Online polls and the Twitter world seldom care for perspective, and popular choice makes Tendulkar overwhelmingly superior to others. But some facts can never be ignored.
Sir Donald Bradman towers over the rest with a superhuman 99.94 Test average. But even his most superior status is not unquestioned. The Australian legend arguably played just one fast bowler of top quality in his prime and Harold Larwood had brought his average down to a more human-like 57-plus with the use of leg theory. Make no mistake, it was exceptionally creditable against a tactic that could have, at any time, killed a batsman bereft of a helmet and chest guard. At the same time, it was not Bradmanesque. Also, Bradman never came to India and faced Indian spinners on square turners.
The late Lala Amarnath had rated Sir Walter Hammond higher than Bradman in certain conditions. According to the former India captain, Hammond looked more assured on crumbling surfaces and sticky dogs (wet pitches).
Hammond was princely in every aspect. He scored 7,249 runs in 85 Tests at 58.45, took 83 wickets at 37.80 with his medium pace despite his reluctance to bowl regularly and was one of the best slippers ever.
Then came the three Ws from West IndiesSir Frank Worrell, Sir Everton Weekes and Sir Clyde Walcott. Sir Garry Sobers, the ultimate cricketer, followed them. Neil Harvey led Australias batting during that period, while Ken Barrington and Colin Cowdrey were the stars in the England batting set-up.
They were all great players in their own rights and enriched the game with their talents before walking into golden sunsets.
Pace age arrived on the heels of their retirements. It started in the 1970s and lasted for close to two decades. Cricket became fast and furious. West Indies unleashed their pack of bloodthirsty fast bowlers, Australia responded with Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
England had John Snow, Bob Willis and Sir Ian Botham. New Zealand banked on Sir Richard Hadlee, while Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz paired up for Pakistan. Only India was lagging behind, waiting for Kapil Devs emergence.
Suddenly, batting became almost an impossible task. Sunil Gavaskar scored 34 centuries during that period, 13 of those came against West Indies, playing without a helmet. He became the first batsman in the history of the game to pass the 10,000-run mark. Gavaskar played more than 70 fast bowlers during his 17 years of top-flight career and finished with an average of 51.12.
Youre an ornament to the game, said Bradman in his congratulatory message to Gavaskar after the latter matched his record of 29 Test hundreds, decimating Malcolm Marshall & co in Delhi in 1983. But Gavaskars influence wasnt just restricted to his runs and centuries. He gave Indian cricket its self-esteem.
Faraway in Antigua, another star was born that time. Sir Vivian Richards eventually became arguably the most feared batsman cricket has ever seen. The swagger and chewing gum were added to the package, and his willow became a rapier that ripped apart every bowling.
Tendulkar grew up, idolising Gavaskar and Richards. He was born to be a star and his progress coincided with Indias rise as a cricketing superpower.
Indian cricket needed an icon to be its face as it went from strength to strength in the 1990s. Tendulkar, who made his debut in Pakistan in 1989 as a boy genius and helped India save the series, ignoring a bloody nose in the final Test, was a perfect fit for the role. Bradman saw himself in the little champion which gave a special dimension to Tendulkars stature. His performance and consistency gave rise to the famous line: If cricket is a religion, Sachin is god. And he was equally successful in both formats of the game.
Rahul Dravid has scored 13,288 runs with 36 hundreds in 164 Tests. He also had 10,889 runs in 344 one-day internationals (ODIs). In the 21 Tests that India won under Sourav Ganguly, Dravid had a staggering average of 102.84.
Brain Lara used his willow as a magic wand and waged a lone battle for a team in terminal decline. A total of 11,953 runs in 131 Tests with a top score of 400 and 10,405 runs in 299 ODIs with 19 centuries had the touch of an artist.
Ricky Ponting was rated in Australia as their second-best only after Bradman. He signed off with 13,378 runs and 41 centuries in 168 Tests and 13,704 runs with 30 hundreds in 375 ODIs.
Jacques Kallis is still playing and has 13,128 runs and 288 wickets in 162 Tests. Add to those another 11,498 runs and 270 wickets in 321 ODIs.
But no one has had Tendulkars aura. He was the biggest unifying force in the most diverse country in the world where cricket is an obsession. No one played with the burden of one billion people on his shoulders for 23 years. And Tendulkar did it with humility and probity.
The archives recall not one single incriminating incident, not one drunken escapade, not one reported affair, not one spat with a teammate or reporter... Is he human wrote former England captain Michael Atherton as Tendulkar announced that the two Tests against West Indies next month would be his last.
Records are meant to be broken. But Tendulkars feat of 100 international hundreds (in ODIs plus Tests) is unlikely to be surpassed at least in the near future. But a mountain of runs that hes scored in all formats is not the only reason why Tendulkar became the biggest cricketing hero of his generation. He embodied Indias success as a cricketing nation and also the countrys rise as a global superpower.
But rather than bemoaning his retirement, we must celebrate the occasion. His form had dipped by his Tendulkaresque standards. And he was not getting any younger. But the agony is finally over. The Little Master is going out on his own terms.