statistics never paint the complete picture. So then what would be an accurate way to compare the two? If you talk of consistency, Tendulkar is peerless in contemporary cricket—one of those rarities who hardly seem to go through a bad patch. Lara has seen amazing heights including his world-record knock of 375 against England as well as abysmal lows when he appeared as if he couldn’t buy a run if he wanted to. No matter what achievement Lara can put forth, there’s always an equally compelling antithesis of what a great batsman should be doing—including several years out of cricket at various times for various reasons. His amazing 2-2 Test series against Australia in 1999 is balanced out with his impotent showings in the Bridgetown Test and the series in 2000 against the same team. His remarkable display against Murali and company in Sri Lanka in 2001 is tempered with his shameful batting displays on the 1999 South African tour that ended in a 5-0 whitewash.
However, Caribbean fans would be very quick to claim that Lara has the ability to go on to make bigger scores as compared to Tendulkar. Again, statistics would seem to support this theory, with Lara’s average of 165.65 in innings when he crosses the three-figure mark, as opposed to Tendulkar’s corresponding average of 147.25. (Although, if you exclude not outs as they do in calculating batting averages, Tendulkar averages 190.21, compared to a corresponding figure of 174.37 for Lara.) Does this make Lara a bigger match winner than Tendulkar? Well, with his recent century in the second Test at Trinidad against the Aussies, Lara equaled Tendulkar’s dubious record of having scored 8 centuries in a losing cause. On the other hand, Lara has scored 5 centuries when the West Indies have won at 55.52 while Tendulkar has scored 9 tons at 64.00 when India has won. So the debate remains unresolved as to who is the bigger match winner—based purely on statistics.
There are others fans that are convinced that Tendulkar has the better technique of the two. They opine that Lara with his high back lift and penchant for on-driving straighter deliveries, square driving wide deliveries outside off and aerial pulls is more prone to get out than the Indian maestro because of his “flawed” technique. This would appear to be a supercilious argument, since a close examination by video of the two in full cry reveals a very interesting story.
Brian Lara: Watching the little Trinidadian bat, no one except the philistines among us can deny the natural talent Brian Lara possesses. In many respects, Lara is not simply the best batsman of our era, he could stake claim to be the best batsman of all time. At the very least, one could say that he’s the most technically skilled batsman since Bradman, videos of whom are often misleading because of the lack of good video technology during the Don’s era. Lara commands almost all the shots in the cricket book with unparalleled brilliance.
His cut shot is both breathtaking and flexible—like most of the best back foot players he can play it with equal felicity both in front of and behind square. His on drive, probably his pet shot, is ferocious—particularly when played down the wicket against slow bowlers. If it isn’t the most feared stroke in world cricket, it should be. These are two of Lara’s favorite aggressive strokes. He also pulls well, but occasionally lifts his right leg when he plays the stroke. Dramatic, yes, but it causes him to lose control of the shot frequently. This probably explains Lara’s propensity to pull in the air so often. But the flaw is only occasional (although on the increase in recent years). However, the brutal, thuggish Brian Lara is far less intimidating than Brian Lara the technician.
Lara loves to cover drive—the deliberate movement forward, foot pointing towards extra cover, fast bat speed, front foot to the pitch of the delivery and executed with such inch-perfect timing that it makes the ball go rocketing away. Lara’s traditional drives, however, are merely good. Lara plays fuller length straight balls incorrectly, preferring to on drive and play it through midwicket.
The most important part of any batsman’s repertoire is always the defensive technique. Lara is better at defense than perhaps any ever in the game. Make no mistake; Lara has all the weapons to play any game he chooses. He could play a game solely off the back foot and lead the world in that respect. He could play a purely defensive game in the Dravid mould and he could play a purely front foot game. In fact, Lara is simultaneously three of the best players at three of the most important traditional aspects of batting: front foot, back foot and defensive technique.
