World Cup 2011 February 28, 2011

Why Tendulkar is bigger than Woods or Federer

I am going to go out on a journalistic limb and say that yesterday’s game in Bangalore was, without question, a decent cricket match

I am going to go out on a journalistic limb and say that yesterday’s game in Bangalore was, without question, a decent cricket match. I am sorry if any readers take offence at that, but I am sticking with it. Even my grandfather enjoyed it, and not only has he never really been much of a cricket fan, and as a South African had no emotional affiliation to either side, but he has been dead for 30 years. That is a measure of how exciting this game was – adorned with cricketing brilliance from the start, and topped off with an exploding glacé cherry of a culmination eight hours later.

Even some of the more battle-hardened hacks in the press box seemed to quite enjoy it ‒ I even spotted a couple of half-smiles creeping onto journalistic faces, before the responsibilities of office returned ‒ and there can be no higher compliment for a game of cricket than that.

For me, this was a first experience of seeing India play at home, and of Sachin Tendulkar playing in front of his own people. I chose a good game with which to start. I can think of few, if any, experiences in sport to match watching Tendulkar succeed in a home game. Roger Federer may occupy a similar status of universally-acknowledged greatness within tennis, but I think it is fair to say that Switzerland is not quite as passionate about tennis as India is about cricket. If Federer were to simultaneously play tennis whilst hoarding gold and providing banking facilities for dubious dictators, perhaps the fervour of his support would match that for Sachin. But the Swiss population is unlikely ever to top the one billion mark.

Tiger Woods has always garnered more respect than affection amongst golf fans. And Sachin has, shall we say, been rather better behaved away from the sporting arena than Tiger. In the same way that Ludwig van Beethoven was rather better at writing catchy tunes for orchestras than, for example, Ravi Shastri has proved to be (so far, at least – rumours in the Indian media contingent suggest that the former all-rounder is working on a five-act rock opera about his double hundred at Sydney in January 1992, so perhaps we should reserve judgement on this matter).

I imagine Maradona or Pelé were supported with similar boisterousness when they played at home, perhaps even more so, but the nature of cricket as a team game played by individuals means that the batsman can become the focus of the crowd’s attention and support in a way that the footballer probably does not.

Perhaps the closest equivalent is watching British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne deliver a speech at the Conservative Party conference. Perhaps not. (Although I do like to think that the seemingly-billion-strong roar that greets a Sachin hundred is exactly how the Tory conference’s reaction to the announcement of public sector cutbacks sounds inside Osborne’s own head.)

In any case, it was a magical experience and a privilege to witness. It was an innings of almost flawless perfection, the highlight of which was the successive sixes off the first balls of a new spell (a new over as it transpired) by Swann. As statements of intent go, this was a klaxon blast in the face for England’s best bowler that spelt out ‘I will hit you out of the attack’ in Morse code. Swann returned more effectively towards the end of the innings, and the outstanding and startlingly improved Bresnan restricted India to perhaps 20 fewer runs than they could have scored.

A quick but, I think, revealing statistic for you: India scored 32 more runs in boundaries than England did (50 more, if you include only overs 1 to 48, before England’s three late sixes). This suggests to me:

(a) The Indian running between the wickets was not fired with the urgency it might have been. No-one would accuse them of being the most athletic side in sporting history. I feel that Sehwag’s objection to quick singles is a philosophical one – why would the world have been given boundary ropes if you were not supposed to smash the ball over them?

(b) India failed to apply any pressure to England’s batting for the majority of their innings. For the most part, Strauss and Bell were able to milk the Indian bowlers like a heavily-sedated cow. Then, when England took the powerplay, India were forced to set tighter fields. The runs dried up, the pressure grew, the wickets fell. When the powerplay ended, the field spread again, England accelerated, and almost won the game. Read into that whatever you want.

(c) India are unlikely to win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Fielding. Or bowling.

For England, Strauss was magnificent, his high-speed judgement of length enabling to exert risk-free domination from the very start of the innings. Kevin Pietersen again suggested that his promotion to opener could be a major success, before being dismissed by a mixture of unlucky physics and Munaf Patel’s innate instinct for self-preservation. How quickly emotions can change in cricket – within the space of a fraction of a second, Munaf went from thinking that all his food would taste of white leather for the rest of his life, to celebrating a casual caught-and-bowled.

Bresnan continued his vastly impressive transformation into high-quality international cricketer with a sterling display in unhelpful conditions. Concerns remain over the other pace bowlers on wickets that have thus far been spongier than a pudding trolley in an old people’s home.

Both sides will have woken this morning with a pounding emotional hang-over, trying to piece together what happened to them the previous evening from the hazy memories seeping back to them. “Did we really do that?” they will have muttered to themselves. After a couple of alka seltzers and a restorative omelette for breakfast, both will reflect on a majestic sporting occasion which suggested that they could both win and lose any major match in this tournament.

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