Controversies in cricket these days emerge faster than boundaries from a Viru Sehwag’s inning in his pomp. Even from seemingly innocuous circumstances. So, when Kapil Dev said at a promotional event in Dubai last week that Sachin Tendulkar had not quite actualised his potential because he had not scored a triple or quadruple century, or words to that effect, millions of hornets were stirred from their nests to retaliate.
I’ll start with the plea that Kapil Dev wasn’t being disrespectful of Tendulkar. On several occasions when in recent times, when we’ve collaborated for commentary or some such, Kapil’s marvelled at Tendulkar’s achievements but also said that with his talent, he could have done more.
That’s okey-dokey as a top-of-mind opinion. I would like to believe there is no malice involved, only some wistfulness. But as analysis, this is flawed. A triple or quadruple century is an amazing landmark, but not necessarily the only hallmark of a great batsman.
Chris Gayle has two in Tests to his credit, Sobers only one and only a fool would debate who is the greater among the two.
Indeed Viv Richards, who many believe is the greatest batsman after Sir Don Bradman, never scored a triple century. Neither did Weekes, Walcott and Worrell, Greg Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar, Graeme Pollock or — to locate it in the present — the world’s best current batsman A.B. de Villiers (as yet).
My bigger issue with the crux of Kapil’s argument, which suggests that the Bombay school of batsmanship constrained Tendulkar from expressing his talent more freely and fully. I’d argue it is the other way around.
The popular notion of Bombay batsmen being cussed and possessive about their wicket and runs is not ill-founded; that such approach limits a batsman from reaching his potential does not stand even simple scrutiny.
Contrary to popular perception, the Bombay school of batsmanship is defined more by hardiness than dourness. And success in scoring runs in every situation and circumstance, even if sometimes without the flair and flourish that can rouse fans of their seats.
Fact is that Mumbai have won the Ranji Trophy more times (40) than any other team in domestic cricket. More batsmen from this city have played for India, lending the team spine and sustenance over eight decades. Vijay Merchant, Rusi Modi, Polly Umrigar, Dilip Sardesai, Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri, Sachin Tendulkar, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma are names that come immediately to mind.
The three greatest exemplars of this school have been Merchant, Gavaskar and Tendulkar. Through the eras represented by them, Mumbai’s batsmanship evolved — in technique, temperament, tempo, versatility — and influenced batsmen from other associations like Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Hazare, Mohinder Amarnath and more recently Rahul Dravid to find their métier.
Why, even Sehwag drew his early inspiration as a strokeplayer from Tendulkar. Kapil (with his all-round brilliance) was a freak talent. That Sehwag would go on to rewrite the grammar and idiom of batting is testimony to his own genius, not the shortcoming of the Bombay school.
I doubt that Sehwag could have batted any other way (neither would we have wanted) than what came to him naturally. But it is a moot point whether he could have been the great matchwinner he was if he didn’t have the solidity and consistency of Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly in the middle order.
While strike rates of Test batsmen who started their careers before the mid-1990s are not available, from stats I’ve scoured, Tendulkar’s is better than any other Indian’s who have scored more than 4,000 runs apart from the buccaneering Sehwag and perhaps Mohammed Azharuddin. In ODIs, it is only behind those of Sehwag and Dhoni.
It is pertinent to remember that nobody has played as many internationals (Tests and ODIs) as Tendulkar. Generally, batting prowess and strike rates start flagging over a period of time or with age, depending on fitness and hunger for runs or playing the sport.
Tendulkar played for 24 years with such a high degree of consistency establishes that it quashes any doubts about his love or enjoyment for the game. And if anybody plays that long, it begs the question whether the player has achieved his potential or not.
Essentially, the Bombay school of batsmanship is a state of mind. The real issue today in my opinion is whether Mumbai cricket still has the wherewithal to find another exemplar to carry forward the baton from Tendulkar. This would be a boon not only for the state association, but Indian cricket too.