Sachin Tendulkar’s 24-year-old career through the Impact Index prism

When someone who has been part of your life for 24 years goes away, the gap left is not just the last occupied space but everything those 24 years may mean to you. So, it is often more about you than the person going away.

Hence, while the outpouring of emotion is entirely justified for the younger fans who have not experienced an Indian team without Sachin Tendulkar, it is interesting to see older journalists and commentators also treat Tendulkar’s omnipresence in the last 24 years as a qualification for being God.

Commercial interests and popular acceptance notwithstanding, it is curious that the large-scale hagiography in the Indian media overlooks what Indian cricket had actually achieved in the years just before Tendulkar made his debut. In that decade itself, Indian had won 2 ODI world tournaments (in England and Australia), drawn a Test series in Australia and won one in England.

Today, the achievements of the last 2 decades are not considerably greater though, for a short while, India were the only side to compete against the world’s best team for at least a decade, Australia, and were (somewhat dubiously) ranked the no. 1 Test team in the world. A perspective it is useful to have in a team game.

Tendulkar’s greatest achievement is that he has had 3 generations as his peers. In the end, every single significant record that he holds in the game is attributable to this one fact. His near-perfect technique, balance and especially in the first decade and a few memorable times in the second – his audaciousness, made him magnificent to watch when in his pomp. Like no other modern-day Indian, he was made for television, advertising and mass consumption.

Inevitably, the hype machines went on overdrive. Over the years, aided by the sort of reverence reserved for some South Indian filmstars, Tendulkar became a Holy Cow. His fans would not tolerate any criticism so the media, as it coincidentally corporatised simultaneously, stopped scrutinising him. Even the entities that pompously see themselves as the ‘custodians of the game’ looked the other way, for the most part. No one likes abusive comments.

So, there hasn’t been a great deal of scrutiny about Tendulkar’s career or his contributions in a team context. The few ripples that provided alternative views are easily out-shouted. On the other hand, books with such titles get published and become bestsellers. Accomplished writers suddenly appear to have their brains turned to mush, as per the pronouncements they uncharacteristically make sometimes on this subject. Some of them even choose to write pieces where they select utterly facile arguments in the first place and then proceed to debunk them gleefully (and easily).

The chauvinism that surrounds Tendulkar has prevented a discussion on many of these points in a clear-eyed and calm manner, at least so far (books like ‘this‘ may change the pattern a bit – review here, as exercises like this tried to do in February 2009). Internationally, they see things quite differently as this BBC World Service show demonstrates.

Overall, however, both the praise and the criticism about Tendulkar have been qualitatively largely inadequate so far. It is actually such a vast subject that the story can told from many different angles. But the romantic gaze sadly has glossed over everything else.

We, at Impact Index (which is fundamentally a mindset more than a stats system, which many people just do not understand- this is also why we are not quoting a single Impact number to make our points here), have ourselves spun it from different sides in the past, like, this mainstream TV show we did recently where we focused on the positives without altering any facts.

So, we figured we’ll put down all the facts our system found in as simple a manner as possible and leave it for people to decide what it is all culminating in.

Almost all the arguments we put forward below were spotted by our system but which can be verified very easily by simple browsing, conventionally. There is absolutely straightforward cricket intelligence involved here even though an automated system helped in identifying them.

Most importantly, all these facts coexist comfortably together. Just like the sublime and the ridiculous coexist in every individual in human history.

1) Longevity defines Tendulkar more than anything else.

This is self-evident. Lasting 24 years at the highest level, in which he was contributing substantially for at least 21 of those, is an unparalleled feat in cricket and most sports in general. Besides being a tribute to his fitness and hunger, it is a testament to how great a player he has been in terms of pure talent.

But it is useful to also remember that his biggest achievements at the end of his career are all in the realm of tallies. Matches, runs, centuries, of course, but also on our scale, the highest number of Impact 5 performances (the maximum possible on a match on a career level) and highest number of series-defining/ tournament-defining performances (the truest legacy of a player).

2) Tendulkar is not the highest impact Indian batsman in any of the 3 formats.

In Tests, it is Rahul Dravid (for his high number of series-defining performances ), in ODIs it is Virat Kohli (for now; though his match sample is not insignificant anymore) and in T20s (international and domestic combined) it is Suresh Raina. It is best to not even talk about international players or take Bradman’s name in the same breath. However.

3) Tendulkar is the most complete batsman of this era.

Despite the above finding, it also transpires that Tendulkar comes in as the next highest impact Indian batsman after Dravid in Tests and Kohli in ODIs. And though Tendulkar played just one T20I, he was Mumbai Indians’ most consistent batsman over 5 seasons of the IPL (the 5th most consistent batsman amongst all players from any country) and the 8th highest impact Indian batsman in the IPL.

As interesting while Tendulkar’s hallmark in Tests was consistency and his runs tally, in ODIs it was strike rate (he has the second-highest SR Impact amongst all ODI batsmen in the top ten after Viv Richards) and in T20s, it was his consistency and his ability to absorb pressure (his strike rate was mediocre in T20s but this also demonstrates the changed role he played successfully for Mumbai Indians).

