Sachin Tendulkar is a great batsman. Brian Lara is a great batsman. Both broke records. Lara has the record for the highest invidual score in Tests - he is the only man to make 400 in a Test. Tendulkar has the record for the most runs and most hundreds in Tests.
Both have been hailed as geniuses. Both carried the weight of their respective nation’s hopes on the cricket field. Both have had some epic battles against Australia, the pre-eminent team in their respective primes. And both have been labelled selfish by critics over the course of their careers.
So how does one pick between them?
For Ricky Ponting, Lara shades the debate because he won more matches for the West Indies than Tendulkar has for India. Ponting said he lost more sleep knowing Lara was coming in to bat than he did Tendulkar
“You always found a way to restrict Sachin if you needed to,” Ponting told the Evening Standard. “Lara could turn it on in half an hour and take a game away from you. For me, it has never been about making hundreds. It is about winning games and series,”
The comparison, though, isn’t as straight forward as Ponting makes it out to be. Lara did play some of his most awesome innings against Australia. His unbeaten 153 in Bridgetown in 1998-99 that turned certain defeat into shocking victory is considered to be the finest chasing innings ever played. That it came on the heels of his 213 in Jamaica that also took West Indies to victory which cemented his legacy. He was a match-winner.
But Lara was also captain of a team that had lost six Tests straight and was bowled out for an all-time low of 51. West Indies lost 63 of the 131 Tests he played and won just 32. Yes, his team was not a good one, but Lara was never as consistent as Tendulkar – with flashing genius alternating with dull mediocrity. Tendulkar’s teams, meanwhile, have won more than they lost (70 wins to 56 losses).
Lara’s average in the fourth inning is another give away. It is 35.12 from 95 Tests. Tendulkar actually has a marginally higher average – 36.93 – from 128 Tests. He also has three hundreds, one more than Lara’s two. Neither then, has been particularly exceptional in the fourth innings (that also stands true of almost everyone who has played the game).
Where Lara does score over Tendulkar is his average in the fourth innings when their teams have won. Lara averaged 81.20 in 25 Tests, while Tendulkar averaged 59.58 from 47 Tests. That tells you West Indies was much more dependent on Lara than India was on Tendulkar, but that is no surprise. India’s batting was far stronger and an average just under 60 does not represent failure by any stretch of the imagination.
The numbers also even out overall. Lara averaged 61.02 in 32 wins. Tendulkar averages 62.36 in 70 wins. Tendulkar has 20 hundreds. Lara has eight, but in less than half the matches.
The difference, then, has more to do with perception than performance. Lara was all flashing blade and dancing feet. He could as, Ponting, said, take a game away in a heartbeat. But he could also throw his wicket away just as quickly.
What everyone forgets is that in the early stages of his career, Tendulkar could also dominate in the same way. His 155 in the Chennai Test in 1998 ripped the heart out of Australia in a finely poised match, and gave Shane Warne nightmares (if Ponting slept more soundly when Tendulkar was batting, Warne certainly didn’t).
But Tendulkar chose to cut out the risks as he grew older. He became a rock to Lara’s flowing stream. Steady, he decided, would win the race. It may not be as exciting to watch a rock as it a stream, but it is why Tendulkar is still going at 40; why he has over 18,000 Test runs and why he has played almost 200 Tests.
The truth is you can't go wrong with having either Lara or Tendulkar on your team. It is like arguing over diamonds or emeralds. Both are precious stones. Ideally, you'd like both. But Ponting can have Lara. Over the course of a career, give me Tendulkar.
(All stats courtesy ESPNcricinfo's StatsGuru)