If there is a better batsman than Sachin Tendulkar in contemporary cricket, then he is well hidden from our eyes, perhaps showcasing his gifts in some distant galaxy, writes Nirmal Shekar.
WHAT is genius if it is not the wizardry that magically alters our perceptions of things/events?
What is greatness if it does not, at its apotheosis, redefine the possible and the impossible?
What is bewitching sorcery if it is not the ability to turn sand into silver, the mundane into the breathtakingly celestial?
What is unmatched (unmatchable) talent if it is not a judge's gavel that ends all arguments?
And, what, oh what, is Sachin Tendulkar if he is not the greatest batsman of our times, an enforcer-beyond-compare with the bat, a doer of things that have remained unmoved, unmovable from the dreams of even some of the greatest of post-War batsmen, never seeing the light of reality?
There comes a time in the life of great sportsmen when the wings of their genius carry them to heights where the only company they might find is their own. In less than three months since the Australians landed in India this year, Tendulkar has left the atmosphere of mortals and soared into stratospheric heights.
In the course of a few unforgettable weeks from the time he took the great Shane Warne apart at Chepauk and turned what might have been a gripping, close series into a no-brainer, to the day he authored the momentous Operation Desert Storm at Sharjah before coming up with another gem to steer India to a trophy triumph, the little giant has drastically altered our perceptions, redefined a few things cricket and ended one seemingly endless argument.
So, ladies and gentlemen, let us say this now without a semblance of doubt: if there is a greater batsman than Tendulkar in contemporary cricket, then he is well hidden from our eyes, perhaps showcasing his gifts on Mars (Oh, no, even that planet may be within reach)...perhaps in some distant galaxy!
Brian Lara may still be the owner of all sorts of records, a five hundred in first class cricket and a 375 in Tests. Mark Waugh's effortless brilliance may be breathtaking. Aravinda De Silva, when in the mood, may be able to take any bowling apart.
But nobody, really nobody, can do what Tendulkar does as a matter of routine: make the best of bowling look pedestrian, redefine for awed spectators and television viewers what is a good ball and what is a bad ball. For, no batsman since Vivian Alexander Richards departed from the scene has taken so many off so many good deliveries as has Tendulkar.
Which bowler in contemporary cricket can say, confidently, truthfully, that he can bowl a ball that will, on any day, in any situation, demand the greatest respect from the little master? Yes, there are moments when Tendulkar may be tied down. There are times when a parttime bowler might get him. But, more often than not, what is awesome bowling, what represents a big challenge, to many of his contemporaries, is nothing but fodder for the great man.
Much has been said - and written - about the Tendulkar innings that helped India make the final against Australia at Sharjah last week. To many good batsmen, even to a few great ones, it might have been the innings of a lifetime. But this little man's lifetime in international cricket is going to be filled with such gems, as we found out two days later. At the end of the day, we'll be spoilt for choice. The good thing is, each of us can have his pick!
Over the years, one has seen several great innings in limited overs cricket. King Richards has played quite a few. One remembers the brilliant, unbeaten 189 he made against a high- quality England attack with Michael Holding for company for the most part. Then, in the 1979 World Cup final, the monarch of the willow game stepped down in regal style for a last ball six off Mike Hendrick to bring up a superb climax to a memorable innings.
Other great batsmen have played some unforgettable knocks too. Kapil Dev's epic 175 against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup readily comes to mind. For sheer courage and willpower, Javed Miandad's innings against India at Sharjah, crowned as it was by that famous last-ball six off Chetan Sharma, is stuff of cricketing folklore. At Chepauk itself, the Pakistani opener, Saeed Anwar tore into the Indian attack for a record score last year.
While Tendulkar's two hundreds against Australia in the Coca Cola Cup should surely rank alongside any of these, the Indian's greatness lies in the fact that he needs to make very few compromises on technical correctness in playing all those innings of surpassing brilliance in the shorter version of the game. He is as perfectly balanced - and his game is as compact - in one- dayers as he is in Test cricket.
And, what is more, Tendulkar is more than just an all-conquering batsman in the limited overs game. He is, quite often, more impactful with the ball than many a specialist bowler in the side and, as a fielder, he is among the very best in the sport.
Yet, it is as a batsman that the little man takes our collective breath away. Of the modern batsmen who have averaged 50-plus in Tests, Richards alone had the Tendulkar-like ability to ignore the distinctions between Test and one-day cricket time after time. Tendulkar's blitz against Warne and Co. in the first Test of the last series at Chepauk got him to 155 in such quick time that it might have been good enough to help India chase and get to a formidable target in a one-day match.
Then again, the few differences in their batting styles apart, what is at once striking when you compare Richards and Tendulkar is the dissimilarity in body language.
When Richards walked to the crease, he had the air of an Emperor walking to his seat of power. His body language was enough to make less- than-battle-hardened bowlers want to visit the dressing room toilet to relieve themselves nervously. There was a touch of arrogance that was unmistakable. It defined the man, his pride as a destroyer of bowling, mediocre, good and great.
Richards's greater height and muscularity, the Roman nose and the look of utter disdain in his eyes made for a stage presence that was accentuated, on the television screen, by the fact that he did not wear a helmet.
Tendulkar, short and baby-faced, and with a voice that is more shrill than imperious, is hardly an intimidating figure. If a good bowler were to land up from Mars some day to ply his trade against the Indian genius, the visitor would scarce believe that this was the little man that every bowler in the world hated to bowl to.
In the event, the bat alone speaks, not the body - and, to the purist, this, not strangely enough, is all the more reason why the little man is such a delight to watch. It is unadulterated cricketing talent on show, pure and simple. His presence out in the middle is intimidating to the bowlers because he is as great a batsman as he is, body language has nothing to do with it.
And quite the most amazing thing about Tendulkar's batting is how logic blends with instinct at the crease. He is like a virtuoso Formula One driver on a race track - logic rules the start but quickly instinct takes over when all thought ceases.
That's the key to instinctive play - thought should cease. When Tendulkar is on song, he is surely not thinking about making a big hundred, or helping India win something as pedestrian as a trophy in a desert venue.
Did Van Gogh worry about what his canvas would fetch when he painted the Sunflowers? Did Friedrich Nietsche worry about the kind of impact his book would make when he wrote Beyond Good and Evil?
Ah, genius, works of genius! Indeed, as John Keats said, they are the first things in the world ... at least they ought to be.
The world of sport is addicted to hyperbole. Every other good player these days is called great. Every great player is a genius. As such, the essence of genius itself is devalued, setting off an alarming trend where effort is confused with genius.
Thomas Alva Edison was far off the mark when he said genius was 99 per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration. The inspirational content has to be much, much more. In sport, a moment's inspiration in a career spanning several years can earn an athlete a memorable brush with immortality and genius. But, for someone to be called an outstanding genius in his sport, inspired and incandescent stuff has to come forth more often - as, of course, it has in the case of Tendulkar.