November 19, 2013

The year 1AT begins

The one-man encyclopaedia of stats is gone, but his numbers are now footnotes in history along with West Indies' awful ones from this series

And so, cricket has moved into what will, if rumours are to be believed, soon be officially named the year 1AT (After Tendulkar). The little master has stroked his final boundary, and carved his final numbers into the record books, ending his Test career some 23 years 361 days after Salil Ankola, alongside whom he had made his India debut 24 years and 1 day previously.

Sachin's final Test was, in essence, an exhibition match, dominated by understandable and justifiable national and cricketing nostalgia. The cricket was overwhelmed by the sport's tributes to one of the finest players and most influential people in its history. In terms of total human happiness hours generated (a measure which the UN, World Bank and IMF have proved reluctant to embrace), few in any field of human endeavour can match him. It might even be the most impressive of his one-man encyclopaedia of stats.

Tendulkar the batsman was, from 1993 to 2002, the world's best by some distance. Brian Lara might have scaled greater peaks, but Tendulkar was the more consistent mountaineer. He was clearly the best in Tests (in a time of stellar bowling) and rivalled only by Bevan and, perhaps, Lara in ODIs.

He restated his greatness during a post-elbow-glitch three-year spree, culminating in the 2011 World Cup triumph. The ideal exit would have either been then, having been instrumental in India's victory, or, at least, in a final five-day showdown against one of cricket's leading powers.

Instead, he left the scene in an unexpected two-Test series of largely ceremonial interest against a dismal West Indies team that played like the occasion-fodder it had been hired to be. Emotion 1, Sport 0. India's defining sporting icon - its WG, Pele, Bradman, Babe Ruth, Maradona - deserved a more competitive and meaningful final act, but at least, after two and a half years of diminishing returns, the departing genius found form, and gave the cricketing world some final glimpses of the pure perfection of his strokeplay, the last flowering of his scientifically perfect drives and back-foot mastery.

For more Sachin stats, see this cavalcade of numerical concoctions.

* As a cricket match, Sachin's final Test was fairly awful, another of the uninteresting drubbings that have scarred West Indies for too long. They were remorselessly incompetent against spin, and fielded a pace attack that, back in the late 1980s when Sachin made his entrance to the international arena, would have seemed like the deluded hallucination of a traumatically run-starved England batsman.

Sammy's men began the series as a team with six consecutive Test wins behind them. Six wins against the teams in 8th, 9th and 10th places in the ICC rankings, but six wins nevertheless. They ended the series, less than six days of alleged cricket later looking very much like a team that had won one and lost 16 of its last 27 Tests against top-seven opposition, since clinging on to defeat England early in 2009.

They had carved their own footnotes in history - the second worst batting performance by any team against India in a Test series, the third worst by a West Indies team against anyone, and, despite a strong start in Kolkata, the second worst bowling performance by a West Indies team in their 21 series against India (albeit without their leading pacers).

Tendulkar famously began his Test career against Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, a debutant Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir, who ended their careers with a combined total of 1385 Test wickets (but who, in that series, were unable to force a result in the four drawn Tests). Only a chillingly optimistic punter would bet on Tino Best, Shannon Gabriel, Darren Sammy and Shane Shillingford overhauling that aggregate.

None of Sachin's successors in the Indian team will overhaul his total of Test match runs, but, with Rohit Sharma's belated but spectacular launch (Would it have been so spectacular if it had not been so belated? Discuss in up to 3000 words), India now have a batting line-up that could one day be world-beating, and is already gloriously flamboyant. Whether it can become the former and remain the latter in more testing conditions, and against rather more pyrotechnic bowling, in South Africa and England is doubtful, but it will be fascinating to watch them try. Albeit that the South African phase of that fascination will be only two Tests long, for reasons that should embarrass a lot of people in positions of supposed responsibility.

* Cricket now turns its attention to the short-awaited Ashes rematch. There will be a full Confectionery Stall Ashes Preview on Wednesday - the world is in dire need of more Ashes previews, I am sure you would agree - that will analyse with forensic fanaticism whether one or both teams involved will, will not or might win and/or lose.

(Brace yourself, reader, this next sentence is unnecessarily long.) Can an England team that is likely to return to its best form in conditions that could negate its weaknesses against swing overcome an Australia team still patently lacking in reliable Test batsmen and dependent on fast bowlers who are either injury-prone or spraying-it-around-and-getting-smashed-prone, but who will nevertheless fancy their chances against an England team that looks to be past its peak and may pay for its intermittent tactical caution against a resurgently aggressive Australia team who emerged from last summer's series, despite the scoreline, with a much stronger-looking all-round line-up, albeit one that may nevertheless still prove insufficiently potent to challenge an England team with few weaknesses, good memories of their last trip to Baggy Greenland and a battle-hardened core of seasoned winners, who will back themselves to overpower an Australia team scarred by a year of defeats, but which will see a major opportunity to rectify that against an England team in which a couple of selectorial fissures have opened up and who appear worryingly dependent on a bowling attack that may feel the strain of years of unremitting workload, and who could be undone by an Australia team with a renewed fire in its belly that will probably not be enough to vanquish an England team with an ongoing fire in its belly that should prove too much for an Australia team that might just sneak a drawn series against an England team that may not do enough to win but is unlikely to lose? (I warned you.) (248 words - one for each run in Sachin Tendulkar's highest Test innings. There can be no more fitting tribute.)

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