Is Sachin Tendulkar India’s greatest ever One Day International (ODI) batsman? Definitely, yes. Is he the world’s greatest ODI batsman too? After a bit of deliberation, the answer is yes again. In my opinion, there have been many batsmen who have been better than Tendulkar in Test cricket, but when it comes to ODI’s, he staves off the likes of Viv Richards and Sanath Jayasuriya to be regarded as the best. He has been king in the 50-overs format, and not just because of the numbers.
His 23 year-old ODI career ended yesterday, when he announced his retirement from the 50-overs format. If numbers are at all any indication, Tendulkar’s statistics in one-day cricket are mind-boggling – the most number of matches (463), the most number of runs scored (18426) and the most centuries (49) – all way ahead of the nearest competitor. Add to that the most number of Man of the Match awards, the most runs in a winning cause, the record for being the first man to score an ODI double century – and what you get is an ODI batting colossus who more often than not delivered as per the soaring expectations of his huge legion of fans, or rather worshippers.
ODI cricket took the nation by storm after India’s 1983 World Cup win, but it was in the nineties that this form of the game caught the nation’s frenzy in an unprecedented manner, and it was around this time when Tendulkar rose as a world-class batsman, especially in the one-day game. Surprisingly, the man who went on to produce centuries like a machine took as long as 79 ODI’s to post his first century, which came against Australia at Colombo in 1994-95.
After initially starting his career as a middle-order batsman (till date he bats at No.4 in Tests), he opened the innings in an ODI for the first time against New Zealand at Auckland in 1993-94. The end result – a blistering 82 from 49 balls, and Tendulkar made the opening spot his own. After this there was no looking back for him, as he began to accumulate runs and hundreds at a breakneck pace. He made 1998 his own year – he scored 1894 runs and 9 centuries in ODI’s that year, both records of course.
The one point against Tendulkar often brought about is that for all his records, he never had the ability to take his team across the line in an ODI match. In other words, Tendulkar was not a finisher, but that is understandable, as the best finishers of the ODI game like Michael Bevan, Michael Hussey and MS Dhoni never opened the innings – and it takes a lot to bat continuously for almost 50 overs at a stretch. What mattered was the confident starts that Tendulkar gave to his team, which was over-dependent on him till the early 2000’s. He might not have been a finisher, but he certainly laid strong foundations for victory. And there have been cases where Tendulkar saw his side collapse to defeat in spite of making a memorable knock – which speaks of the sheer impact he had just by being on the pitch.
Tendulkar loved ODI cricket, and his hunger and enjoyment while batting in such games was evident. Which is why he was keen to be part of at least one World Cup winning team. That wish was fulfilled when India were crowned World Cup champions in 2011, fittingly winning the final in Mumbai, Tendulkar’s home ground. He reserved his best at times for World Cup matches, and not surprisingly he is the leading run scorer in the tournament’s history. He was the face of Indian cricket in the nineties, when many fans gave up hope of India’s victory as soon as he got out. No other player ever has attracted such support of the masses, and no other thing has attracted as many eye-balls as Tendulkar batting in a One Day International.
For a large part of 23 years, Tendulkar carried the weight of often unreasonable expectations from his followers. If he scored a hundred, he was called God by his fans; if he scored a duck, the same people burnt his effigy. It was his hunger and the sheer enjoyment he derived from the game that has culminated into such a long career but like all good things, his ODI journey has ended. Tendulkar in his blue Indian jersey is now a thing of the past, and he has left countless number of memories in the one-day game that people associate him with.
In my opinion, he should have quit ODI cricket right after the 2011 World Cup, as he had nothing else to prove and plus his body was getting slower by the day. It would have been the perfect swansong. After the World Cup, Tendulkar played only a handful of ODI’s in which his performances were scratchy. Moreover, today’s Indian ODI team has many match-winners as against the nineties, when Tendulkar’s dismissal signalled the end of the game most of the times. The coming-of-age moment for India in this regard was probably the 2002 Natwest final against England at Lord’s – when Tendulkar was 5th out, India still needed 180 to win. However young guns Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif led India to victory, proving that India could after all, win ODI’s without Tendulkar.
The best Tendulkar innings in an ODI? There are the stunning back-to-back ‘sandstorm’ hundreds in Sharjah in 1998, the ‘throwback-to-the-nineties’ classic 175 in a losing cause against Australia in 2009-10, his 200 not out against South Africa in the same season, his 98 in the pressure-cooker World Cup 2003 clash against Pakistan at Centurion.
But in my opinion, one innings towers above all these – the unbeaten 140 he made at Bristol against Kenya in the 1999 World Cup. True, it was a weaker opposition. But Tendulkar had lost his father just a few days back, and this was a do-or-die game for India. Batting at No.4 for a change, Tendulkar put all his personal grief behind him and proceeded to play a gem of an innings. His tearful celebration looking skywards after completing his century remains the most poignant moment of his career.
The determination he showed that day epitomised the way he played ODI cricket – fearlessly and totally committed to his task.