A cricket historian and columnist, Ramachandra Guha's books include Spin and Other Turns and Wickets in the East.
As Tendulkar returns from Bradman's 90th birthday bash, it is a fitting moment to analyse the comparative skills to cricket's King and his heir-apparent.
On the 28th of June 1930 Jawaharlal Nehru was arrested by the police in Allahabad; on the same day Don Bradman scored 254 against England at Lord's. The coincidence was grimly noted by K.N. Prabhu, future cricket correspondent of the Times of India. From then until he became prime minister of free India in August 1947, Nehru was in and out of jail, while Bradman was flaying English bowlers all over the place. For Prabhu, young and patriotic, the Australian became a kind of avenging angel, his bat answering the slights accumulated over the years.
Generations of Indians waited for Bradman as they wait for Vishnu's Viswaroopa, that is, for a sight of their idol in the flesh. Despite several invitations the Don did not play in India; indeed, he set foot on our soil only once, en route to England in 1953. This too was not by choice, for his plane had stopped in Calcutta merely to refuel. When Bradman went to the Dum Dum waiting room to stretch his legs he found a thousand people there to greet him. Furious, he got into an army jeep and fled to a barricaded building. He later sent the airline a rocket for "breach of confidentiality".
Bradman has subsequently made amends for these discourtesies by the interest he has shown in young Sachin Tendulkar. Sachin flew to Australia for the Don's 90th birthday, the only foreign cricketer to be asked to do so. And some time ago the Don even said that of all batsmen who have come since it was Tendulkar who resembled him the most. Cryptic as ever, he refused to elaborate.Where then does the similarity lie? Let us rush in where the greatest of cricketers fears to tread.
The Don and Sachin are akin, first of all, in their physique. Bradman stood 5 ft 7 inches in his socks; Tendulkar is littler still. Like other vertically challenged batsmen they have moved easily about the crease. The lack of inches is compensated by speed of foot. Sachin, like Bradman, seizes the length of a ball earlier than his contemporaries. Given a choice he plays back rather than forward, allowing himself the extra millisecond to decide his stroke.
The back-foot force through the off-side and the pull are Sachin's bread-and-butter shots, as they were the Don's. On this base the jam is spread in abundance. The great Australian googly bowler Bill O'Reilly claimed that Bradman had "the greatest repertoire of aggressive and damaging strokes that ever a batsman carried". But then he did not watch Tendulkar bat. Sachin plays all the shots that the Don knew, and at least two others. These are the reverse-sweep and the inside-out drive over extra-cover, both post-modern inventions unknown to the Don. Bradman also rarely played the ball in the air; he hit less than 10 sixes in his Test career. Having been brought up on one-day cricket Tendulkar likes to play the lofted drive. With his heavier bat he clears the fence more readily than the Don did, but then he gets caught more often too.
In the evidence the Australian was a better player of spin bowling. His footwork was phenomenal. If Tendulkar has a weakness it is against the slower stuff: consider how often the Pakistani off-break bowler Saqlain Mushtaq has had him stumped by balls that bounced and turned past his flailing bat (the part-timer Mark Waugh had him that way too, in the 1996 World Cup). Bradman, one thinks, would not have let Saqlain's balls hit the turf.
To compare two batsmen so widely separated in time is a risky business. More so as I have watched Sachin bat for dozens of hours, whereas my visual experience of the Don is restricted to some clips stolen from here and there, shot in the primitive technology of pre-Channel Nine days. But I have dipped richly into the eyewitness accounts of his batsmanship. And when I see, in a film of Bradman's 304 at Leeds in 1934, the manner in which he runs his first run, I see an anticipation of Tendulkar, of his determined, indeed single-minded athleticism. This man loved to bat, and loved the strike more. The only time he would stroll between the wickets was on the last ball of an over, so that he could face the first ball of the next one. For all Saurav Ganguly's talent, I cannot imagine Bradman agreeing to open the batting with such an indifferent runner.
