Friday, November 22, 2013

From Master Blaster to Master Laster: Eminent Journalist Sumit Chakraberty Shares Some Inconvenient Truths About Sachin Tendulkar

In a cricket-crazy country where the game enjoys the status of a religion and players are hero-worshipped, Sumit Chakraberty, author of Master Laster: What They Don't Tell You About Sachin Tendulkar, dares to tell some inconvenient truths about the God of Cricket - Sachin Tendulkar. Sumit is an eminent journalist, who has extensively covered topics like cricket, food, travel and books for the last 30 years. During his long career, he has been associated with media moguls like DNA, UTV, The Times of India, and Indian Express as analyst, writer, editor and mentor. In his book, Sumit neutrally examines Sachin's approach towards this Gentleman's game and how the Master Blaster became a Master Laster. In a freewheeling chat exclusively with Infibeam, Sumit speaks about the title of the book, what kind of criticism he received from Sachin's fans and gives his unbiased views on a phenomenon called Sachin Tendulkar.

Que: Why Master Laster and not Master Blaster in the book title?

Mr. Sumit Chakraberty: Sachin Tendulkar started his career with a blast. His centuries at Sydney and Perth, in particular, not only came on foreign pitches but were made at a fast clip against a good bowling attack.

We should have won the Sydney Test, but Ravi Shastri's double century took too long, and Australia escaped with only two wickets standing. After the nineties, Tendulkar's strike rate fell. Ironically, in December 2003, it was Tendulkar's conservative approach while making a double century at Sydney that was partly responsible for Australia escaping with a draw, this time with four wickets standing. In that sense, the Master Blaster had become a Master Laster. He was now more interested in spending time in the middle and reaching his milestones, than scoring quick runs even when the team needed him to hit out. That’s why Rahul Dravid was right to declare the Indian innings at Multan when Tendulkar was on 194 not out. His ODI career has followed a similar trend. In the nineties, he earned the moniker of Master Blaster after becoming an opener and smashing a number of centuries in India and Sharjah. India used to win over 80 per cent of the time when Tendulkar scored a century those days. But after the nineties, when his strike rate dropped in ODIs too, India was as likely to lose as win if Tendulkar made a century. The win percentage of his last 25 ODI centuries was around 50% compared to 80% for the first 24. And finally, in the last three years of his career, the runs dried up too, not just the strike rate, but he continued playing. Tendulkar’s batting average in his last 14 Tests over a period of two years was below 25. No other player could have lasted in the team with returns like that in series after series. Hence the title of Master Laster: What They Don’t Tell You About Sachin Tendulkar. No other book on Tendulkar has dwelt on these inconvenient truths.

Que: What kind of criticism have you received from Sachin's fans across the globe?

Mr. Chakraberty: Quite a lot of it is emotional and skeptical, of course, because Sachin Tendulkar is their hero. But many have come up with intelligent criticism of my interpretation of the data, and I enjoy such exchanges because they give me food for thought and also a chance to clarify my position. One oft-repeated question is whether Tendulkar can be blamed for not being more of a match-winner and compared to the likes of Ricky Ponting of Australia who played in a team with stronger bowlers. In my book, actually, I have mostly compared Tendulkar with his own team-mates. In some crucial areas, like batting under pressure in the second innings to win Tests outside Asia, for instance, which is the ultimate test for an Indian batsman, both Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have done much better than Tendulkar. It is not as though Tendulkar did not contribute to such victories, but always in the first innings. That is not something any book on him has tried to analyse. I should also mention here that many people have also welcomed one revisionist book on Tendulkar among the many gushing ones. We have a democratic tradition, and people enjoy debate and argument by and large, I believe.

Que: How would you react if people consider you an iconoclast or image-breaker after reading this book?

Mr. Chakraberty: If Copernicus had not questioned a widely held belief, we might still have been under the impression that the Earth is at the centre of the universe. I am no Copernicus, of course, just a devotee of cricket who believes that conventional stats do no justice to the evaluation of a player’s contributions to team goals, which is after all the point of the game, not reaching individual milestones. Besides, elevating one player to demigod status devalues the contributions many others have made in a selfless and self-effacing manner. Rahul Dravid had a batting average of over 50 in his last 20 Tests, roughly the same as his career average, but he quit after one bad series to make way for Cheteshwar Pujara, who is now our top Test batsman. In the last seven months of his Test career, Dravid made five centuries, four of which were outside Asia. A revisionist assessment would indisputably put Dravid, not Tendulkar, at the pinnacle of Indian Test cricket in this millennium.

Que: Javed Miandad said that Sachin would fade from public memory once he retires. Your comment on this.

Mr. Chakraberty: Sachin was a prodigious talent and I will be among millions who will never forget the joy this cherubic, curly-haired batsman gave with his compact, punchy batting style. The book does not dispute his talent and popularity. It disputes the undue weightage given to individual milestones in a team sport, and lack of focus on a player’s impact on team results. This is strictly a cricket book, but it is meant for both pundits and those with a fleeting interest in the game. The idea is to look beyond the inane records commentators keep putting before us, thereby enriching how we see and enjoy cricket.

Que: Last question. Imagine you are with Sachin Tendulkar on a deserted island. What could be the scene like?

Mr. Chakraberty: We would be talking cricket, I'm sure.