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Head to Head


Among the many millions around the world watching Brian Lara's extraordinary brinkmanship with the bat in Jamaica and Barbados two months ago was one particularly interested party, perched on the edge of his chair in his luxury home in Bandra, a suburb of his native Bombay. Lara was playing not only for his West Indies future, but arguably that of his cricket-mad people too, and that is a burden to which Sachin Tendulkar, an icon to half a billion Indians, can always relate.

Tendulkar was spellbound: "It was a marvellous effort. There is no doubt about his ability, it was just a question of getting the act right and the way Brian did it was marvellous. His game is different from mine, and I don't think we try and copy each other, but there is always something you can learn from each other. The way he handled himself was wonderful."

The feelings of respect and admiration are mutual. Lara, perhaps recognising something of himself in the lavishly garlanded and gifted Indian, has long taken a close interest in Tendulkar's deeds, and the pair have endured comparisons for years, though their on-field encounters have been relatively few.

They are perhaps the World Cup's biggest drawcards and if India and West Indies, seeded in separate first-round groups, meet in the later stages the expectation will be immense, just as it was when the teams did battle in the ancient fort town of Gwalior during the last tournament. Then, as he often has, Tendulkar came off best, though he was afforded two lives on his way to making 70 while Lara was out to a ropey decision for two.

Though little comes between them, and Tendulkar's stated priority is to win matches for his side, you can bet your last rupee he will be especially anxious to restate his credentials as the world's best batsman after Lara's Caribbean tour de force. Since leaving India with the good wishes of a teeming nation ringing in his ears, Tendulkar has been honing his technique with typical assiduousness behind closed doors in Leicester, polishing strokes that perhaps only he considers short of perfection.

The contrasts between Indian prince and Caribbean king are fascinating. Lara seems to love pleasing crowds, love piling one breathtaking stroke on top of another. He marvels at his talent and invites the public to do the same. Tendulkar, who perhaps has had his fill of crowds for one lifetime, appears to prefer playing the game as a one-on-one with bowlers whose confidence he chillingly aims to dismantle brick by brick.

This is not to say Tendulkar does not try to rein in impulses to "have a go". Impatience was a relative fault in his early days - those miserable boyhood days before his 21st birthday when he scored a mere seven centuries for India, to which the mature man has added 31 in five years since - and teammates know to constantly remind him to play straight in the early overs, aware that a Tendulkar ton is about the surest guarantee of victory there is in the modern one-day game.

The presence of a Duke could yet lay low the prince, for the white ball will cause early problems, making the dressing-room pleas doubly urgent. "You don't need to tell Sachin to get on with it," Gaekwad wryly observed, but there is no question of breaking up the successful opening partnership with Saurav Ganguly, whose way of coping with life in the great man's shadow is to thump early boundaries and eschew singles.

Tendulkar, however, regards it as equally important not to stagnate: "I don't have it in my mind to dominate the bowling, I just go out and look to play positively.

"My game is to play my shots. If I don't, I won't score any runs. I don't like the word dominate. You must simply go out and analyse the situation as you find it. Nor am I a statistician. That would probably put pressure on me and make me stiff."

There are, of course, many similarities with Lara. On song, both possess uncanny balance, positioning, timing and bat speed, although Tendulkar's bats are famously heavy and Lara's light. Each knows, too, how much his side's World Cup hopes depend on him making runs. But the personality differences are the more striking. To Lara, net practice is often an unnecessary chore; to Tendulkar, it is a laboratory in which he can seek ways to improve.

While Lara has been known to opt for a late soirie before restoring his people's pride, Tendulkar prefers quiet nights in his hotel room, watching television and taking room service - sometimes, as now, with his wife and young daughter in tow. To Lara's hedonist, Tendulkar plays the ascetic.

It is no wonder, for most would find his life in India intolerable. He cannot go out without being besieged and there are rumours of him wearing wigs and masks to avoid detection. Mark Mascarenhas, the head of WorldTel, which handles Tendulkar's affairs and has made him the world's best-paid cricketer, has done his best to make life tolerable, giving him brief sanctuary last year in America, where it is not inconceivable Tendulkar will one day retire.

Tendulkar's chief task between now and India's crucial opening game against South Africa on May 15 is to establish his fitness, after damaging his back while playing with a strain during Tests against Pakistan. He has not competed seriously for three months and, after consulting a specialist in London and an acupuncturist in Bombay, is building up his back muscles with a course of exercises. It seems to be working.

Lara, troubled by a wrist injury, has also been short of peak condition but managed to play through his problem to complete an extraordinary trio of centuries against Australia.

The careers of today's two greatest superbats have appeared to dip and sigh in deference to each other. When Lara achieved his record scores of 375 and 501 five years ago, Tendulkar was hardly playing Test cricket, a victim of the Indian board's bizarre scheduling. When Tendulkar took on Test captaincy at 23, Lara chafed to do the same.

In 1998, while Lara was experiencing a long lean patch, Tendulkar amassed century after century and a record for one year of 1,894 runs in one-day internationals. While Tendulkar is clearly grateful to be free of the Indian captaincy, leading West Indies appears to have renewed Lara's ambition.

It is as yet far from clear who will come out in front in this head-to-head, but the forthcoming carnival of cricket should provide a few clues.