Lara vs Tendulkar: a pointless but grand debate
The following article was taken from The Spin, the UK Guardian's weekly e-mail on the world of
Watching the televised endgame to the waterlogged second Test in Wellington (between New Zealand and England)—a cosy space-filling, sofa-bound affair that cricket has always, from the days of the hair-oiled and unapologetically brusque Peter West, done better than any other sport—the Spin was struck by a number of things.
First by the familiar low-key excellence of Ian Ward in the anchorman role, a presenter who manages to be nice without being anywhere close to bland, and to remain at all times attentively expert while still teasing the bulk of the chat out of his revolving roster of furtively suited ex-pros. And not to mention doing all this while resembling increasingly some elegantly ravaged fin de siecle decadent levered out of the casino and into a light blue business suit and persuaded to discuss at great length Australia's dearth of spin options with Shaun Udal and Dominic Cork.
Mainly, though, as the day passed in a companionable pretence of hope ("back over to Michael now at a deserted Basin Reserve"), Sky staged a lengthy, well-informed discussion about Brian Lara. The Spin isn't really sure why, other than the obvious fact that there is no time when it is not a good time to have a long discussion about Brian Lara, but on this occasion this was framed around the horribly pointless, horribly interminable, horribly irresistible ambient debate about who was a better batsman, Lara or Sachin Tendulkar: a discussion that under new proposals put forward to the EU could soon be banned in public places, which is punishable by ritual flogging in many of the world's more despotic outposts and which, reduced to its familiar interminable thrashings-out tends to end up recreating the exact physical sensation of arguing interminably about who would win a race between a satsuma and the colour green, while having a breadstick driven up your nostril into the front quarters of the brain. But which remains, for all its migrainous tedium, somehow also a brilliantly insatiable topic of conversation.
The main reason for this is Lara, who may or may not have been the better player, but who, as Sky's video selection ably demonstrated, was in his peak moments one of the most viscerally exciting athletes imaginable in any discipline, every movement an expression of the most unearthly sporting talent.
And happily this is a timely moment to talk about Lara. It is now 20 years since the last great West Indian announced himself, in the winter of 1993, with his first Test hundred: not the usual agonising trudge, but a jaw-droppingly fine 277 on the third and fourth days in Sydney against Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes and Shane Warne. After which Lara produced the two and half years that would define him, scoring just under 3,000 Test runs at 61 including in just his 16th Test his first world record mark, 375 against England in Antigua. This was followed that summer by his enduring 501 not out against Durham (off—gulp—427 balls) and three brilliant hundreds against England in the summer of 1995.
If Lara's finest innings was perhaps the match-winning 153 against Australia in Bridgetown in 1999, it is this early period that seems to sum him up: not so much the weight of run scoring—Jonathan Trott had the same number of hundreds the same number of matches into his Test career—but a concatenation of unsurpassable peaks. This is the key to the Lara-Tendulkar debate, and in fact the only thing really worth saying about it. Tendulkar obviously wins on pure accumulated stats. Lara wins on visceral sporting elegance and also on the extremity of his peaks.
It is a question of differing frequencies. Lara's five best innings are superior to Tendulkar's five best. But Tendulkar has many more best innings, each one a separate perfectly self-contained draught of the homogenised high-grade matter that is Sachin Tendulkar. If Tendulkar's kind of greatness was the only kind of greatness the sport would be tonally diminished. But a sport whose giants were all Laras would leave you yearning now and then for the cool, clear, beautifully still artistry of a Tendulkar.
For whom, incidentally, the correct comparison is probably not Lara but Jacques Kallis: a fellow technician in a similarly stable team who scores hundreds at the same rate and at a slightly higher average, but who also happens to have the same number of Test wickets as Jimmy Anderson and is therefore statistically the greatest cricketer of all-time (there is a problem here for militant Tendulkar fans: their man may win the Lara battle on points, but bring in the world's greatest allrounder and Sachin starts to look a bit like Kallis without the wickets).
It is, as The Spin has ably demonstrated while thrashing out its own variation above, still the grandest and most pointless cricketing debate of the past 20 years. And really the broader point is the only real point worth making here. Emerging over a six-year span of notably high-spec Test match bowling talent, all three—Lara, Tendulkar and Kallis—are and were truly great. But then, what a time it was for that kind of thing.
At the time the stand-alone greatness of extant Test cricketers in the 1990s and 2000s was simply a given. Category A specimens, All-Time XI candidates, real-deal merchants: they were everywhere. Shortly after the turn of the century you could have picked a world XI that ran: Hayden, Dravid, Ponting, Tendulkar, Lara, Kallis, Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, Pollock, Muralitharan. Every member of this team, with others in reserve, would be a decent shout in an all-time composite team to play the all-time composite cricketers of Mars.
Inevitably, there has been a levelling out. There are as ever brilliant cricketers knocking about the place. But the current world XI—at a stab: Cook, Smith, Amla, Sangakkara, Clarke, Kallis, De Villiers, Steyn, Philander, Ajmal, Anderson—is a tangible step down from giddily unassailable to merely very good. If this sense of decline is tangible, it is also politically fraught. It is customary at this point to rage with ubi sunt zeal against the rise of the new world: the distractions of the new formats, the altered gravity of the roving global Twenty20 league, with its short-termist concerns, its stupefying riches, its greatness-skewering sense of dilution.
On the other hand, too many domestic cricketing setups are in a state of turmoil—only in England and South Africa does first-class cricket seem more rather than less organised than it was previously—for this to all be the fault of the IPL, or the BPL, or the SPL or even the FLT20L. It is simply a time of change and adjustment. And perhaps it is the right moment to accept that what it is to be a great cricketer has simply changed a little. What De Villiers, or Amla, or MS Dhoni have managed—excellence in three utterly diverse formats through a rolling calendar of disorientating demands—is not to be undervalued. Perhaps there is, if not greatness, then something close to it here under extreme pressure.
Or at least something that was never quite asked of Lara in his prime, a genius who undoubtedly missed out on a fortune by only just scraping into the T20 era, but whose career was at least agreeably narrow-focus. More likely it is simply cyclical, the greatness dearth—albeit cyclical in a way that is related not just to the standard wax and wane of global talent stocks, but also to the cycle of muddle and confusion beyond, the sense of a sport in the process of shaking itself down into a new and hopefully more coherent shape.
The West Indies may yet produce another Brian Lara but, as CLR James wrote in Beyond a Boundary, genius cannot exist in isolation from it surroundings. Cricket's recent past looks not just like a land peopled by giants, but something calmer and more settled, a mini golden age with little more in the way of distraction beyond the familiar sedate, deliciously irresolvable questions of competing cricketing ultimacy.