On Hariprasad Poojary’s Facebook page, I came across a link to this article written by Kapil Dev on Sachin Tendulkar’s twenty years in cricket. Standing apart from the universal chorus of applause, Kapil Dev raises a dissenting voice. His contention is that considering the monstrous promise Sachin demonstrated in his teens, he has under-achieved over his career metamorphosing into a record-breaker than into a destroyer, more a Sunil Gavaskar/Boycott than Vivian Richards.
This article will generally be met with two types of reactions. Sachin fans will dismiss it off-hand with a smirk reminding people of the irony inherent in Kapil Dev criticizing someone else of playing for records when he himself dragged his career to beat a rather irrelevant record, in the process depriving the country of the best years of Srinath’s career (I of course do not blame Kapil so much as I blame the selectors for not showing the backbone needed to do what needed to be done). Sachin detractors, and that’s also a significant constituency, will get up from their seats and applaud Kapil for saying what is not politically correct to say right now.
To me however the article is most interesting not because of its criticism of Sachin but how, unintentionally and in a totally unexpected way, it is actually an indictment of Kapil Dev’s philosophy of batting, a philosophy articulated by this following paragraph where he describes what Sachin’s ideal of batting would have been, should have chosen not to be an accumulator of records.
In the same breath, I would have ideally liked to see him go from 30 to 50 in three overs and to go from 50 to 80 on any pitch, against any bowler in 5 overs.
This sums up, in perhaps the most succinct way possible, not why Sachin underperformed with the bat but why Kapil Dev did. While many of you are possibly rolling their eyes at this statement from a guy like Kapil Dev where he expects a single person to score at 6.67 an over, against any bowler on any pitch regardless of match situation what is true is that this is exactly how Kapil Dev used to bat. And it is because of this that Kapil, despite being ability-wise the best batsman among the great all-rounders of his era (my personal opinion), repeatedly underperformed in batting especially in comparison to Imran Khan (Test and ODI average of Kapil is 31.05 and 23.79 and Imran is 37.69 and 33.41) and it was precisely because of this attitude that he never became a transformational figure like Imran Khan.
Putting it simply, you could never trust Kapil to play according to match conditions. In many situations, his devil-may-care attitude was beneficial— most famously in the World Cup where his uncluttered approach to the game was more suited to our situation than a more studied calculating approach would have been. But in many equally crucial situations it was this “I am going to get from 30 to 50 in 4 overs” principle that spelt doom for his team—most notably in that mad swipe against Eddie Hemmings in the World Cup 87 semi-final and that ill-fated attempt at six against Pat Pococok which led him to being dropped for the Calcutta Test in 1985.
Similarly IVA Richards, against whom Kapil compares Sachin against saying Sachin had far more talent than Richards but could not destroy attacks like the former, also had his moments of madness, the most famous of which being the 1983 World Cup final. Richards also had the added advantage of being a member of greatest team of the time (and one of all time) who could support his style (it was said that whatever the West Indies batting scored their bowling could always get their opponents out for less) which Sachin obviously never did. In addition, Richards’ game fell away alarmingly in his later years when he lost his quickness of eye and he did not have the patience, inclination or the ability to adjust his technique based on that and kept trying to play the same old way, with sad consequences for himself and his team [there was enormous bitterness in English County cricket when captain Peter Roebuck did not let Somerset renew his contract because of performance issues in 1987]
As a matter of fact some might say that this playing without any cognizance of match conditions is the ultimate expression of selfishness where your “personal style” overrides the interest of the team, something that Kapil was sadly many times guilty of. And it is precisely because of the presence of players like Kapil Dev that players like Gavaskar had to dig in and play out sessions, an act for which he was often criticized as being obsessed with records whereas most of the time he was just trying to cover for his team consisting of “natural” strokeplayers and mediocre talent. For those who followed cricket in the 80s, Kapil Dev’s ODI career batting strike-rate , an astonishing 95.7 which in those days of much slower ODI batting was simply phenomenal (in today’s terms this would be equivalent to a career strike rate of say 135.0) was fast and furious but it came with crashes, burn-ups, pit-stops, tears and much frustration.
To be fair to Kapil, he played cricket in a bygone era. The Indian crowd had lower expectations from the team, the sport retained much of its amateurishness, there was little money, batting videos were not analyzed so thoroughly for patterns of vulnerability and teams were not as clinical as they are now. In that context, Kapil’s “hit out or get out” was par for his kinder-gentler times and as an audience, we loved his style more than the soporific potterings of that short guy with a white hat and a grim face, with Paaji’s arrival at the crease with a beaming smile creating the kind of euphoria only Amitabh Bachchan’s entry scene would generate.
However Sachin belongs to a different era in a way straddling the old era and the new age in a way no other cricketer currently playing the game does. As a matter of fact Sachin did start out his career as the destroyer that Kapil idolized. Some of his early memorable innings were punctuated by his desire to hit every ball out of the ground. But then around the mid 90s, he came up against his first great career challenge when he started getting out in very similar ways, essentially hitting the ball high in the air almost straight up, with a guy by the name of Fannie de Villiers posing more than a few problems with his variations of slower deliveries. It was around this time that I remember Sunil Gavaskar made the cautionary comment that good friend Kambli might overtake Sachin, despite the early start advantage Sachin has had.
This is when Sachin changed his style from the “score at 7 an over” to a more studied but still aggressive batting ethic punctuated by a furious start and then a gradual slowing down with strategic amped-up periods of batting. It worked to his benefit as the golden years of his career began. This lasted till 2003. Then in Australia, in the midst of one of his worst slumps, he changed his batting style once again scoring 241 runs almost exclusively without his booming cover drives and his thumps through the off-side—two of his most thrilling weapons. Even now, he scores far more runs by nudges through mid-wicket and paddles than in his prime where he would uncork boisterous drives, audacious pulls and flicks at a fractional error in length or line.
Now whether you call this adaptability of Sachin to his own changing abilities and to the changing paradigm of the game a sign of supreme selfishness or the ultimate testament to his genius is of course a matter of perspective.
Which brings up perhaps the most critical question. Assuming what has motivated Sachin has been a lust for personal achievement, has that so-called selfishness been detrimental for his side ? And alternatively has the unselfishness of Kapil Dev’s destroying style been beneficial for India? In other words, does selfishness always have to be bad for the team? I would say not. After all, eleven players striving for their personal bests a great team makes, as long as the overall goals of the team and the individual are not at cross-purposes with each other.
A similar charge of selfishness is often also leveled at Dhoni, being often criticized as someone who plays to stay not-out, as someone who intentionally does not play his big shots so that he can maintain his average. I frankly do not see the problem in that. Whether his calculated style of batting is borne out of the desire to inflate his numbers and get a better bid-rate at IPL or whether it comes from a desire to be a more effective batsman who does exactly what is needed and nothing more is moot from a purely unemotional perspective. All we should look at are his numbers and his win-rate. They tell the story and I am confident that he has been a far greater asset to his team in his avatar as a poker-and-runner than if he had tried to maintain his crowd-pleasing,six-hitting former “roop”.
Just as I am fairly confident that Sachin Tendulkar today is the Sachin Tendulkar simply because of the way he has adapted throughout his twenty years and that if he had tried to remain the destroyer Kapil Dev wanted him to be all his life, he might be today in the Big Boss house like one of his prodigiously talented friends fighting for infamy with a bunch of washed-out faux-celebrities.