Twenty years ago this week, Sachin Tendulkar scored two hundreds in two run chases against the Australians in Sharjah. The first ended in defeat for his team, but ensured India qualified for the final of the tournament. The second won India the tournament.
Tendulkar has played better in ODI cricket than he did that week dozens of times since that innings, and a few times before as well. The wicket in Sharjah was flat. Australia didn't have Glenn McGrath or Jason Gillespie. Brett Lee was yet to emerge and there was no serious pace in the Australian attack that day. As a technical challenge, the Australians of 1998 were decidedly average (despite the presence of Shane Warne). For difficulty, consider, for instance, Tendulkar's 77 in Brisbane against Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson and Anderson Cummins in 1992. The other Indian batsmen in the top six that day made 4, 1, 1, 8 and 3, and the next best score was Kapil Dev's 28. Or consider any one of Tendulkar's 18 scores between 90 and 99 (Nathan Astle, Aravinda de Silva and Grant Flower have nine each, the next highest), and you will find memorable stories, difficult attacks, difficult targets or difficult conditions in many of them.
In retrospect, that week 20 years ago came to symbolise an era in India's (and Tendulkar's) ODI history. Cricket, it is said, is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. I think this is backwards. Cricket is a team sport masquerading as an individual sport. Each delivery involves exactly one bowler and one batsman, but its possibilities are shaped by realities beyond the control of these two individual players. When teams win consistently, they tend to have a large number of top performers. But to find the truly exceptional individual superstar, look in a team that loses more often than it wins. Think about Andy Flower, or Brian Lara in the latter half of his career, or Muttiah Muralitharan in the Sri Lankan attack. Think, indeed, about Tendulkar in India's ODI side of that era.
Previously, I've written about how the central difference between Virat Kohli and Tendulkar in the ODI game is the contribution at the other end. In 48 years of ODI cricket, there have been 130 instances of batsmen scoring 1000 or more runs in a calendar year. I calculated the net batting average and net strike rate for each of these 130 instances.
Tendulkar made 1894 runs in 1998 at an average of 65.3 and a strike rate of 102 runs per 100 balls faced. The other batsmen in those matches scored at 32.6 and averaged 80 runs per hundred balls faced. This gave Tendulkar a net batting average of +32.7 and a net scoring rate of +22. This is represented by the red dot in the chart above. The blue dots represent corresponding records for all other instances of batsmen scoring 1000 or more runs in a calendar year.
The extraordinary performance in the top right corner is AB de Villiers in 2015. De Villiers made 1193 runs at 79.5 and scored at 138 runs per hundred balls faced. The other batsmen in those matches scored at 41.6 and at a strike rate of 99 per 100 balls faced. De Villiers crossed 50 ten times in 18 innings that year. In nine out of those ten innings, he scored at least a run a ball. He had innings of 149 (44 balls), 162 not out (66), 119 (61) and 104 not out (73) - an extraordinary year.
Other players have averaged better than 70 in a calendar year, scoring more than 1000 runs. In 2017, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma both achieved this, and both scored at 99 runs per 100 balls faced. Hashim Amla made 1058 runs at 75.6 in 2010. He scored at 104 runs per 100 balls faced; the other batsmen in those matches managed to score at 99 runs per 100 balls faced, and averaged 42.8. MS Dhoni made 1198 runs at 70.5 in 2009, scoring at 86 runs per 100 balls faced; the other batsmen scored at 101 runs per 100 balls faced, and averaged 35.9. Ricky Ponting made 1193 runs at 79.5 in 2007, and scored at 92 runs per 100 balls. Australia won the World Cup that year and the other batsmen averaged 44.8 and scored at 103 runs per 100 balls.
In an earlier era, Dean Jones made 1174 runs at 69.1 and scored at 79 runs per 100 balls faced. The other batsmen in those matches scored at 32.3 and at 79 runs per 100 balls faced. In 1987, Javed Miandad made 1084 runs at 67.8 and scored at 70 runs per 100 balls faced; the other batsmen scored at 29.8, but managed 81 runs per 100 balls faced.
A batsman who scores 1000 ODI runs in a calendar year can be said to be having a great year. Tendulkar in 1998 and de Villiers in 2015 are unique in that they were not only more consistent than their team-mates, but scored significantly quicker than them as well. A comparison between Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, who scored 1000 runs or more in a calendar year six times, is illustrative. In five out of these six years, Ganguly scored slower than the other batsmen in his matches.
Tendulkar played ODI cricket for India from 1989 to 2012. In all but two of those years, he played at least ten games. Using the method of the net average and strike rate, his career can be split into three distinct phases. The chart below shows Tendulkar's net average and strike rate per calendar year. Each point represents a calendar year (1989 and 2010 are ignored).
The first, formative, phase ran from 1989 to 1993 (green dots in the chart above). Tendulkar played in the middle order in a largely unsuccessful side. In 1994, the coach Ajit Wadekar and captain Mohammad Azharuddin decided to move Tendulkar to the top of the batting order.
This began the second phase (red dots) of Tendulkar's career. He was both the most consistent and quickest-scoring player in the side. It was in this phase that he stood out as the exceptional performer. This phase could be said to have ended with the 2003 World Cup in particular, and the year 2003 in general.
In 2004 (and especially 2005), Tendulkar struggled with injuries, and the Ganguly era was drawing to a close, giving way to a significantly stronger and more successful Indian ODI side. In this third phase (blue dots), Tendulkar was more consistent than his average team-mate but scored slower.
Desert Storm marked an exceptional point in that middle phase of Tendulkar's career. I've always thought that the emblematic innings of that phase was not one of the Sharjah ones but his 90 in 84 balls against Australia at the Wankhede Stadium in 1996 in a World Cup game. Australia batted first and reached 258, thanks to Mark Waugh's 126. During the innings break, Geoffrey Boycott was asked whether he thought India would chase these runs. He said: "No." After a while, he said, "They have a chance if Tendulkar scores big."
Nearly two hours later, Tendulkar was nearing his hundred, with Sanjay Manjrekar for company. He had taken McGrath to the cleaners with the new ball and seemed to be able to do as he pleased, no matter who was bowling.
Boycott was asked again what he thought. "If Tendulkar goes, they'll struggle," he said.
When Tendulkar was dismissed, India had six wickets in hand and needed 116 in about 24 overs. Boycott didn't think India would get those, and he was right.
On April 19, 1998, in Sharjah against Australia, Tendulkar made 80 in 72 balls as India chased 265 and lost by 58 runs. On April 22, he made 143 in 131 as India chased 276 and lost by 26 runs. Finally, on April 24, he made 134 in 131 as India chased 273 and won by six wickets. Over those three games against Australia, Tendulkar made 357 in 334 balls and was out three times (avg 119, SR 107). At the other end, 374 runs were scored in 497 balls for 17 dismissals (avg 22, SR 75).
India lost three out of their five matches in that tournament and still won the title. They lost two of their three matches against the Australians and still won. In a sense, both India and Tendulkar played to form that week. India showed themselves to be the average side that they were then, who lost more than they won. Tendulkar showed himself to be a miraculous player approaching the peak of his powers.
That magical year 20 years ago gave the Indian team a look at limited-overs mastery they could aspire to. Indeed, by the time Tendulkar left the international game in 2013, he was no longer the miraculous player from 1998, but India had come closer to being a miraculous side than at any other time in their history.
At his best or otherwise, I found Tendulkar's batting mesmerising to watch. But as good as his batting was, the advancement of the Indian side during these 20 years is perhaps Tendulkar's greater achievement.