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Publication date: April 2013
I would have preferred 99. I thought that was enough. But on March 16, 2012, Sachin Tendulkar reached his 100th international hundred, a century of centuries. And I think there would have been more elegance - perhaps, paradoxically, more sense of completion - if he had stopped before he got there.
He had collected 51 centuries in Test cricket and another 49 in one-dayers, each an unprecedented figure on its own. When combined, they ask for a redefinition of such inadequate concepts as excellence. If you look long enough at a fine Islamic rug, you will eventually find the purposed error: the deliberate imperfection which shows that the humble artist had no thoughts of beating God at his own game; a humility concealing the arrogant thought that, without such a flaw, people might genuinely have mistaken the artist's work for God's.
A flaw humanises and, by doing so, reminds us that something great has been performed by someone just like us: a person who bleeds when pricked, sleeps in a bed at night, eats, digests and defecates. "Cricket is my religion, and Sachin is its God," as the Indian cliché goes. The fact is that Tendulkar was born as we were and will die as we will ourselves. It's harder for humans to do things in real life than it is for a god in a story. Shouldn't we celebrate Tendulkar for his humanity, for what he achieved, despite the inevitable fallibility of humankind?
After all, Sir Donald Bradman left cricket on 99, not a hundred. Tendulkar and Bradman have long been twinned in one of sport's impossible comparisons. Would Bradman have worn a helmet and played the Dilscoop had he been a 21st-century cricketer? Would Tendulkar have gourmandised in the manner of the Don? In a game obsessed with statistics like almost no other, Bradman has a Test average with a number that sings out to cricket followers like a line of poetry: 99.94. The poetry is all in the missing 0.06 - the six lost hundredths.
For a long while, it seemed as if Tendulkar's ultimate stat would have the same sort of humanising fallibility, the not-quite-purposed flaw. For unending months, the figure of 99 overshadowed everything he did. He claimed he wasn't thinking about it; certainly, he did all he could not to. But everyone else in India was mad on the subject. He couldn't order a paratha on room service without the floor-boy asking when the 100th hundred was going to come.
India's tour of England in 2011 was memorable for the hundred that never was. I could feel in my bones during that series - and I don't think I was alone - that the 100th hundred would eventually come as a moment of supreme bathos. The situation demanded it. I even predicted it would be against Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. I didn't, though I should have done, suggest it would come in a losing cause, as Bangladesh beat India by five wickets at Mirpur in the Asia Cup. The only glory of that day was in the number itself.
Which is not to say that numbers lack glory. Sport's all-time great numbers include ten, for Pele. The figure 147 haunts snooker, to the extent that players will chase the maximum break at the expense of mere victory. Four, as in minutes and a mile, was a compelling number in athletics; similarly another type of ten, as in seconds and 100 metres. One is a magic number in golf, just as 100 is in cricket. Baseball has .400, for the batting average that has become extinct. These days, even the finest hitters average in the .300s (you get a baseball average by adding up the number of times the player hits the ball and safely reaches first base, then dividing by the number of at-bats).
The lost .400 average demonstrates one of sport's eternal truths: that while the great players are always great, overall standards tend to rise. Dare we suggest that duffers were more common when Bradman batted? After all, of his 6,996 Test runs, 1,968 came at home against modest attacks from India, South Africa and West Indies, and at an average of 140. And though it's true Tendulkar has made five hundreds in nine Test innings against Bangladesh, he has faced a wider variety of attacks and conditions. It may be no surprise that his average is merely in the mid-50s. Bradman got more bad balls to hit, just as the batters from baseball's golden age got more sluggable pitches. The same principle holds true in English football: in 1927-28, Dixie Dean scored 60 league goals; in the Premier League season of 2011-12, the top scorer was Robin van Persie, with 30.
Perhaps Tendulkar's century of centuries will become another of those lost standards: something that says important things not just about the person who achieved them, but about the times in which the record was achieved. It's not precisely that no one could ever be as good as Bradman - just that no one will have the same opportunity to collect such an average. And perhaps that will be the same with Tendulkar's century. For what international career in this intense age will ever last as long as his?
Other sports throw up records that seem unbeatable. When Mark Spitz won seven swimming gold medals at the Munich Olympic Games of 1972, it seemed like a record for all time. But Michael Phelps managed eight at Beijing in 2008. He now has 18 golds over three Games, and 22 medals all told. Multiple medal-winning is more possible in swimming than in any other Olympic sport, but those figures - 18 and 22 - will take a great deal of beating. Phelps and Spitz stand out over the narrative of swimming like Tendulkar and Bradman in cricket. The numbers tell the story.
There are those who believe Sir Steve Redgrave's five golds in five successive Olympics is an even finer achievement. Rowing is an endurance event and it is hugely demanding: doubling up - and Redgrave tried that in 1988, when he won gold and a much-forgotten bronze - is considered next to impossible. Five is a number that fizzes and burns across Olympic history.
Oddly, cricket's big numbers are more readily compared with the numbers amassed by athletes in individual sports. That's because cricket, not quite uniquely, is a team game based on individual duels. It has always tended to celebrate the individual above the team. Every cricket follower knows that the highest individual Test innings is Brian Lara's 400 not out against England in 2003-04 (a few can tell you, without pausing for breath, that the highest team score is 952 for six declared, by Sri Lanka against India in 1997-98).
There are two categories of statistical measures in sport: the first for one-off, or season-long, performances; the other for career-long achievements. We are obsessed by the notion of greatness in sport, and we traditionally measure this in terms of career. Tendulkar and Bradman stand out by whatever stats you care to call up, but it is their career-defining figures, the 99.94 and the 100, that really count.
I once conducted an argument in the pages of The Times with the cricket correspondent, Mike Atherton. I suggested Andrew Flintoff was a great cricketer, because he was great for a single summer that changed English cricket. Atherton said that wasn't good enough for greatness. I'm prepared to argue my point to this day, but I have to concede that the popular measure of sporting greatness must span an entire career. (What about Bob Beamon, then?)
So, as we look for career-long stats relating to individuals, we must look first to golf. Golf is not a sport in the manner of cricket, since it requires no running about and no physical risk. Still, it is a pleasant pastime for people who are too old for sport or who lack the taste for it. The number we use to measure a golfer is 18: the major tournaments won by Jack Nicklaus.
Everyone in golf expected that number to be overhauled with insolent ease by Tiger Woods, who collected 14 while dominating that sport as no individual had ever done (as Bradman had dominated cricket, in fact). But then came the incident in November 2009 - unforgettably summed up in the headline "crouching tiger, hidden hydrant" - that precipitated Woods's personal crisis. At the end of 2012, he remained stuck on 14. His lifetime achievement will be measured by how close he gets to, or by how far he surpasses, the figure of 18.
In tennis, the measure of greatness is the number of singles victories in the grand slam tournaments. The open-era champion here is Steffi Graf on 22, with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on 18 each. In the men's game, Roger Federer is the leading all-time player with 17. Of the top four currently playing, Rafael Nadal has 11 and Novak Djokovic six. Andy Murray has one: in another era, one less stuffed like a Strasbourg goose with talent, he would surely have collected more. Yet we measure him not by his ability, but by his number.
When Federer was at the top, he was considered to be the finest player to have lifted a racket - tennis's Bradman, nothing less. Before him came Pete Sampras. Sampras was no artist, like Federer. He had a game of brutal, pared-down simplicity: the last great serve-and-volleyer. People said that he was boring. I used to reply: well, if you find excellence boring, find something more your size. I believe wrestling is rather amusing.
I loved watching Sampras, especially at Wimbledon, as he made his inevitable march on the previous highest total of slams. He eventually passed Roy Emerson's 12, winning 14 before he retired. Perhaps the finest tennis match I have seen was the Wimbledon final of 1999, when Andre Agassi, at the very peak of his game, played a perfect match against Sampras. But Sampras simply moved beyond perfection and beat him - impossibly, unforgettably - in straight sets.
He won the match on a second-serve ace. Afterwards, an American journo asked: "What was going through your mind at the time, Pete?" There was a baffled pause, before Sampras said: "There was absolutely nothing going through my mind at the time."
And I was enlightened. I was enlightened in the sudden manner of a Zen follower. It was in that Zen doctrine of no-mind - the notion that too much thought gets in the way of truth - that Sampras had his being. He is, or was, the Zen master of sport. I wrote this, and later received a letter of agreement: "And I am a Zen master myself..."
There is something of the same quality in Tendulkar's batting. It is by no means complete, and against England before Christmas every run was a struggle. But Tendulkar at his peak had, more than any other batsman I have watched, the ability to play the ball rather than the situation, to immerse himself in the moment rather than the myriad distractions. There was always that touch of serenity about him: each shot not forced, but the inevitable consequence of the question set by the bowler.
Which is why the final, slightly sordid, journey to the 100th hundred was so painful to watch. It was as if Tendulkar had set aside his strongest asset - his indifference, his serenity, his no-mindedness - and was, at the end of it all, hamstrung by numbers. Tendulkar and Bradman have each left a single unforgettable, and perhaps unbeatable, magic number. I'd still have preferred it had they both been 99.
Simon Barnes is chief sports writer of the Times