Against spinners, Lara typically tries to step down the track. He rarely sweeps (Lara probably doesn’t sweep because he sees this as a kind of lazy shortcut to play slow bowlers—one of Lara’s major weaknesses is his fluctuating cricket IQ), defensive spurts are rare and he only plays off the back foot when absolutely necessary. Having eliminated the three alternative methods of playing slow bowling, Lara is left with the most dramatic and challenging method—to advance—almost all the time. To get an idea of this, watch footage of Lara playing Warne in the West Indies in 1999. It’s scintillating cricket, where Lara advances and on drives all the time. However, at 33, Lara’s age is slowly catching up with him. From a slow bowling perspective, his feet aren’t fast enough to now genuinely challenge the Muralis and Harbhajans in that respect, so Lara showed uncharacteristic maturity in playing Murali almost exclusively off the back foot.
Generally speaking, Lara appears to be spoilt with his talent. His shots are so far ahead of other batsmen, and because they are so technically brilliant, he can use them in ways that most batsman simply cannot. However that only takes a batsman so far. Lara, in this writer’s opinion, doesn’t use his defensive technique nearly enough. He cuts at balls that are too close to his body. He pulls bowlers that are too slow to do so. He overdoes the charge. He unnecessarily lofts his cover drive. He chooses square drives over cover drives simply for the sake of expanding his innings wagon wheel. All this has to do with shot selection: one of the foundations of good batsmanship.
Another important aspect of modern batting, the art of pinching the single, appears to have bypassed Lara’s cricketing education. To call Lara a relic or a dinosaur would be exceedingly harsh, but he is not armed with the single-stealing ability that gives many of today’s stars their flexibility. Lara is not a modern batsman, like Steve Waugh, Yousuf Youhana, Kumara Sangakkara and especially Sachin Tendulkar.
Lara is one of the old guard, the stroke maker, the sharp shooting cowboy who just arms himself with several weapons, all of which have their origins in the early 20th century, and takes on the bowler. There’s something decidedly romantic about that vision, and any witness to Lara’s 375, 277, 153 not out and various other mammoth scores can only attest to that. Tendulkar, for all his wizardry and versatility, will never be able to truly win over fans like Lara. Warts and all, with his questionable mental abilities over his own game, with his flat out poor shot selection, with his tantrums and with his inconsistency, Lara, in terms of pure skill and technique, still is just better at batting than anyone else in the game.
Sachin Tendulkar: Whereas Lara (and others like Dravid who prefer to play the traditional game, essentially the same sort of batting that a Bradman used to play) Sachin Tendulkar is really a maverick. This is what has made Tendulkar’s numbers so astronomical and his place in cricket history undisputed.
However to call him the greatest batsman ever is to redefine what we mean by that term. Up until the very late 80’s and early 90’s, a great batsman was a batsman who played textbook strokes, built on an exceptionally sound technique. So before we analyze what Tendulkar does so differently to the standard, traditional batsman, let’s see how he stacks up to these standards.
Tendulkar does not posses perfect technique; in fact, Tendulkar has merely decent technique. For one, Tendulkar has this awkward habit of punching at the ball when he plays defensive strokes. Someone like his team-mate Rahul Dravid, for instance, plays defense with a very correct technique—soft hands, playing the ball into the ground, the ball going as little distance as possible. Tendulkar never plays like this. The ball is always struck too firmly, (with a preponderance of the bottom hand) and with the bat facing up instead of towards the pitch. This means there is always a very good chance of getting out caught when he defends, either by the bowler or slips, as he goes so hard at the ball.
But the flaws don’t really end there. Tendulkar doesn’t move his feet either, at least not enough to be technically perfect. Typically, they are too close together, and this means, naturally enough, there’s a large gap between bat and pad. Thus there is always a chance to get him out bowled. Because of this weak technique, and especially because Tendulkar doesn’t really have soft hands, the defensive option is cut off to him when facing slow bowlers.
Now let’s see how the maverick actually turns these into strengths. Tendulkar's biggest weakness when defending is his biggest strength with his traditional drives. Tendulkar has the best two strokes in the V of anyone who has ever played the game, period. He gets his front foot to the pitch, plays neatly through the line, and here, his punch actually helps instead of hindering this stroke. The punch, allied to the very heavy bat he prefers, gives his straight and off drives awesome power no one can match.
