SIR Donald Bradman recently broke a long silence and permitted himself to be interviewed on television. Predictably, he was asked whom he rated as the best batsman in the world at the moment. Sir Don was his usual incisive self -- Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara were the two he mentioned. He saw more of his style in Sachin but the great man also pointed out that since his day there have been many batsmen who have been better than him but not scored half as many runs.
Sir Don may have answered a great many questions that day but he raised one when he compared Lara and Tendulkar. That question has occupied minds both great and small -- who is the world's best batsman? Emotions, no doubt, play a role when choices are made -- unless, like Sir Don, there is no attachment to the person chosen. Ask any Indian who is better and they would say Sachin. No true son of the Caribbean would even tolerate a comparison; to them, Lara is supreme. One is aware that this comparison could mean opening a can of worms. But the temptation is too great to resist.
There are those who compare batting averages and, after discovering the Lara stands higher than Tendulkar in both Tests and one-dayers, seek to belittle that 375 the West Indian left-hander made against England by calling the team a weak one. That is more or less the same weak team against whom India, with Sachin right up there in front, are struggling at the moment. Batting records apart, Brian has shown greater consistency and the ability to come good just when needed. He has also shown a level of concentration which Tendulkar has not; getting over 250 in a Test is no joke and Lara has done this against Australia, arguably the best side in the world at the moment. Lara has won more matches for his team than Tendulkar has and has gone through more testing times because the West Indies went through a fairly bad patch in Richardson's last days as skipper. The problems weren't solely cricketing ones but even in that milieu Lara was able to shine.
In terms of technique, people may argue that Tendulkar is perfect and Lara isn't in the same class. But then Boycott had much better technique that did Sir Garfield Sobers and you know the rest of the tale. There are times when Lara's motivation at the crease seems to be only bettering what he did perfectly off the last ball. Trying to rise above himself. Those who watched him make that 111 against South Africa in the World Cup quarter-final and hit Pat Symcox for 20 in an over will understand. Any batsman could have got five fours off five balls but not the way Lara did; each ball was placed, insolently it seemed, exactly where the fielder had last been moved from. That is genius. You can belt them over or knock them straight; this was classic stuff and I haven't seen Tendulkar do something to rank with this. And this is just one example.
Lara has one advantage over Tendulkar in that he is left-handed. Southpaws have always had that touch of grace which the right-hander has just fallen short of. Both are little fellows but that hasn't detracted from their feats. Sachin has the advantage in terms of age. To many, he is the better player of spin. To others that extends to pace too. Lara, they argue, doesn't have to face men of the likes of Ambrose. (Another argument which used to be put forward was that Lara was a member of one of the strongest teams in the world. That no longer holds water.) But somehow, it is Lara who has got the runs and more of them in a single essay at the crease than anybody else. Can he, then, be that much worse than Sachin in handling bowlers of any description?
Then, some were prone to say, India depends much more on Tendulkar than the West Indies do on Lara. That argument too is somewhat fallacious now, though the West Indies do seem to be throwing up some good individual performances after Courtney Walsh took over. In Richardson's days, if Lara clicked then victory was in the bag. Else, there were processions back to the dressing room. The levelof dependence, if anything, in Lara's case was much more. In a one-day tie, it might be the same for Tendulkar. But in a Test, there are plenty who can shore up the innings and save the team. Lara faced the same pressure be it Test or one-day.
Incidentally, Tendulkar is often compared to Gavaskar but that does the youngster an injustice. Gavaskar learnt most of his cricket through patience, immense concentration and observation. Inborn talent was not the main reason for his feats on the field. Whenever he and Gundappa Viswanath were batting together one could see the difference between strokes which had been learned and strokes which flowed from ability. Tendulkar is head and shoulders above Gavaskar and has more ability and inborn talent at this stage of his career than Sunil had in all his playing days. Concentration he lacks; his impulsiveness, is perhaps, borne more of youth than anything else. If he does not get embroiled in the politics that is part of Indian cricket, he will exceed what Gavaskar did.
Lara, like Tendulkar, is billed for the captaincy a few years down the road. Whether either of them will make a great captain or not is too early to decide. Sobers wasn't the greatest of captains but as far as all-rounders go, there has been nobody to touch him. That is for the future to decide -- who is the greater leader.
For the moment, it's a question of who is the better batsman. Given temperament, range of strokes, consistency, or whatever, there wouldn't be much to pick between the two. For me, it's like Beethoven and Mozart; both were great musicians. The difference was that Mozart was a genius. The same goes for Tendulkar and Lara -- both are great batsman. But the West Indian goes one further -- in him there are shades of a genius.