Vantage point

Friday, December 26, 2003


One thing that the 2001 India-Australia series did was to get me well and truly convinced that test cricket is the ultimate entertainment if you are a true lover of the game, and not in just for jingoistic kicks. If you are like me you would have enjoyed Sehwag's cut shots infinitely more than his well struck 5 sixes. This evolved appreciation of the game takes one to a truly different level, and you start observing the game and savouring every aspect of it, rather than just gorge on it, like most one day lovers do. The difference is like that between someone who enjoys vintage wine and someone who guzzles down beer.

Hoever, it is very difficult to sustain oneself in such an "evolved" level of the game's appreciation unless you have around you likeminded people who will discuss the game with you. Back home, there are people like Harish, Ameya, Ramanand and Neeraj who make such conversations delightful and in IIML there are people like Tony, Sunil, Pushkar and Rajkamal.

Over the past few weeks, we have been having innumerable discussions about one topic - "Lara or Tendulkar?" Who is better among these two masters? Tendulkar's recent poor run (not form mind you) and Lara's purple patch have led many to believe that the swashbuckling southpaw has finally stolen a march over the near-perfect right hander. The debates have had the usual tools employed, like career stats(tendulkar averages higher, and has got 50% more centuries), window stats (in the last couple of years Lara has a phenomenal record), one shot case studies(Lara's 213 in 98 against Australia or Tendulkar's 193 against England), the list goes on and on.

The thing with stats is that you can put filters on them and come out with totally conflicting conclusions. You can say Lara's 6 double hundred (including a triple) proves he is better at compiling big scores. You can also say that 24 of Tendulkar's 31 hundreds have won or drawn the match for India (8 wins and 16 draws) so he is better at saving India. In short, stats don;t really tell you much beyond a certain point. As I always keep saying, stats might tell you who the best 5 players in the world are, but they can not rank them.

There is a big question of what exactly constitutes "best batsman". It is very difficult for me to articulate it perfectly, but I shall try to put forth my definition nevertheless. First we must get this thing of stats out of the way. Lara and Tendulkar both have similar career stats, so forget that.

GOODNESS OF A BATSMAN = Talent X Technique

A product of talent and technique is what makes a good batsman in my eyes.

Now both the guys are amply talented. But raw talentwise, Lara has an edge over sachin. You can see this by the way he bats when he is going well, and by the way he can just convert good balls into 4 balls and 6 balls is astonishing. Tendulkar has talent as well but I think his technique is superior to Lara's. That is not to say there are any permanent flaws in Lara's technique, though some have crept in time to time, only to be eradicated with alacrity.

Let me explain this technical superiority of Sachin in another way. When a batsman is out, there are two ways in which he goes. Either the bowler takes his wicket , or he gives it away. A batsman gives it away by playing a rash shot, or misjudging the line and length, or playing the wrong shot. A bowler gets it when the ball is so good that the batsman can't prevent getting out. If you look at Lara, about half the times he gives it away, and half the times, the bowler gets him out. However in Sachin's case, my claim is that as high as 95% of the dismissals would be those where he gives it away. Very rarely do I remember him getting out to a good ball. A very good catch, many times, but a very good ball, rarely. Most good balls, he either plays out, or even hits for boundaries. This shows his good technique.

Tendulkar watches the ball like a hawk, literally till the last moment. He plays his shots very late, and that is why so many commentators marvel "He has so much time!!". With Lara's flourish, it is different. he sees the ball early, but he doesn't play the shot very late. Most of the times, he sees the ball, makes up his mind where to hit the ball and goes through with the shot, without watching the ball for the last few milliseconds or so. So take the case of short balls. If there is a less-than-best short ball, say on the legside, or something, Lara will play it much better than Tendulkar. His hooks and pulls off not so good balls will connect better than sachin. However if you have well directed bouncers, Sachin will play them better.

This superior technique of Sachin's has come through years and years of dedicated practice. Lara has had major ups and downs in his career and had even given up cricket for a whole year once. But there are qualifying factors for sachin too. His back problems have cut down his repertoire of shots bigtime since 1999. Remember how he charged down the track (danced down the track doesnt seem a fit description) hitting bowlers, fast and spin, out of the attack. He can't do that now. he can;t hit those straight sixes charging down the track. If he does so occasionally, like against Caddick in the 2003 World Cup, it has to be a horizontal bat shot. Lara having no such problem, post 99 can truly claim the title of the best player of spin bowling in the world. Because once the straight batted shots were taken away from sachin, his ability to decimate spinners reduced manifold.

Still, by and large, I think this product of talent and technique is higher in sachin's case. Produce a tough pitch to bat on, and get a really tough bowling attack, and my hypothesis is that Tendulkar will score more runs against them than Lara. Hence I feel tendulkar, despute his golden duck today, is still the best batsman in the world. And while watching Lara in full flow is more entertaining, at 34, it is too late for him to attain the level of greatness or "bestness" that Tendulkar has achieved through an unbeatable combination of talent and technique.