The straight drive is an interesting stroke—it’s the easiest shot to play in regards to selection and footwork, but also the most dangerous shot in cricket. You’re hitting the ball straight to a fieldsman less than 20 meters away, with no possibility to check the shot (unlike every other cricket stroke) and with (necessarily) minimal footwork to control it. So playing a good straight drive is more difficult than it looks; Tendulkar deserves credit for mastering it and making it a work of sublime beauty, because it’s one of the least used strokes in the game (for above reasons).
However this is where Tendulkar’s good copybook shots end. He cuts relatively poorly and too frequently doesn’t roll his wrists, which means the ball goes up in the air. Part of the reason for this is the man’s physical size—at 5’3”, you are going to struggle to control back foot shots a lot. Tendulkar almost never pulls as well. Wise decision, as leg side fields are used more and more often to him.
So Tendulkar also can’t play off the back foot to slow bowlers. Unlike Lara, he simply doesn’t have the shots to pull it off. He doesn’t sweep (preferring his variation—the ugly paddle shot) and we’ve discussed his options for defending, so he’s left with the option of stepping down the track. Anyone who has seen Tendulkar play knows he has no qualms about advancing, but, as Tendulkar often does, he turns traditional theories of batting on their head. Tendulkar’s classical drives are not consistent enough (although the on drive is certainly top class) to advance with confidence again and again (like Lara did in the prime of his career). So Tendulkar invents shots.
The best example of this is the leg glance/pull/straight drive Tendulkar played to Warne in 2001. For those who missed this, it’s an amazing stroke. Tendulkar gets into position to leg glance, but over rotates, to the point where on contact, he’s facing square leg, and by the finish of the stroke he’s facing the wicketkeeper. The stroke itself certainly isn’t a leg glance; it is much more like a straight drive, played off the face of the bat, with genuine power, almost directly behind him.
It is this innovation, nous and wizardry that have taken Tendulkar to the very top of the game. His ability to push singles, his ability to literally invent strokes that no one else plays, such as the one above, his penchant for reviving old, rarely used strokes and put them in creative settings (his back foot off drive—originally invented as a forcing shot to finger spinners—that he has used against Glenn McGrath time and again, is a great example) and most importantly, his mind. Tendulkar gets his runs on a mixed diet comprising of traditional drives, improvised, bowler-specific strokes, off-the-charts cricketing IQ, top notch shot selection, an ability to pinch singles where none exist (especially off his legs), inch-perfect placement, and hard running between wickets.
Blessed with incredible eyes, Tendulkar reads the line and picks up the length of the delivery very quickly. He doesn’t hesitate in getting across to play on his favored leg side. Tendulkar is also humble enough to know that his technique is not his biggest strength, so he likes the insurance of his pads when pushing off it.
Is this analysis meant to trivialize the man’s obvious qualities? Certainly not. Tendulkar’s record, his consistency, speaks largely for itself. It’s because the unorthodox Tendulkar’s game is not rigid, making it contextual and flexible, that he scores so many runs against anyone you put him against. He sizes up match situations so quickly; he has such a tremendous feel for the game that he can almost never be stopped except with a wicket-taking ball. However because his game is so modern, a game based on intelligence more than skill, he has invented (with Steve Waugh) a whole new approach to batting—stealing singles, placing the ball, shot selection, emphasizing a different set of qualities than, say, Lara. The emphasis is no longer on defensive technique and footwork.
Typically, innovators of a style are the greatest at it. It is important to bear this in mind with Tendulkar. There is so little known about the consistent, universal success of this type of game, it is difficult to bracket the man with the traditional greats of the game. In a way, Tendulkar has redefined the art of batting, rewritten the batting manual. In that sense, Tendulkar certainly is one player with a degree in how to play the game of cricket.
To end this comparison, let us turn this debate over to the so-called pundits: players who are playing (or have played) the game with distinction, as well as respected observers of the game. This is a short compilation of a list of comments made by the following people over the last few years when asked the same question: “Is Lara better or is Tendulkar?” Bear in mind that they do not by any means represent all of the views out there.
Peter Roebuck: “Lara can bat as well as Tendulkar, possibly better for he seems able to attack any delivery. The Trinidadian's weak point lies not in skill but stamina, a crucial ingredient in those seeking to rise beyond the gift of genius into the acclamation reserved for the greats.
