What's in a number? A lot, we're made to believe
One hundred hundreds. A series whitewash. Another series whitewash, this time the whitewasher becoming the whitewashed. Statistics, decimal points, run rates, rankings - perhaps it is a reflection of our times that the by-products of sport have taken centrestage, pushing into the background the essence of the game itself.
Over the last two tours, one pointless statistic has dominated the discourse - Sachin Tendulkar's century of centuries. Pointless because it mixes apples and oranges, Test cricket with one-dayers (and Twenty20 too, if Tendulkar had made a century in that format). Pointless because it took the focus away from what is really important - team performance. The anticipation, the pressure clearly began to tell on the batsman when, with a little planning (and knowing how a nation would react), it could have been got out of the way long before Tendulkar boarded the flight for the England tour.
Sports thrive on statistics, but that is not why cricket and soccer and chess are played. Not too long ago, the 'noveau' cricket fan was characterised as someone who was more excited at spotting a missing leg bye in the score cards in Wisden than watching a cover drive unfold from Tom Graveney or Gundappa Vishwanath. Those who couldn't appreciate the game's aesthetics, who didn't recognise beauty when they saw it in a straight drive or a square cut were dismissed as uncivilised, even if they could recite every one of Bradman's scores in Test cricket in the right order.
Perhaps it began with Bradman himself, described by Neville Cardus as a player who "has kindled the grand bonfires of batsmanship for us - but never once burned his own fingers while lighting them." Is he too mechanically faultless for sport's sake, asked Cardus and concluded the essay (written in 1930 when Bradman was at his peak) with the hope that the great man would make a duck some day and thus oblige those "who believe with Lord Bacon that there should always be some strangeness, something unexpected, mingled with art and beauty."
Without articulating it, perhaps that is what Ian Chappell was getting at when he said recently that Brian Lara was a superior batsman to Tendulkar. There certainly was some strangeness; something unexpected mingled with Lara's art, of that there is no doubt. Tendulkar began that way too - a right-hander of such sublime gifts that he combined technique and improvisation to a degree not seen in a modern batsman. Somewhere down the line he chose security over adventure, mere existence over domination, simplicity over complexity, and put away the strokes that were uniquely his, preferring instead to perfect the ones available to everybody else.
Till many years later, when he suddenly turned creative again. Yet, one-day cricket's first double-century that he made was an innings of text book strokes that did not need to borrow from the effective-but-ugly heaves of Twenty20. That made the innings special.
Tendulkar has been around for so long that it is possible to fall into the fallacy of proximity. He is 39, he is still around, he makes runs even if with less authority, but what is forgotten is that longevity is an aspect of greatness.
Perhaps it is Tendulkar - the modern Bradman - who 'educated' a generation into thinking that statistics are more important than anything else. It is a theme that is played out with variations in other fields too. The best novelist in the country, in many people's reckoning, is the one who has sold the most number of books - forget the quality, feel the rush of the money. The best actor is the one with the most movie hits.
Or perhaps it is the growth of the most important element in sports between the careers of Bradman and Tendulkar which has skewed sports and made the what of it more important than the how. I speak, of course, of television which demands comparative and comparable figures to set up false but commercially viable battles between individuals to 'sell' a series and which, thanks to a serious dip in the quality of commentators leads the unsuspecting to believe that sport is statistics, and everything else is a distraction.
It is easier to understand a hoick for four and an average of 50-plus than to soak in the texture of a leg glance or the tantalising off break. The simple is television's constituency. It explains the success of the IPL, which is a television sport, and the increasing lack of enthusiasm for Test cricket which demands effort from the viewer.
More about Suresh MenonSuresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack, and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer.
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