March 2, 2010

Why Tendulkar will hit another 57 Test centuries

Going by the immaculate precedent set by Graham Gooch, of course

The moustache has it: as his facial hair bloomed, so did Graham Gooch’s average © Getty Images

Hello Confectionery Stallers. I have been busily mining some Tendulkar statistics for you, only to find that I had been beaten to it by Cricinfo’s Caesar Of Statistics, S Rajesh, in this as-always illuminating piece on the Mumbai Marvel’s recent renaissance.

This reached a stunning peak with his historic one-day double-hundred in Gwalior last week – a useful innings in anyone’s book, in which he scored as many hundreds as England have managed in their last 23 one-day internationals over 15 months (and more double-hundreds than everyone on the planet had managed in the previous 51,478 one-day international innings).

So I had to excavate deeper in the seam of statistics with some special industrial stat-mining equipment, which I drilled directly through my computer screen until some numbers splurted out.

As he reached 200, Tendulkar passed the 31,054 international runs landmark. Narrowly – he’s now on 31,055, which is more than 6000 ahead of second-placed Ricky Ponting, and 31,055 more than the entire Zaltzman family combined. He also extended his lead at the top of the international centuries chart to 25 (he has 93 to Ponting’s trifling 68; next come Lara on 53 and Kallis on 50, with all Zaltzmans lagging behind morosely on 0; and no one else has even scored half as many as Tendulkar).

History suggests that the records will keep tumbling. They are now mostly his own records – Tendulkar can barely breathe without breaking some kind of world best. In fact, he literally cannot breathe without breaking a record – with 609 international appearances under his golden belt, he has, one assumes, breathed more often on an international cricket field that any other cricketer. (With the possible exception of England legend and notorious oxygen fan Herbert Sutcliffe, also known as “Hyperventilating Herbert”, who averaged around 200 breaths per minute throughout his Test career. The story goes that Sutcliffe believed that rapid breathing conveyed a sense of nervousness through the arms into the wood of the bat, making the blade tense up, and thus hit the ball further.) (The contents of the previous parenthesis are not entirely true.)

Tendulkar is now approaching his 37th birthday, meaning he will have 10 fewer candles on his cake this year than Test hundreds on his CV. As soon as Graham Gooch turned 37 in July 1990, he promptly smashed 333 against India at Lord’s, in the infant Tendulkar’s first Test in England, in which he took a catch from another universe to dismiss Allan Lamb.

Before that innings, Gooch had averaged 37 and scored just nine hundreds in 78 Tests, punctuated by periods of poor form, technical imperfections, bans, self-imposed exile, and nagging doubts over exactly how bushy his moustache should be. After reconciling himself that it should be, and remain, “very bushy”, Gooch had an extended late blooming, averaging 51 over 40 Tests, with 11 more centuries.

So, using mathematics, the deceitful she-devil, if Tendulkar achieves proportionately an identical improvement after his 37th birthday to Gooch’s, he will over the remainder of his career play 85 more Tests, and hit 57 more Test centuries whilst averaging 75. Beware, bowlers of the world, the best may be yet to come. If Graham Gooch proves to be a scientifically accurate predictor for how batsmen perform after the age of 37. And if Tendulkar is prepared to grow his whiskers.

The delight all cricket fans must feel at Tendulkar catapulting himself back to the summit of the game is enhanced by the extent and duration of his mid-career slump. I would argue that it extended way beyond even the two-year 2005-06 period Mr Rajesh details. Over half a decade − from the start of India’s disastrous two-Test humiliation in New Zealand in December 2002, to the beginning of the 2007-08 series in Australia – if you exclude two boot-filling short series against Bangladesh, Tendulkar averaged just 38.49 in 35 Tests. The cricketing immortal was rubbing statistical shoulders with the likes of Asanka Gurusinha and Craig MacMillan.

If we discount all Tests against the average-camouflagingly weak Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, Tendulkar had the 45th best Test batting average during this period (including only batsmen who played in 10 or more Tests). Here’s proof.

He scored only three centuries against the older Test nations – two of which came in successive Tests early in 2004, when he scored 241 not out and 60 not out in Sydney, then 194 not out in Multan. Either side of that short but floridly purple patch, the little master’s Bangladesh-excluding average over five whole years was an almost Ramprakashistic, sub-Azhar-Mahmoodian 29.

Tendulkar was aged between 29 and 34 during this underachieving span, an age when batsmen are generally thought to be at their peak.

(Here’s a little statistical teaser for you that my mining equipment chunked out from the cricket earth’s molten statistical core. What age is the highest-averaging age for Test batsmen? Take a guess, write it down, seal it in an envelope, hide it under your pillow, and wait for the answer to be revealed in this week’s World Cricket Podcast. If your answer is correct, you win this week’s star prize – the everlasting respect of the cricketing universe.)

Brian Lara had a similar career trough. After his stellar early years, culminating in a massive series in England in 1995, Lara averaged just 40 over six years between the ages of 26 and 32, before exploding back into greatness in Sri Lanka in 2001-02.

In this time, the Trinidad Trailblazer averaged over 50 in just two series out of 12 – a century-free rubber of steady scoring against England early in 1998, and his flabbergastingly brilliant single-handed demolition of McGrath, Gillespie, Warne and MacGill a year later. In the rest of his career he topped 50 in 15 of his 23 series.

How curious that the two greatest batsmen of their era should both have slumped significantly over a prolonged period during what should have been their best years, before resurging when they might have been expected to decline. Tendulkar’s elbow operation in May 2005 lies exactly in the middle of his five-year funk, and must be the major explanation for his temporary relapse into relative cricketing humdrummery, given the perfection of his technique and the equanimity of his temperament. Brian Lara’s slump can be attributed to the fact that he was Brian Lara.

These numerical rift valleys in otherwise Himalayan careers are perhaps bizarre anomalies, but not without precedent in the world of geniuses. Beethoven once spent five years writing nothing but advertising jingles for a horse insurance firm, French sculpture whiz Auguste Rodin locked himself away in a studio for the entire 1890s, and emerged having made a single papier-mache Mickey Mouse, and Shakespeare wrote As You Like It (my view of which may have been clouded by having it force-rammed down my throat as an A-level set text) (but only slightly clouded).

The answer to the highest-averaging age question, and related fascinations, will be revealed in this week’s World Cricket Podcast, which will also address issues ranging from England’s tour of Bangladesh, Australia’s jaunt to New Zealand, and the history of the appeal. Plus the latest in the completely unmissable Annoying Things About Cricket series. And some other stuff, if I think of it. And maybe an interview.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer