Why the 100th doesn't matter
Had Sachin Tendulkar scored six more runs in Mumbai against West Indies, he would have climbed a cricketing Everest: a hundred international hundreds! No one has done this before, not even Bradman. And it's not as if Bradman didn't have the time: he played international cricket for nearly as long as Tendulkar has done: 20 years. I can hear pedants object that there were no ODIs in Bradman's time. So? They had Test matches, didn't they? And if he played only 52, whose fault was that? Slacker.
How many Test centuries did Bradman have? Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine? Tendulkar has 51. If he had gotten those six runs, he would have had 52 Test centuries, one for every Test that Bradman played. That would have been a record too, a minor landmark in Sachin's unmatched career.
How well I remember the great Muttiah Muralitharan's 1000th international wicket! How it was anticipated, how tense we were when he got to 999, how relieved when the great man winkled out… the name of his 1000th victim escapes me, but Cricinfo's Statsguru is bound to have it. Murali went on to take 1334 international wickets, 800 in Test matches and 534 in ODIs. The last 334 wickets were surplus to requirement because it's round numbers that count. Like a hundred hundreds. There's a ring to it. A century of centuries! My sources in a daily tell me that the paper has planned an eight-inch headline, just a single word: CEN-DULKAR! You read it here first.
Warne understood the round-number thing: the moment he got to 1001 wickets (he got the extra one because Hindus believe it's auspicious) he called it a day. You didn't know that Warne had a thousand international wickets (708 in Test matches and 293 in ODIs)? Those numbers don't trip off your tongue? And you call yourself a fan. Pah. How to explain the grandeur of Tendulkar's imminent achievement when you're surrounded by illiterates who don't know the basics about cricket?
I'm joking. The real cricketing illiterates are the people who believe that adding ODI centuries to Test centuries and arriving at a hundred gives you a heroic landmark. It doesn't. This isn't just a meaningless statistic, it's a pernicious one, because it equalises two different orders of achievement.
Making a hundred in a Test is a lot harder than making a hundred in an ODI. The opposition's best bowlers can bowl at you endlessly in Test cricket, instead of being limited to 10 overs; Test cricket features many more close-in catchers; and as the pitch deteriorates over five days, batting gets harder. Making runs quickly is harder too, because the fielding captain can set defensive fields without the field restrictions that make ODI cricket a leather hunt for the bowling side.
To club one-day centuries with Test centuries is to implicitly argue that Tendulkar's epic hundred at the WACA on his first tour of Australia, is the same sort of score as the meaningless hundreds he scored in those squalid ODIs against Pakistan in Sharjah. It isn't, and when we suggest that it is by inventing this empty category, "international hundreds", we devalue Test cricket and debase the currency of cricketing terms.
It is to speak and think like a child with 99 coins in his piggy bank, 51 made of silver and 48 of lead, who is dying to acquire one more coin of either kind because he will then have a hundred metal coins. The child can be indulged because he's too young to know better, but what of the grown men and women who follow cricket and report and comment on it, who carry on as if something monumental is about to happen each time Tendulkar crosses 50, and then mime tragedy when it doesn't? If Tendulkar played Twenty20 cricket for India, would an "international century" scored in that format count towards this century of hundreds? Even children know that winning a game of checkers isn't the same as winning a game of chess, though both are played over the same 64 squares.
So why are we going on like idiots about this non-event, this half-wit's holy grail? Why can't we be content to celebrate Tendulkar's real achievement? Fifty-one Test hundreds. Say that slowly because no one will ever score more. And if you must celebrate his 48 ODI centuries, do, but as a distinct and separate achievement. There's no such thing as an international hundred. If you do want to join his Test centuries to some other figure to bulk out his numbers, add to them his 27 first-class hundreds: at least those were made in the same four-innings format of the game.
The reason no breathless Indian television anchor is hyperventilating about Tendulkar's 78 first-class centuries is because that number doesn't sufficiently distinguish the great man: there are many batsmen who have better numbers. Tendulkar, whose 22-year career shadows India's history since economic liberalisation, has become, through no fault of his own, the totem of New India's self-congratulatory middle class. He is at once their redeemer and their guarantee of self-worth. He must, therefore, be a singular genius: in the heaven of cricket, there must only be one God: Tendulkar. And so a copywriter's meaningless catchphrase becomes a cricketing statistic: a hundred international hundreds.
Cricket does have one one true God, who lives alone in his own private heaven; unluckily for desis, he isn't Tendulkar, He is the aforementioned Bradman. Everyone else, from Hobbs to Lara, is part of a supporting pantheon of demi-gods. Tendulkar is among the most distinguished of these but he isn't pre-eminent, not even in this second-echelon host.
He isn't even the greatest cricketer of his generation. Murali's career figures as a bowler are more extraordinary than Tendulkar's career figures as a batsman, and if you think Murali's action disqualifies him, Warne makes for a pretty good substitute. And yet, I don't remember (and neither do you) anyone even noticing their thousandth international wickets. That's because they didn't have a billion consuming customers at their backs who shared a nation with them.
I believe that Tendulkar has a substantial claim to being considered the greatest Test and one-day batsman of his generation. This is a very large achievement with which he (and we) must be content. We don't need gild this lily with trashy "statistics". To use "a hundred hundreds" to winch Tendulkar up onto a pedestal is to disrespect the great players he has played alongside. Consider Jacques Kallis, who after 16 years at the top has a Test batting average higher than Tendulkar's. He also has 271 Test wickets to Tendulkar's 45, and 169 catches to Tendulkar's 110. If I was a determined South African fan looking for numbers to prove that my man was the best, I could legitimately argue that you would need to merge Sachin Tendulkar with Zaheer Khan to come up with Jacques Kallis. Zaheer, India's best strike bowler for years, has 273 wickets, barely more than Kallis. Do these numbers bear out the claim that Kallis is the more significant player? No they don't, because greatness in cricket can't always be boiled down to numbers - which Tendulkar's cheerleaders would do well to remember.
The most worrying thing of all is that the Little Master seems to have drunk his own KoolAid. For the last several innings he has looked weighed down by the pressure of this non-event. Someone should whisper in his ear that he is a great man, that this absurd quest is beneath him. If he does get a hundred the next time he plays a Test innings, he ought to see it as an oblique salute to Bradman, not an ersatz tribute to himself. There is no 100th hundred to be had: the whole, in this case, is less than the sum of its parts.
Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph