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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

India v Pakistan: Sachin Tendulkar is the best batsman ever to play cricke

It may be sacrilegious to say this, especially to Australians, but Sachin Tendulkar is the best batsman who ever took guard.

His versatility, longevity and productivity are so far ahead of his closest rival in the game. Just as Don Bradman’s Test average of 99.94 was more than 50 per cent better than anyone else, so Tendulkar’s tally of 99 international hundreds is similarly out of reach of his nearest competitor, Ricky Ponting, who has 69.

When you factor in Tendulkar’s prowess in all countries and all conditions – averaging around 50 in every major country apart from Pakistan- and the burden of expectation of a billion people, he must be regarded as the best ever.

Bradman was extraordinary, but he only ever played in Australia and England. Bradman watched Tendulkar bat, famously saying that the way he fashioned runs reminded him of himself. There are similarities – the short stature, the stillness at the crease, the compactness, the control, the total insatiability.

It was often said that Bradman seemed inherently to know where the bowler would direct the next delivery, and Tendulkar appears to have the same gift. Often he seems to be in position to play a shot earlier than his peers. Perhaps that is just because his reflexes are sharper.

Tendulkar is blessed with exceptional balance and timing. He never seems hurried at the crease: a 90mph Brett Lee delivery was calmly upper-cut almost for six in the quarter-final in Ahmedabad. He glides smoothly into position, his bat and body perfectly aligned, the bat apparently an extension of his arms. He strokes, or occasionally punches the ball, rarely assaults it. With deft wrist work, he angles or flicks the ball into space. He dissects bowling attacks rather than destroying them.

Quite apart from his talent, the other thing that sets him apart is the way he plans an innings. Every innings. He is meticulous in his assessment of bowlers and conditions. He is not intent on intimidating a bowler, but on calculating his best shot options. You can practically see him computing bowler type, pitch state and field settings, processing the information and unveiling the appropriate shot.

He decided, for instance, in a Test match on a dry Sydney pitch in 2004 that one of his favourite shots, the cover drive, was a risky stroke against the Australian spinners. He made 241 not out, with not one cover drive.

It has been fascinating to watch the way he has manipulated the bowlers in this World Cup. In the England match after playing and missing twice to James Anderson, he left the balls close to off stump, moved fractionally across to the off and glanced the ball fine on the leg side whenever Anderson strayed straighter.

Seeing Graeme Swann warming up during the drinks break, he changed his bat for a chunkier version. Whenever Swann tossed one up outside off, he stepped out and swung the ball away over the short midwicket boundary with the spin. But when the flatter, skiddier Michael Yardy was bowling, he was back on his stumps and using the pace of the ball to deflect for four to fine leg.

Despite scoring a superlative century of his own, Andrew Strauss said it had been a privilege to be on the field during that Tendulkar innings.

His silky hundred against the South Africans was a masterclass of timing, poise and neat placement. Despite the bat speed and intent of Virender Sehwag producing a flurry of boundaries, Tendulkar outscored his partner in much of their 132-run opening partnership.

Assiduous in his practice and preparation, there is an inevitability about a Tendulkar hundred – although he has never made even a fifty at Lord’s and his one appearance in a World Cup final, in Johannesburg in 2003, ended in failure, when he was caught and bowled by Glenn McGrath for just four.

His innings seem preordained, and who would bet against him achieving his century of centuries in the biggest game of cricket on earth, Wednesday's unique semi-final against Pakistan in Mohali.

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