The wholesome master
Admittedly, the immediate reaction to Sachin Tendulkar's 35th hundred is relief rather than exultation. It had never been a question of if, but merely one of when: ever since he was a precocious teenager, it has seemed inevitable that he would claim the record Sunil Gavaskar has held for over 20 years. The last leg of the journey was arduous, workmanlike and, at times, frustrating. Unlike Brian Lara, his great rival and friend, who hasn't allowed himself to be touched by advancing age, reeling off hundreds with the exuberance and lightness of a teenager, Tendulkar has been less liberal about revealing his genius in recent times. The run-making has not ceased, but he has chosen a monk-like approach over lucid expression.
For his fans, the countdown has been nothing short of a torment. The wait has been long. His 33rd hundred came in April 2004. It took six more Tests and seven months for the 34th to arrive. It's been a year since then. As professional journalists, we have been hanging by a thread everytime he has come out to bat in a Test match in the last 18 months. A Tendulkar record means serious workload. First there was a record to be equalled and then one to be broken. I can confess now that we have, on a couple of ill-prepared, short-staffed days, been relieved to see Gavaskar's record survive till another day. As much as Tendulkar has tried to underplay its significance, he couldn't have been oblivious to it. A burden has now been lifted. The rest us can now get on with our lives, and perhaps Tendulkar will rediscover his old one.
Inevitably comparisons will be made between Tendulkar and Gavaskar in the wake of the record. Gavaskar was a more secure, more balanced batsman, who relied on a near-perfect defensive technique and unwavering concentration. Tendulkar is a product of his age. Like Lara, he has taken a few blows on his body and on the helmet. He can sometimes get himself in a tangle and appear awkward. But for most of his career, he has sought to impose himself on bowlers, play more strokes, take more risks and present more opportunities to the opposition to dismiss him. That he has managed to stay as prolific and consistent as Gavaskar over a career spanning 15 years must say a lot.
In the genius department, Lara, who can conjure up the most outrageously inventive strokes in the most trying circumstances, scores over him. But only marginally. If Lara is the finest artist of his generation, but Tendulkar is easily the most wholesome batsman of this age. By the time he was 19, he had already scored six hundreds in four different countries. His first hundred on a seaming pitch at Manchester saved a Test for India; his second, at Sydney against a strong Australian attack nearly set up a win; a Test later he scored a stirring solo at Perth, and before scoring his first hundred on a home pitch at Chennai, he had already scored a fourth one at Johannesburg.
Nineteen of his 35 hundreds have come abroad. Most batsmen would settle for scoring 19 in all. His batting has no apparent weakness. He is equally adept on fliers as he is on raging turners. He is no bowler's bunny. He can grind as he can blaze. Most great batsmen are known for a couple of signature strokes, but it's a tribute to Tendulkar's consummate versatility that he has no defining strokes: he can play them all with equal felicity. In that perhaps he is closest to Don Bradman.
A lack of series-turning hundreds - the likes of VVS Laxman's 281 in Kolkata or Lara's 153 in Barbados - is often held out as a blemish. It is his misfortune, however, that his most brilliant years as a batsman coincided with some of India's most wretched, a somewhat similar situation Lara finds himself in now. He spent the first ten years of his career as India's lone saviour on foreign shores and he battled alone either to save Tests or minimise the humiliation in face of absolute calamity. It's only after 2000 that Rahul Dravid and Laxman established themselves as major international batsmen and India found a couple of bowlers who could win the odd Test abroad. By now, Tendulkar was ready to redefine his role and embrace a more risk-free approach that yielded no less runs but made him a lesser spectacle.
What can we expect from him now? For a couple of matches after he came back from his elbow injury, he showed that the body wasn't a hindrance when the mind was willing. He showed us that the skill was intact. Against Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan, he twinkled and charged, cut and pulled and lofted and drove just as the Tendulkar of old. But a couple of aggressive strokes ended up as misadventures and he endured a mini-slump.
His 35th hundred was not his prettiest. A large part of it was a struggle. But it will remain a memorable one. And who knows, it could even be a liberating one. How his career shapes from here might depend on how much freedom he grants himself.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo