For long an unqualified supporter of Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar bunged a spanner into the works last week by pronouncing that Steve Waugh was a better batsman than his fellow Mumbaikar. Gavaskar's new appraisal was based on the perception that Waugh had stood up under pressure and delivered more often than Tendulkar. "It's time to listen to the Australians who rate their captain as the best Test batsman in the world for his ability to either win or save matches for his team outside his home environs" he wrote.
The suggestion that Tendulkar hasn't won or saved matches for his team often enough does merit a second look. One fact mustered in support is that the team has rarely won when he has scored runs. For instance, only six of Tendulkar's 25 centuries have figured in a winning cause; in contrast, 19 of Waugh's 25 centuries have come in victories. In winning Tests alone, Waugh averages 73.43 as opposed to Tendulkar's 55.2. But can Tendulkar be blamed for the team not winning on the other occasions when he has scored a century? I think not. For that matter, of Gavaskar's 34 hundreds, only six resulted in victories.
In his comments, Gavaskar was referring specifically to Waugh 'outside his home environs'. The Australian captain does tend to lift his game in unfamiliar settings. He averages eight runs more overseas than at home, while Tendulkar is the exact reverse, averaging eight runs more in India than abroad. Waugh has 13 away centuries in 12 Tests, of which Australia won 9. Tendulkar has 13 away centuries himself but India have won just one of those Tests. A damning figure, but which reflects more on the relative merits of the two teams rather than the two batsmen.
There is also the feeling that when it comes to the crunch, Tendulkar has, more often than not, fallen short. A crunch situation could appear in either the first innings (when the team has lost early wickets) or in the second innings (when the team is seeking to set a competitive target or when it is actually in the midst of the run chase). Most Indian supporters can reel off instances when Tendulkar has failed in delicate moments, especially in the second innings: Bridgetown 1996/97, Harare 1998/99, Mumbai (vs RSA) 1999/2000, Kolkata & Chennai (vs Australia) 2000/01 and Harare (2001). Waugh is widely considered THE batsman in contemporary cricket for a crunch situation. But how do they actually measure up?
Waugh's expertise at crisis management is backed up by his uncanny knack for walking in at No.5 when the first three men have gone for next to nothing and batting through the innings. Indeed he's been involved in a partnership for the last wicket 21 times, as against just four occasions for Tendulkar. Waugh's firefighting abilities have been overwhelmingly roped in to defuse first innings situations: of his 25 hundreds, an astonishing 23 have come in the first innings. His most recent ton against India in Kolkata, although not exactly coming in the midst of a crisis, was a fine example of his ability to skillfully manoeuvre an advantage in the company of the tail, as Australia advanced from 269/8 to 445.
But there is an alarming decline in his productivity as a game approaches closer and closer to its denouement. Going into the second innings, the pressure is more suffocating because you are after all at the business end of the match when the rope is very, very short indeed. Waugh's overall second innings average is 31.38 and in the fourth innings, it slips even further to 22.68. In 25 fourth innings, Waugh does not have a single fifty to his name, a statistic that is as baffling as it is revealing.
If Tendulkar has his blots, so does Waugh. Australia have made a hash of chasing modest targets too, at the Oval in 1997, Sydney against Pakistan in 1995/96 and Adelaide against West Indies in 1992/93 to cite just three instances, and Waugh was nowhere in the picture. Even in India earlier this year, the Australian skipper could not stick around long enough to avert danger in the second innings at Kolkata and Chennai. Indeed, Waugh's most famous effort in a run chase came - not in Tests - but in a one-day game against South Africa at Leeds in 1999 when, with Australia on the brink of elimination from the World Cup, he produced a unbeaten 120. That was the moment when the legend of Steve Waugh as someone to bat for your life took shape.
Tendulkar too has several priceless first innings efforts, notably at Cape Town in 1996/97 when he produced 169 in a stand with Azharuddin to rescue India from the perils of 58/5. Several other tons (Perth, Jo'burg, Melbourne) have been magnificent pockets of resistance with all else crumbling around him. Tendulkar averages a respectable 47.38 in all second innings (including eight tons) and 32.27 in fourth innings, with two centuries, both of which were constructed in the teeth of adversity.
In Manchester in 1990, India had slipped to 183/6 on the final afternoon when, faced with the prospect of batting out the last two and a half hours to save the game, Tendulkar and Manoj Prabhakar joined hands with an unbroken 160-run stand. The 17-year-old was, curiously enough, sporting a couple of pads borrowed from Gavaskar. Then in Chennai in January 1999, he produced another superlative effort of 136 that lifted India from 82/5 to within 17 runs of victory. True, India lost, and if regarded as a failure on that count (by Tendulkar himself if not by others), it was a truly heroic failure.
The figures show Tendulkar has done very well for himself and more than holds his own in any assessment. The fact that away wins are so hard to come by for the Indian team makes the losses more painful to swallow and perhaps we have been accustomed to judging him too harshly. Again, Waugh's reputation for thriving under pressure was made only in the post-1993 phase, on his return to the side after being dropped. By then he was 28. Tendulkar has just crossed the same landmark himself. His best years are almost certainly still ahead.