Shakespeare and Mozart did not produce fine works when the mood took them. To the contrary, they reached such a consistently high standard that their brilliance is taken for granted. Although Lara has inspired spells, he does not sustain the effort and will not claim his rightful place until this failing is remedied.”
Ricky Ponting: ‘Punter’ Ponting has rated Sachin Tendulkar the best batsmen of his generation, placing Tendulkar higher on the pecking order than the likes of Brian Lara, Matthew Hayden and the Waugh twins. Ponting freely admitted the diminutive batting maestro from Bombay had the ability to win any match off his own bat.
“I've always thought he's the best batsman I've seen or played against,” said Ponting. “Looking at the way he's played of late I think he's getting somewhere back to his best again. As we've seen in the past, he's actually won games against us single-handedly on occasions.”
Australian first-class cricketers: India's Sachin Tendulkar and Australia's Glenn McGrath have been rated the best in the business in a survey of Australia's 145 first class players. Sixty eight percent of those questioned said Tendulkar was the world's best batsman ahead of Australian captain Steve Waugh (27 percent) and West Indian Brian Lara (three percent).
The Wisden Almanack: Sachin Tendulkar will amass 20,480 runs and 81 centuries in the next 10 years if he maintains his present form, according to an assessment by Wisden Cricket Monthly.
In the past 27 months since February 1999, Tendulkar had piled up 1720 runs in 15 Tests at a near Bradmanesque average of 71.67, it said.
Should Tendulkar continue at that rate in the next decade, playing 12 Tests a year and finally hang up his boots at the age of 38, he will have amassed 20,480 and 81 centuries in 202 Tests.
His average will be a cool 66.06, placing him all alone on a unique second tier of champion batsmen - still behind Bradman (99.94) but distinctly ahead of Graeme Pollock, George Headley and Herbert Sutcliffe (60-odd), Wisden wrote.
The jury is still out on whether he would have outbudgeoned Don Bradman if he had been around in the run-thirsty 1930s, but the Indian maestro had two sweet statistics to savor on his 28th birthday in April, Wisden writes in a piece headlined "Tendulkar the Great (and getting greater)".
It went on to cite that Tendulkar's had been the 28 most prolific years and 27 of the most prodigious months in the history of batting.
Pointing out that on his birthday, Tendulkar's record in limited overs internationals stood at 10,179 runs and 28 hundreds - twice as good as any one else at the same age, the magazine says that in Tests, his omnipotence is equally jaw-dropping. He was 1676 runs clear of the previous record held by Javed Miandad and his 25 Test centuries dwarf the 15 made at the same age by Bradman and Neil Harvey, his nearest rivals.
Wisden writes that average-wise Tendulkar still trails the Don who made 3849 runs at 98.69 by his 28th birthday. But even that gap was closing.
Steve Waugh: “You take Don Bradman away and he (Sachin) is next up, I reckon.”
Brian Lara: “Sachin is a genius. I'm a mere mortal. I would like to be a lot more consistent. I would like to be a (Sachin) Tendulkar, or someone like that, someone who could go out in the middle and keep scoring; if he doesn't get a hundred, he gets at least 30 or 40, and scores like that. You know, it would be great to be that sort of individual.
But, looking at it, I am also happy to be the player that I am. The big scores that I get, scoring 500 runs in one innings, or 375 runs in another innings, is something special too. I have got to be able to take the good with the bad. I am quite happy with the way things are for me batting-wise. But, as a top-flight player, you want to be considered not only as someone who could spoon out great performances, but someone who has been consistent over the years. I have not been able to measure up to that yet, but hopefully, in the latter part of my career, I will be able to do that.”
Marlon Samuels: “Sachin is the best batsman in the world. The way he lifts the team and the way he bats. Watching him play helps me in my batting.”
Andy Flower: “There’s Sachin on one hand, and then there are the rest of us.”
Wasim Akram: “I have bowled to both Tendulkar and Lara and I have found Lara more attacking. Tendulkar has a tighter technique, no doubt, but Lara can single-handedly win the game for his team. I am not saying Tendulkar cannot do it but Lara has maybe done it more often than him. If you are asking me who the best batsman I have bowled to is, then it's not Tendulkar and not Lara as well. It's Martin Crowe... he was an amazing batsman. Regarding Tendulkar and Lara, I would love to have both in my team! Who wouldn’t?”