No batsman in the game has displayed so much versatility while registering such a high impact in all 3 formats of the game. It makes him the greatest batsman of the modern age.

4) Tendulkar had two great phases in his career.

The phases are 1996-2000 and 2008-2011.

In Test cricket, his impact in these 8 years was 72% more than the impact in the other 16- a stunning fact.

In ODI cricket, his impact was 35% more in these two phases than during the rest of his career.

In both these phases, Tendulkar was the highest impact Indian batsman in both Tests and ODIs.

Everyone knows that Tendulkar was in his pomp between 1996 and 2000- he was the third-highest impact ODI batsman after Michael Bevan and Aravinda De Silva in this period. Five of his 9 Series/Tournament-defining ODI performances as a batsman came in this period.

But it is his performance in the 2008-2011 that truly astonishes, especially given that he was touching 35 when it began. A year after he contemplated retirement, he embarked upon the highest impact period in his career in Test cricket (with Dhoni as captain for the most part)- 4 of his 6 SDs ( series-defining performances ) are from this period (as are 2 SDs/TDs in ODIs). Most emphatically, he was the highest impact batsman in the world’ in both Tests and ODIs during this period. Given all that he overcame just before this (injuries leading to surgery, poor form, unrest in team, depression during World Cup 2007), this is the most remarkable period in his career.

5) Tendulkar has a mediocre Series-Defining record in Tests.

His fans argue that the Indian team was so weak in the 1990s that they hardly won anything (especially abroad), so Tendulkar cannot be blamed for not being a match/series-winning player in that decade. While this is true to some extent, it is also true that Azharuddin was a bigger big-match Test player than Tendulkar in that same decade (though nowhere near as consistent), especially in India (Azharuddin has 2 SDs in that decade to Tendulkar’s 1).

In the 2000s, Dravid and Laxman were much better big match/series players than Tendulkar- this hardly requires any elaboration.

Even though Tendulkar’s tally of 6 SDs places him in the top 4 on a Test list of SD tallies (after Dravid, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Sangakkara), his massive tally of Tests does not lead to a high SD /match ratio (which also reduces his career impact overall).

Even more curiously, 4 of his 6 SDs in Tests came as a support act when someone either took the lead or scored more than him (Leeds 2002, Chennai 2008, Colombo 2010 and Mohali 2010). Tendulkar was a consistent and significant support act for most of his career in matches that really mattered to his team from a series-defining angle (except for the 2008-2011 phase mentioned above). But he was not the leading man and no, it was not because of the bowlers. In most of the iconic Test series wins/draws for Indian cricket in the last 15 years – Australia 2001, England 2002, Australia 2003/4, Pakistan 2004, West Indies 2006, England 2007, Tendulkar played an effective support role with the bat while other batsmen took the lead.

6) Tendulkar was not good under the weight of expectation.

The quintessential Indian cliche about him bearing the weight of a billion fans is classic hyperbole. Fact is, he was not great at it.

He piled on runs in most of the World Cups he played but did not have a good record in the knockout phases. Though that’s not true in 1996 when his team collapsed after a good start by him in the semi-final but held true in 1999 (besides that much-hyped century against a weak Kenya- because he had returned to England after his father’s death, he failed quite comprehensively in the later stages). In 2003, despite a memorable innings against Pakistan at the group stages and a couple of other strong performances, he failed in the final. In 2007, India were knocked out in the first stage itself (where he didn’t do much). In 2011, Tendulkar, after two outstanding centuries in the league phases, played a good support role in the quarter-finals and a scratchy innings in a (dubious) semi-final (where he was inexplicably dropped 4 times) but was still the highest scorer in the game (perhaps his most significant TD in ODI cricket), and almost predictably failed in the final.

He was brilliant in two finals though- both against Australia, and both performances in the two phases mentioned above (at Sharjah 1998 and Sydney/Brisbane 2008). Both performances featured outstanding performances in successive matches (including the famous ‘Desert Storm’ innings).

Tendulkar is also the only one of the ‘great’ modern-day batsman in the world who has as many cases of not finishing a job once set as he does- the most famous examples being 136 vs Pakistan (Chennai, 1999) in Tests and 175 vs Australia (Hyderabad, 2009) in ODIs.

The most blatant manifestation of this particular weakness came in the quest for that ersatz measure – his 100th international hundred after 33 international innings he got this, compromising his team in that match (more about that later) – it was a microcosm of his entire career and it is curious that he never scored a century again.

In fact, even in T20s – Tendulkar is Mumbai Indians’ highest impact batsmen in all 5 seasons of the IPL but only if you do not consider tournament-defining performances . The moment that comes into the picture, he goes to fifth spot as Dwayne Smith comes right on top. In all matches for MI, Tendulkar appeared in 7 big games (in IPL and CL) – he failed in 3 of them and played a decent support act in the remaining 4 but never played the leading role. This trend is not unique to the T20 format – this has largely been Tendulkar’s story, except in those two phases (and sometimes even in those).

7) Tendulkar was a technically perfect batsman with no palpable weaknesses.

This is well-documented but it merits repetition because of the place this fact has in the overall picture.

