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Tendulkar marks his true greatness

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Mihir Bose | 14:58 UK time, Friday, 17 October 2008

Child prodigies often raise exaggerated hopes which they fail to fulfil, but Sachin Tendulkar has proved the great exception.

Back in February 1988 at the Azad Maidan ground in Bombay (as the city was then called), the 14-year-old Tendulkar made 326 not out against my old school and in the process set a world record for an inter-schools match, participating in a third-wicket stand of 664 - a record which still stands.

Such records are often regarded as cricketing trivia. This one, for example, is listed in Wisden under minor cricket along with the statistic for who has thrown a cricket ball the furthest.

But as I wrote in my History of Indian Cricket: "However the record that the young man helped create at the Sassanian Ground that February day has proved more than a mere cricketing curiosity.

"Over the following decade the boy was to become a cricket wonder and acclaimed as such by no less an authority than Sir Donald Bradman who, shortly before his death, declared that the young man's style was the closest to that of Bradman himself."

Cricket lovers will endlessly debate as to whether Tendulkar is the greatest, as Shane Warne believes.

Many feel Brian Lara, whose Test runs record he has broken, still rates higher and Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, could well pass him in the years to come - and can any of them really be classified as better than the Don?

What makes Tendulkar exceptional, however, is that his career has been central to the way cricket has changed in the last 20 years since he made his Test debut against Pakistan at the age of 16.

Tendulkar's rise has seen the emergence of India as the economic powerhouse of cricket, providing more than 80% of all world cricket's income. In the process Tendulkar has become one of the highest-paid sportsmen, with an income that bears comparison with the stars of football and motor racing.

In India, a Tendulkar endorsement of a product is almost certain to make it a success and nobody who visits the country can miss the huge billboards displaying his image.

But more than that, in a country where public figures are held in little regard and almost always considered venal and corrupt, Tendulkar has god-like status. I cannot think of any other world sporting figure who has a status that Tendulkar has in India.

His integrity and probity is seldom questioned. Indeed, I remember talking at the height of the cricket corruption crisis with Raj Singh, the then head of Indian cricket.

He turned to me and said: "You know why I believe nobody can fix a cricket match. Because the only man good enough to influence a match on his own is Sachin and he would never even consider doing it. No other cricketer is quite so good, and no other cricketer quite so honest."

Tendulkar's probity has been questioned on occasion, most notably during a tour of South Africa in the winter of 2001 when he was punished for cleaning the ball without an umpire's supervision. India exploded with such wrath that for a time it seemed it would just cut its ties with world cricket.

Earlier this year, when Australia accused Harbhajan Singh of calling Andrew Symonds a "monkey", Indians were indignant that Australians would not take Tendulkar's word that he had not done so and such was the outcry, they threatened to pull the plug on the tour.

India's Sachin Tendulkar sets a new record for the most runs scored by a batsman in Tests

Tendulkar has also been central to other changes in cricket. In 1991, he became the first non-white to ever play for Yorkshire and while his achievements there were not earth shattering he is still seen as an iconic figure in the county.

Tedulkar's style was always more entertaining than that of India's previous great batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, and he was more influenced by West Indians, in particular Vivian Richards, who he so admired.

Yet in recent years some Indians have begun to ask if Tendulkar is so good, why has the team not been more successful?

He was not part of the victorious Indian World Twenty20 team last year and his chances of a World Cup winner's medal are now unlikely. In Tests, meanwhile, a Tendulkar century does not always lead to an Indian victory in contrast with Lara, Ponting and, of course, Bradman.

Those doubts began to emerge back in 1997 on a tour of the West Indies when India required 120 to win in Barbados but were bowled out for 81 and lost by 38 runs. Tendulkar was captain, failed with the bat and it took him days to recover.

It is also worth noting that Tendulkar has never made more than 250 in a Test innings and it was Virender Sehwag, who became the first Indian to break the 300 barrier.

But in judging Tendulkar, we must also take into account that he plays India, who are notorious underperformers in sport. This means when they discover a true genius they put such pressure on him that it can make life impossible.

It is not without significance that his favourite sport outside cricket is Formula One, a sport little known in India, and an indication of his desire to break free from Indian stereotypes.

Tendulkar's ability to cope with the pressures his countrymen impose and still set records shows the mark of his true greatness.


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