The Little Man with the Big BatCameron Burge |
He played at the highest level for nearly a quarter of a century, scored more runs than anyone before him and played more matches. He made runs everywhere, against everyone. He was worshipped at home and revered away. We spent hours (too many) watching him bat and wondered at the technical purity of his stroke play. Yet despite touring Australia five times over 20 years, we never really felt we knew him. Sachin Tendulkar was the little man with the big bat.
I had the pleasure of watching Tendulkar play at the SCG on his first tour here. It’s redundant to record how he went – everyone knows. It was also a bit galling, because it was probably the first time I watched someone significantly younger than me take to an Australian attack. Twenty years later I sat watching his last Test innings in Australia when he made 80. In between I saw him make a double hundred on the same ground. Quite frankly, by 2012 I was getting sick of the sight of him.
The thing which stood out to me about Tendulkar was control. Control of the game: whether he was struggling against a good spell of bowling or dominating an attack, he always looked in control. You never got a sense that things were so bad he couldn?t overcome them. Of course, sometimes he didn’t, but it was always something of a surprise when they got the better of him. Dale Steyn went past the outside edge of Tendulkar’s bat seemingly innumerable times at Cape Town in January 2011 when he came in at 2-28. 112 overs later, Tendulkar walked off with 146. Control of himself: you never saw him sledge an opponent, you never saw him look as much as ruffled in the heat of the fight. Rarely if ever did his demeanor change from the start to finish of a match. Control.
On his last tour of Australia, it seemed the pressure of making his 100th international hundred might be getting to the Little Master. He was getting starts, and then kept getting out. But look at the highlights of his innings. He didn’t really seem troubled, and outwardly gave nothing away if his nerves were jangling. Even then, well past his pomp, his bat just seemed a little wider, a little straighter than that of the other fine players on display.
There’s something about great sportspeople. They have an ability to remain outwardly calm in the face of ferocity, and even to enjoy it. They have time. It sets them apart. Watch Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope George Foreman in Kinshasa; swinging back on the ropes while bombs went off around him in the ring, telling Foreman he wasn’t busting popcorn. Look at Steve Larkham managing the play in the dying minutes of the 1999 Rugby World Cup match against South Africa and the way he potted a long range field goal seemingly from nowhere. Then take the time to watch Tendulkar tear apart the world’s then fastest bowler, Shoaib Akhtar during the 2003 World Cup. Fast pitch, fate of his nation in his hands. A fired up, express bowler. And he just takes him downtown. Time and time again, without appearing to do anything more than deal with a village trundler on a featherbed. Control.
It’s a very great shame that Australia missed seeing Tendulkar tour here between 1992 and 1999, because these were arguably his greatest years as a batsman. We did, however, get to see his famous dismantling of Shane Warne in India in 1998. But to me what was remarkable was the way he stood on the back foot and drove the fast bowlers on the up back down the ground, along the carpet. To this day I think them the greatest cricket shots I have ever seen. It wasn’t that they were technically sound, or that he hit them hard, or both. They were perfection. Pure perfection.
Unlike Bradman, Tendulkar led his country briefly and unsuccessfully. Clearly the pre-eminent player, his tactical nous was surprisingly lacking when it came to field placements and bowling changes. Still, one thing all history’s great captains have in common is great cattle to work with, and in this regard Tendulkar was at a serious disadvantage, especially when he led India to Australia in 1999-2000 to face Steve Waugh’s champions. It was no surprise when he relinquished the captaincy a short while later, and the fact he was able to play on under the captaincy of lesser players without rancour is a fine tribute to him. There can be no doubt Tendulkar was fiercely competitive – what great sportsman isn’t? – but he seemed almost bereft of ego. There was no Warne back chat, no Richards swagger or Lara’s outward flashiness. He just got it done. Control.
I don’t know if Sachin Tendulkar is the best batsman I’ve seen. I certainly don’t know whether he’s the best since Don Bradman. But I do know he belongs in the argument. I’m also of the view he has more in common with Bradman off the field than we might give credit to. Both were their nation’s pre-eminent batsmen of their time, and probably (certainly in Bradman’s case) all time. Both were subjected to hero worship by their countrymen. And both outwardly seemed to hate it. Each of them understandably craved privacy, and perhaps thought they gave enough of themselves through their cricket to justify revealing so little of themselves personally.
It’s perfectly understandable that men such as these would take that approach, but to me it’s a great shame. I think I learned more about Tendulkar the man in his farewell speech than I did in the previous two decades watching and listening to him. That’s his prerogative, but what do we really know of him? His last tour here was marked with a steadfast refusal to attend media conferences or give interviews. The standing joke of the year was Ravi Ashwin’s place at the presser almost every day. Fair it is to say that Tendulkar had been in the spotlight for 20 years, but was it asking too much that he grace us with his thoughts on his innings that day, on how the series was progressing, or to give a short note of thanks to those who had turned the series into a farewell tour in his honour? Perhaps what stung most about Tendulkar’s silence on that tour was its unexpectedness. It wasn’t that it detracted from what we thought of him, it was his refusal to add to what we knew of him which disappointed us. And make no mistake; Australians think a very great deal of Sachin Tendulkar.
In the scheme of things, however, such matters are trifling. To sit at the SCG, with its Victorian era pavilion and watch the little man with the big bat play straight down the ground was like going back in time to when players were less demonstrative, but more aesthetic in their approach to the game; when they did things in a technically pure manner, but with a minimum of fuss; when it seemed somehow wrong to give too much of yourself away in celebrating even your greatest achievements, because you ought not ever lose yourself to the moment.