He scored against all opponents, in all conditions. He is the highest impact Indian batsman in South Africa- arguably the toughest country for Test batsmen and one of the highest impact batsmen against Australia, who, for a good part of his career, had the best bowling line-up in the world.

The best way to judge technique and talent is perhaps to examine how many different answers a batsman has to the same delivery – there is enough evidence to show that Tendulkar has more answers to the same delivery than all other contemporary batsmen. But is this bat-hitting-ball gift the only quality required to be great? Clearly not – as the space between the ears, having the stomach for a fight and the ability to be light about both play a big role too. A list of Tendulkar’s finest performances demonstrate the importance of these.

8) Tendulkar batted in the most productive positions in cricket history.

This is an interesting fact -the highest impact batting position in Test cricket is no. 4 (borne out by averages too). And the highest impact batting position in ODI cricket is no. 2. It is easy to see why – in Tests, the hard work is done by the openers and no. 3 as they see off the new ball. In ODIs, with the field up and the ball hard in the powerplay, the best opportunities for scoring and playing a long innings exist for the openers more than anyone else.

Therefore, it can be argued that Tendulkar relatively did the easiest job for a batsman in both formats of the game.

He was obstinate about both positions for most of his career and did not brook any changes. In the context of Tests, it is curious that he volunteered to open only once in his career despite perhaps being the most equipped of all batsmen of his generation to do so. Meanwhile, a plethora of hapless top/middle-order batsmen had their careers jeopardised by being forced to open including Yuvraj, Dravid, Sehwag and even Laxman (India was lucky that Sehwag made such a great fist of it).

In most great teams, the best batsman came in at no. 3- Tendulkar simply did not. The role that the openers and no. 3 played in making his work easier cannot be underestimated here- they never get credit for it (Impact Index accounts for that).

9) Tendulkar put himself ahead of his team whenever the two interests clashed.

This is spoken of in private circles amongst many in the cricket world but very rarely in the media. Despite there being irrefutable evidence of it.

On several occasions in his career, during the course of establishing some personal statistical landmark, the team’s interests were compromised by Tendulkar, sometimes flagrantly so.

The most notable occasions are Sydney 2004 (when Tendulkar took his time to overhaul Dravid?s 233 as the highest score made by an Indian overseas at that time; India were eventually 4 wickets away from winning a Test series in Australia for the first time).

This is actually what led to the famous declaration by Dravid at Multan 2004 (the very next Test match for India) with Tendulkar stranded at 194 and not responding adequately to repeated reminders to speed up and get to his landmark.

There was the blatant attempt by Tendulkar to stay not out (Sydney 2008) by taking a single off the first or second ball 6 times in 8 overs to give no. 11 the strike, despite a lead of 38- farming the strike clearly an old-fashioned idea for him, despite being 145 not out.

He did the same thing against South Africa (Centurion 2010)- interestingly, when Gautam Gambhir tried the exact same thing against England (Mumbai 2012), he was chastened publicly by Dhoni- it was the last series he played (despite a scoring sequence of 65, 60, 40 and 37 in his last 4 innings). A bewildered Gambhir must have wondered why he was punished when Tendulkar had been getting away with this for years.

And just before that, during Tendulkar’s infamous hundredth 100 against Bangladesh, Impact Index found that it was the slowest innings of his career bar none (relative to the match context) which cost India the match and consequently knocked them out of the tournament (fans blaming the bowlers on that pitch just demonstrate how little they understand the game sometimes). It was a staggering transgression on Tendulkar’s part and he was sadly accompanied by Virat Kohli in that (who made 66 off 82 balls on that featherbed).

It is this example that he set for younger batsmen (like Gambhir and Kohli in the above cases) that has sometimes threatened to be one of Tendulkar’s legacies to Indian cricket-  this ‘Bombay school’ of selfish play that thankfully Dhoni seems to have addressed with an urgency that is reassuring.

10) Tendulkar is the poorest Indian captain in 30 years.

Despite some team-mates vouching for Tendulkar’s qualities as an astute thinker of the game, his results as captain were very poor in both Tests (W4 L9 D12) and ODIs (W23 L43). It brings him the lowest captaincy impact amongst all those captained India in the last 30 years (part-timers excluded). Even as a captain in the IPL, curiously enough, Mumbai Indians got their best results when he was injured or stepped down as captain.

Maybe it was his Achilles heel manifesting again – the inability to cope with expectation and pressure.

Readers can come to their own conclusions after absorbing these (easily verifiable) facts. The only point we want to make is that Tendulkar was human above everything else, with attendant frailties and foibles. He was a genius but a flawed one. The latter quality he shares with every single player to have ever graced the middle. Every single player, maybe even Bradman.

He inspired two generations of young Indians, no doubt, but it’s not like he was the only one inspiring them or that no one was getting inspired before he came into the scene. Or that others are not inspiring youngsters now. For all his technical prowess, he has not been the only great player India has produced even amongst his peers. His contribution is immense but he is not God, and the future doesn’t necessarily look any worse with him departing after he has played his part.

The universe is too indifferent for that.

 

 

Jaideep Varma and Soham Sarkhel