Glenn McGrath: “For me, it's Tendulkar. Both are class acts but I am saying this because I have had more success against Lara than I have against Tendulkar. I think I have a fair idea of what Lara likes and doesn't like and I feel I can make his life at the crease very uncomfortable. He is vulnerable outside the off-stump early on and is not as tight as Tendulkar in defense. I would go for Tendulkar as the best in the world.”
Waqar Younis: “Unfortunately, I have not bowled enough to Tendulkar in Test matches but there is no doubt about his class. I have bowled against Lara and I have had some success against him. I think over the years I would say I have been fifty-fifty against both Tendulkar and Lara. I have got them a few times and they have got runs against me as well. I can never forget a 16-year-old Tendulkar batting on after being struck on the nose by a fast bouncer from me. I think Tendulkar is mentally tougher than Lara.”
Muthiah Muralitharan: “I have played a lot of cricket against Tendulkar compared to what I have played against Lara. While both are difficult to bowl to, I think Lara plays me better than Tendulkar. That Lara is a left-hander is an advantage to him, but the great thing about him is he launches into the attack straightaway. He uses his feet well against me while Tendulkar relies more on the sweep, I feel. I find Lara tougher.”
Jason Gillespie: “In my opinion it’s Tendulkar who is ahead of the two. Mentally stronger than Lara, he has a better technique as well. Tendulkar doesn't get worked up like Lara when the opposition has a few words to say to him. Lara on his day can be destructive, but you have to look at consistency and I think Tendulkar is definitely more consistent than Lara.”
Saqlain Mushtaq: “Both have their good qualities but I feel Tendulkar doesn't give as many chances as Lara does. Lara, once he settles down, can be a better player to watch because of the left-hander's grace and also because he plays more shots. He has played more match-winning innings compared to Tendulkar because he finished off the job once he is in. But Sachin is more compact and puts a heavy price on his wicket. It is more difficult to dislodge Tendulkar compared to Lara.”
Rohan Kanhai: “I have had the pleasure of watching him (Tendulkar) and he is a fantastic player, an entertainer and he's humble with it. That's a great quality for a young man.
But we (also) have great player in Lara. I also admire him. These are two batsmen you cannot touch at the moment. These two players you cannot differentiate”
Barry Richards: “Lara is a better batsman than Sachin simply because he tends to score big whenever he plays against teams like Australia and South Africa and the stats actually support it. Lara has scored three 200’s against the Aussies 2 of which have come in Australia and apart from that he has a test record of 375 as well whereas Sachin has a couple of 200’s against New Zealand and Zimbabwe and that too in India.”
Viv Richards: Q: Do you see any weakness in Sachin’s batting? Anything you want corrected? A: Weakness? (Incredulous.) Corrected? When a guy is playing like that you don’t have a look at his batting for faults. I would say he’s 99.5 per cent perfect. Q: Some players have commented that when he finishes he would be in the top two-three players who ever played the game? A: Easy. I think he’s already there. Even if he retires tomorrow and doesn’t achieve anything more he is right there. And he’s still young. I have never seen Bradman but heard people talk about him. But I tell you what; if Bradman could bat like this man does then he was dynamite. I have seen only Sachin. Players like Sachin deserve to be preserved in cotton wool. I first saw him when he was touring England. I saw two of his innings. When you start hitting respectable fast bowlers for sixes over their heads then you are serving notice.
So as we can see, the jury is still out on this never-ending debate, which will probably be still raging long after the two have hung up their boots. Like someone on a message board said, comparing the two is akin to comparing literary giants. Tendulkar is the master non-fiction writer, the Bertrand Russell. Businesslike and focused on results, with little for the people to become emotionally attached to, except the tremendous results he achieves for his team. Lara, on the other hand, is the Dostoevsky, weaving together a story of beauty and force, using both sledgehammer and razor blade to equal effect. Dangerous yet compulsive, with a level of artistry that brings readers (or viewers, in this case) to the verge of tears. “I can't watch, yet I MUST watch.” Take your pick to read in bed tonight