As the sports world farewells cricket’s retiring Little Master Sachin Tendulkar, his place in the pantheon of the game’s greats is definitively established.
Tendulkar retires as the highest run scorer in the history of test cricket and has been named in Wisden’s All-time Test XI. His astonishing level of public admiration is surely enhanced by his role in the imagination of India and by Bradman saying that Tendulkar reminded him of himself. Brian Lara has always appeared to be the only man deemed worthy of inclusion alongside – or, really, just below – Tendulkar in any conversation about the best batsman of this generation.
All of which leaves one surprised to learn that there are two other veterans of test cricket who are still dominating the game and have higher batting averages than both Tendulkar and Lara. In fact, according to the statistics, these two men join Tendulkar as members of as good a trio of peers at the crease that cricket has seen since 1955. Back then, Len Hutton of England and Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes of the West Indies were carving out careers that saw each of them finish with what are still amongst the top 14 batting averages ever of those who have played at least 50 innings. The only player other than Tendulkar and his two peers to have played since 1974 and finished their career with such a high average was Greg Chappell, who retired in 1984. Lara finds himself 15th, one spot behind Tendulkar.
Of course, batting average isn’t a perfect statistic – it is a far from definitive assessment of a batsman’s ability and value. While it is a dramatically more effective metric than its baseball cousin, it simply divides how many runs a batsman makes by the number of times they have been dismissed. It does not take into account a variety of things such as the ability of one’s opponent or the timing of an innings.
But regardless of this, it is still the most effective batting statistic cricket has, and surely it is worth celebrating how incredible it is that three men can be so amazingly well-credentialed in the modern game. Perhaps at this time of Tendulkar’s retirement, it’s particularly apt to also take a moment to wonder if his two peers deserve far more plaudits than they have yet received.
Take the first of these men, the South African veteran Jacques Kallis. For many with more than a passing interest in cricket, the sheer impressiveness of his statistics is surprising. His batting average of 55.44 has him at 11th all-time, while the length of his career – he debuted in 1995 – leaves him with more test runs in his career than everyone other than Tendulkar, Ponting and Dravid, and he’s within 240 runs of overtaking the latter two. Of course, Kallis is a more-than-impressive bowler as well – surely the best of anyone who has spent the majority of their career batting at number 3 or 4.
And yet Kallis, with a batting average higher than Tendulkar and a bowling average lower than Wisden’s greatest all-rounder of all-time in Sobers, isn’t someone who is often considered anywhere near the standard of those other two legends. Perhaps this has something to do with the way that cricket fans often respond to style as much as substance. In commenting on how Kallis and Sobers have extremely similar records in test cricket, the incomparable Gideon Haigh discussed the contrasting styles of the great all-rounders:
“Sobers [was] all prowling grace and feline elasticity, with his 360-degree batswing and three-in-one bowling; [whereas] Kallis [is] all looming bulk and latent power, constructed like a work of neo-brutalist architecture. … Yet what they are just as much opposites of are their respective eras. Sobers was the most explosive cricketer of a more staid age, the more mercurial because of the orthodoxy and rigidity around him; Kallis is the most stoic and remorseless cricketer of an era more ostentatious and histrionic. … Sobers was a cavalier among roundheads; Kallis has steadily become a roundhead among cavaliers.”
The final member of this incredible trio is Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakarra, a man who has also spent 40% of his career behind the stumps. Like Tendulkar, there is no doubt that Sangakarra is the best batsman in his country’s history, with 7 runs separating Sangakarra’s batting average from Mahela Jayawardene’s, Sri Lanka’s second highest. He is 7th all time in terms of batting average, and is the only member of the top 10 to have played over 100 tests.
Sangakarra is a beautiful contrast to Kallis in terms of his more spectacular shot-making and an equally fascinating contrast to the stolid Tendulkar in his personality. For it was Sangakarra who was the youngest person ever invited to deliver the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in 2011, and was praised by many in the cricketing world for using the opportunity to speak out against the corruption within Sri Lankan cricket.
One can’t help but wonder about how each man’s personality and playing style has influenced the world’s response to them. While Tendulkar has become the most revered sportsperson in Indian history, would the “stoic and remorseless” Kallis have received nearly the same response had he been Indian? What about such an outspoken man as Sangakarra?
Such hypotheticals are interesting enough, but for now as we farewell Tendulkar, we should surely take the time to enjoy the sheer brilliance of his two peers. For one day soon, they too will no longer be on the scorecard.