Tendulkar’s hundredth and the curse of statistics
Cricket is a game of aesthetics, tactics and mind-numbing statistics. The devil is always dominant in the game, given that the detail is everything and everywhere.
While there is no reason why these need compete, they often do – issues of style are trumped by matters of economy; beauty is sometimes hampered by the relentless and often pedestrian pursuit of ‘milestones’. Records are made and become divine yardsticks that must be passed for immortality to be confirmed.
The astonishing talent of Sachin Tendulkar, and how it has been recently used, is one such example. Since making his debut as a teenager, Tendulkar has become something of a mythical creature who has dominated the game of cricket. His talents have yielded him records aplenty, some of which may never be equalled.
The pursuit of records, however, can affect a humbling paralysis. This seems to have been the case with the hundredth hundred, a milestone Tendulkar reached in an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh in what turned out to be a losing cause.
Tendulkar has been hounded over a record that, while remarkable, is a sawdust mark. A hundred hundreds in first class cricket resounds immortally; a hundred hundreds which entails a false combination of one-day and Test scores doesn’t have the same ring to it.
In the end, what of the profit and value Tendulkar has provided his supporters and those who follow international cricket?
Figures, ironically, tend to conceal the sheer genius that requires them to be achieved. They are merely dead formalities, remarkable only in the comparative context with other figures and how they were achieved.
A George Headley innings in a weak West Indian side on a sticky wicket is a mere figure on the bloodless pages of Wisden, but for those who saw it and wrote about it, it pulsates with vivid clarity, a genius of technique against nature.
The statistical dimension to cricket can often risk monopolising the aesthetics of it, not to mention perspective. Numbers replace poetry; milestones become mechanical features of a pursuit. Selfishness comes into play.
The Indian cricket commentator and writer Harsha Bhogle (ESPN, Mar 16) put it rather well, spiced with a good deal of dramatic effect. “We fret, we are obsessed with landmarks, we build conspiracy theories, we get angry and I wonder: What happened to the simple joy of watching cricket?”
Former English cricketer Mike Atherton noted that Donald Bradman’s phenomenal achievements are still marred by one obsessive feature – the failure to achieve a perfect average of 100 runs per innings.
Before Tendulkar achieved that penultimate century, Atherton would write that ‘the number obsession, rather like Bradman, is 99′ (The Australian, Mar 17).
For a month, Tendulkar had gone into his insecure shell, a creature of abnormal caution given that the last time he had approached going this long without a century was between his first in Manchester 1990 till his second in Sydney 511 days later. Child-like uncertainly entered his play. Amateurishness crept in.
Atherton took one step further. Could this behaviour suggest a self-absorbed Tendulkar, a selfish figure who had himself become obsessed by cricket as a statistic rather than a joyful spectacle played by a team?
“For the past year, it has been as if the India team have been in limbo while Tendulkar stalked his milestone,” the recently retired and selfless Rahul Dravid was the striking contrast, and Atherton wasted no print beating around the bush.
By all means, keep the numbers – but don’t forget to keep the broader cricket picture in mind. Tendulkar’s achievement is one of sumptuous talent and effort.
And while he is fortunate that he has the figures to go with it, the numbers mania of cricket can sometimes obscure the impact the man’s talents, and those of others, truly had.
Embrace the spectacle, and ditch the number-crunching creed.