Discussing Sachin Tendulkar has never been easy. He lends himself to arguments. Most of these arguments are like giant fractals – each made up of smaller, similar sounding mini-arguments. To debate Tendulkar is to be caught in a whirlpool and bombarded with streams of thought from tangential directions.
So I have tried to rip the present Tendulkar debate (about his poor series against New Zealand and calls for retirement) threadbare. I have singled out each part of the argument and presented my view. As always, you are welcome to disagree and extend the debate further.
The consistently-bowled-translates-to-you’re-finished reasoning
Losing your stumps must be the most humbling way to get out. I doubt if this debate would have been so heated if Tendulkar was caught behind or lbw in Hyderabad and Bangalore. But he was bowled three times – not playing-on bowled but clean bowled. Neck-and-crop, as they say. Not only has Tendulkar been bowled, he has been bowled by middling bowlers like Boult, Bracewell and Southee.
This has led to a series of comments about Tendulkar’s slowing reflexes and diminishing eyesight. Gavaskar analyzed his technique on air. Manjrekar has said his bit. There have also been comparisons with Dravid (who was consistently bowled in Australia) and Viswanath (who was bowled three times in his final series in Pakistan, most famously off that astonishing in-cutter from Imran in Karachi).
My take: Tendulkar has been bowled 51 times in his Test career. He has had phases when the incoming delivery has troubled him. In 1996 (when he was in fine form) he was bowled in 5 out of 15 innings and mostly to balls that darted in. In 2002 (another good year) he was bowled 8 times. He has faced a similar problem in ODIs over the years.
Bowlers of varying quality have exploited this weakness. He has been bowled by McGrath and Donald. He has also been bowled by Adam Dale, Adam Sanford and Franklyn Rose. So to say his mode of dismissal shows that his powers have waned would be to ignore his history with the incoming ball.
The How-dare-you-talk-about-Tendulkar’s-technique pooh-pooh
If you were to believe some people, nobody can criticize Tendulkar’s technique. “Tendulkar gets bowled 3 times in a row. and now, we have people whove never held a bat arguing if he should retire!!” [sic] tweeted Rajdeep Sardesai, the editor in chief of IBN Network. On the other hand you have comments on websites that seem to confidently analyze exactly why Tendulkar has been getting out: “In the second innings, tendulkar had no gap between bat and pad. it was just that bat was going to midwicket and the ball slid by the bat as there was no surface area to block it!”
My take: Yes nobody has scored as many runs as Tendulkar. Yes nobody has played as many games as him. But that doesn’t mean he is above criticism. One does not have to be a great player to be a good reader of technique. Ramakant Achrekar’s first-class career was limited to one match – yet it’s likely that he can tell you exactly what Tendulkar is doing wrong. Aakash Chopra has made some valid points. And so have many others who haven’t had an extended international career. I am totally OK with anyone debating his technique. He obviously knows who to listen to and who to ignore.
The Sehwag-Gambhir-Raina reminder
Everytime someone talks about Tendulkar’s poor scores, there are those who point to Sehwag’s and Gambhir’s lean patch. If you point fingers at Tendulkar, they assert, then why not also point one at Sehwag and another at Gambhir? And what about Raina? Doesn’t he also deserve scrutiny?
My take: I agree that every batsman must be held accountable. I also think players like Sehwag and Gambhir are getting away lightly because the attention is primarily on Tendulkar (yes, yes: I too am guilty for writing a whole post on SRT and mentioning Sehwag, Gambhir and Raina in a mere footnote).
But I also understand the reason for Tendulkar being the focus. He is 39. All his contemporaries have retired. And he is Tendulkar for God’s sake! When has he not been the focus of any debate?
The India’s-batting-is-too-fragile-to-lose-Tendulkar-at-this-stage theory
Manjrekar wrote about this in his column. “With Laxman and Rahul Dravid gone, Tendulkar, with all his vulnerabilities as a 40-year-old, will still provide value to this Indian batting line-up when it goes to South Africa in November 2013,” he said.
Suresh Menon echoed these thoughts in his piece (though he didn’t go as far as November 2013): “Despite the 2-0 win against New Zealand, India’s batting – Virat Kohli apart – does not inspire confidence. It would be the height of irresponsibility by the selectors to let Tendulkar go in the same season as Dravid and Laxman.”