Tendulkar can bat as straight as Sunil Gavaskar and Vijay Merchant, his great Mumbai predecessors, but he would never bat as slowly. Before him Indians had known two types of batsmen -- the accumulator, who took two, sometimes three days to reach three figures, and the hitter, who thrashed about for 15 minutes before being out for 20 or 30. Sachin not only makes hundreds but makes them fast. Bradman likewise scored at a rate of knots against the best attacks. He once made 300 runs in a day in a Test match.
Like Sachin, the Don rarely, if ever, hit a full-blooded drive or cut straight to a fielder. His strokes also went where the fielders were not, an ability which, in batting terms, really marks out the men from the boys. In between the boundaries he energetically ran his twos and threes -- like Sachin, again.
Tendulkar and Bradman are alike in physical appearance, in style of stroke play, and in their overall attitude to the game. For neither does cricket begin or end with the art of batsmanship. The Don, who was less ample round the waist, was a magnificent cover point. Sachin lacks his pace over the grass but is nonetheless a handy field. Both could (or can) roll a leg break. Tendulkar's feats here are fresh in the memory, but how many know that Bradman once dismissed Walter Hammond at a crucial stage of a Test match?
A cricketer is known by the respect he commands among his peers. Bradman's own colleagues thought him a phenomenon with the bat, but didn't exactly warm to his personality. Both Keith Miller and Jack Fingleton have written of him as selfish and self-absorbed, pursuing his interests above those of the team. Tendulkar, by all accounts, is more liked by those he plays with. He has also shown an endearing loyalty to his home state, Mumbai. Bradman, on the other hand, threw over his native New South Wales to move to South Australia.
Striking feature of Bradman's career is that he was never coached. He sharpened his skills, stick in hand, with a golf ball thrown against the railing of his family's modest ranch in Bowral. Nature has showered its favour on Tendulkar, but culture has helped too. Unlike Bradman he was born not in the boondocks but in the heart of the cricketing capital of the world. If, dear lady reader, you wish your baby to be a Test cricketer get yourself admitted into the maternity ward of the Shivaji Park Hospital in Mumbai, having bought or rented a nearby apartment beforehand. Your boy might then have the headstart Tendulkar enjoyed. He can walk across when able to the Shivaji Park Gymkhana, to be schooled there by Ramakant Achrekar.
The lack of coaching might explain the Australian's unsurpassed hunger for runs. For where Bradman leaves the competition, Tendulkar included, stranded is in his penchant for converting hundreds into twos. Of the 29 centuries he scored 12 were double hundreds. He remains the only batsman to have scored two triple centuries in Test cricket. Tendulkar has a highest score of 179 despite having hit 16 hundreds. One can perhaps explain this away by blaming one-day cricket. I am not so sure.
Bradman played his first Test in November 1928, his last in August 1948. His record is staggering enough, but what might it have been if he had not been shut out of cricket for six years due to World War II. The British commentator John Arlott once remarked that when Bradman retired "no more were bowlers faced with an apparently insoluble problem". There have been moments in recent months when some bowlers must have thought likewise of Tendulkar. But until he crosses that Lakshman Rekha of 200 runs, and crosses it again, we cannot speak of him as a second Bradman. Consider here the story of the 1938 Oval Test, which was to be played to a finish. When England batted first Bradman twisted his ankle while bowling and was taken to hospital. The England captain, Walter Hammond, batted on, and on. Late on the third day news came that Bradman's ankle had been fractured and he would take no further part in the match. Now Hammond could safely apply the declaration, at 903 for 7.
This, surely, is the greatest compliment ever paid to one cricketer by another. In it we find marked the distance that remains between their Don and our Master. Sachin is to Bradman as Krishna was to Vishnu, as close to the real thing as exists in this imperfect world. But those who will never see the Lord can do worse than follow his avatar.