There is very little Brian Lara has not done with bat in hand. The owner of the highest individual score in Test (400*) and first-class cricket (501*), the West Indian genius scored his runs not with the single-mindedness and obsession of a run-machine, but with the elegance, authority and flourish of a virtuoso. He was the ultimate entertainer, the volume of runs a mere expression of his joy at playing the game and the pleasure he derived from mastering the best of bowlers in the most demanding of conditions.
And then there is Sachin Tendulkar, the master of batting, the maker of the maximum runs and hundreds in Test and One-Day International cricket, the ultimate in batting for a majority of his 23 and a half years in international cricket, the epitome of consistency with no concessions made for moodiness and self-indulgence.
Lara and Tendulkar. It's a match made in cricketing heaven by the cricketing Gods. One a slight, left-handed West Indian with all the eccentricities of a genius, the other a stocky, chubby right-hand batsman from India who has embodied the virtues of simplicity and earthiness and shown that all geniuses need not be eccentric. They only batted together once - for an International XI against Pakistan at The Oval in 2006, in a Twenty20 match eventually reduced to 10 overs a side. Lara and Tendulkar opened the batting, and put on 72; Lara was out for 32, Tendulkar remained 50 not out. It must have been some sight, some occasion.
Now, Lara made his runs in only one manner - with complete dominance. Tendulkar began that way too, imposing himself as a boy wonder on the meanest attacks in completely alien conditions, but as he grew older and became the fulcrum around which the Indian batting revolved, he was forced to reinvent himself. Injuries took a toll, the ravage of time necessitated him to cut down on some strokes and invent some others. From an entertainment perspective, he hasn't elicited as many aahs and oohs in the second half of his career as he did in the first; but while he did not thrill as he used to, Tendulkar became a more rounded adversary as he played the percentages more often.
It's no secret that players keep track of their records, that they have their favourite innings and moments and matches and victories. They also, it seems, keep an eye on what their close pals are doing.
The other day at the Feroz Shah Kotla, Ravi Shastri asked Lara what his best Tendulkar Test innings was. You wondered - in the two seconds before Lara answered - if it would be the 114 as an 18-year-old at Perth on his first tour of Australia in 1991-92, or the stunning second-innings 155 against the same opposition in Chennai in 1998, or the emotional, match-winning fourth-innings 103* against England, also in Chennai, in the immediacy of the November 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai.
None of the above. Lara went for the unbeaten 241 at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2004, an innings that John Wright, the then Indian coach, said was 'remarkable for the strokes Sachin did not play'. Lara had much the same to say. "He didn't play a cover drive until he was like 200 or something," the master of the cover drive, high backlift and spectacular follow through, said. "I think he had been caught in the slips playing that stroke in the earlier matches, and he just cut the cover drive out. It was fantastic to watch - the discipline, the determination."
It was, indeed. Not even when Stuart MacGill generously, if unintentionally, served up juicy full tosses outside off did Tendulkar open his shoulders and play the cover drive. It was almost as if the offside did not exist; work to leg, work to leg, work to leg, the occasional cut, the occasional punch down the ground, then work to leg, work to leg, work to leg.... Boring if you are inclined that way, masterful and fascinating if you enjoy the thrust and parry of Test cricket.
Lara, perhaps, saw something in that Tendulkar innings that he felt he could never have summoned - the discipline to completely eschew a stroke that had proved productive in the past, but that had brought about his downfall in the preceding few games. It's like you telling yourself that, no matter what, you will not make use of one of your hands for the duration of one entire day. Or, that no matter what, at a dinner table laden with the most delicious food, all you will allow yourself is a salad. Try it out.
In the autumn of his career, it is easy for us to forget how much Tendulkar has spoilt us. It was taken for granted that he would score, and he would score in the manner in which we wanted him to score. Surprisingly, beyond the scope of those deeply immersed in cricket, few will put his Sydney 241* among his top knocks, because it was boring, painstaking, uninspiring - ah, how we love these tags.
Tendulkar today is a pale shadow of the colossus he has been for so long. While the spirit is willing, the body is obviously a little reluctant and the mind... only he knows his mind. In many ways, it is sad to see the master batting from poor memory, because these aren't the memories you would want to remember him by, these certainly aren't the memories he would want us to remember him by. But at 40, he is still working - damn hard, those fortunate enough to watch his preparations from close quarters tell you - to ensure his preparation is impeccable, his commitment is unflagging, his desire is undimmed.
All this even as the 'in-between generation', as a friend put it, is at the crossroads. Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and later Gautam Gambhir were supposed to take over from the Golden Generation - Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble, Laxman, Ganguly. As of now, only Yuvraj is in the international set-up, and that because he has been recalled to the one-day squad after a rip-roaring start to the domestic season. The other four have been out of favour for a while now for reasons including form (mainly) and fitness (peripherally).
Are we to conclude that they don't have the same hunger and the discipline and the commitment and the bloody-mindedness of the quintet that served Indian cricket with such distinction for so long? That would be presumptuous, but consider this - Tendulkar gave Harbhajan nine years, Sehwag 10, Zaheer and Yuvraj 11, and Gambhir 15 years. He has been an international cricketer now for nearly 24 years, and his passion, energy and enthusiasm remain undimmed even if his form has taken a beating. Surely, there is a lesson in that for the 'in-between generation'? And for Gen Next, spearheaded by the Dhonis and the Kohlis, the Pujaras and the Ashwins, the Jadejas and the Bhuvneshwars, some of whom are already established superstars.