My take: I understand this sentiment but don’t agree. India lost eight Tests in a row with Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar in the playing XI. Most of these matches weren’t even close. I don’t think a middle order that reads Pujara, Kohli, Badrinath and Raina is going to do any worse. Sure they may struggle abroad (especially in South Africa) but I don’t think we can shield these players for much longer. These are the batsmen expected to carry the batting for the next five to ten years and the earlier they are thrown at the deep end, the better. India already missed a chance to test Rohit Sharma in Australia and may pay a heavy price if a young middle order is forever treated like babies who are not ready for hard challenges.
Also if we’re going to be afraid to blood a young middle order in South Africa in 2013, we’re never going to blood them. Kohli was given a chance in Australia and he responded. Pujara has comeback well (sure it was only New Zealand but I think we all agree that he is a long-term prospect). So why are we still quivering about giving a few other players a chance? Why this desperate desire to cling on to Tendulkar for a series that’s more than a year away?
The Tendulkar-knows-best-when-to-retire assertion
This is a line of argument that many former cricketers espouse. Ganguly said so recently. Shastri has said it earlier. Apparently a player as great as Tendulkar will know exactly when to end his career.
My take: Several great players have botched their exits. Miandad muffed it. Kapil too. Many others finished when people said, ‘Why not?’ rather than ‘Why?’ In fact, I would think the reverse is true – the great players love the game so much that they would find it hard to move on.
However, I don’t think this is even relevant. My bigger concern is whether the selectors (paid selectors, no less) have spoken to Tendulkar about their plans for the transition. It is obviously not going to be easy (and I know there will be people who say it is ‘unreasonable to expect’ the selectors to take a call on a player as big as SRT) but let’s not forget that everyone knew that this was one of their (and Fletcher’s and Dhoni’s) biggest challenges when they took over. Reports indicate that Dravid took his own decision (and made it easier for the selectors). Some pieces reported that the selectors did nudge Laxman (and credit to them if they did). But overall I think they’ve struggled to manage the transition.
The why-is-Tendulkar-tolerating-being-reduced-to-a-struggling-mortal conundrum
This line of thought that’s being doing the rounds in several columns and comments. ‘Tendulkar has been reduced to being bowled by ordinary bowlers. Shouldn’t a player of his stature end his career when he is on top rather than when he is struggling?’ A related argument runs – ‘Tendulkar has achieved all there is to achieve on a cricket field. What is the point of him continuing to play?’ And a related point runs – ‘Tendulkar is tarnishing his legacy by playing on and getting out for low scores against middling bowlers’.
My take: One of the joys of watching sport is to see a great player battle age and slowing reflexes. There is something to be said about a great batsman struggling to tackle lesser bowlers, trying to rediscover the magical touch that made him great in the first place. Great players are remembered not only because they are consistently brilliant but also because they find a way to battle when in the trenches. I am actually enjoying watching this Tendulkar phase and, in my view, the string of poor scores doesn’t diminish his greatness. (Hat-tip to @suhrith for this thought)
Also, athletes don’t just stop playing because they have achieved ‘everything there is to achieve’. Many of them just like to walk into the cricket field and play. And I put Tendulkar in this category (especially because he is one of those rare sportsmen who have played international cricket for nearly double the number of years than he has not).
Also, I find this emphasis on endings slightly strange. Tendulkar’s legacy is hardly built on what he achieves in the last part of his career. Was Gilchrist defined by the fact that he had no hundred in his final year of his Test career? Is Graham Gooch remembered for his string of 20s and 30s that he managed in his final few series?
And unlike Kapil, Tendulkar is not staying primarily to break a record. His place in our collective memories is secure. So I don’t buy this argument about him ‘tarnishing his legacy’ by struggling along.
Overall take: As great as he is, Tendulkar may not necessarily know the best time to retire. He has, in my view, botched a great chance to retire at a perfect time in ODIs (on April 2, 2011). Not that it’s going to define his one-day career but he may not get a better chance to say goodbye in that format.
However I don’t think he is done as a Test batsman. I am no technical expert but I don’t think these dismissals against New Zealand are a sign of the end. I believe his experience will help in the home series against England.
At the same time I don’t think we need to give him a buffer until November 2013. That is too much leeway even for a batsman as great as him.
And none of this should take away from the fact that a huge chunk of the responsibility lies with the paid selectors (as well as Dhoni and Fletcher). It is upto them to take a hard call. It is upto them to start placing more faith in India’s young batsmen. It is upto them to build a team to defend the ODI World Cup and regain the No.1 Test ranking. It’s finally upto them.