Acouple of years ago, I took up what was a rather daunting exercise, that of comparing the considerable talents of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. The little West Indies batsman had the better of the exchanges then; he won by something like a shorthead to use racing parlance. There was some reasoning behind that.
But looking at the two today, there are certain factors which lead to just the opposite conclusion: Tendulkar has matured from that point onwards, while Lara, preoccupied with things other than mere batsmanship, has allowed himself to be distracted. The captaincy did distract Tendulkar to some extent but whoever relieved him of that load did him a favour; he was free to play against the Australians as only he can and demonstrate that he is far ahead of the rest of the pack.
Only rarely during his stint as captain did he demonstrate what he was really capable of with the bat. Understandably so. The team often needed to be rescued and the win record was nothing to write home about; the worries he carried tended to weigh him down and team politics began to get on his mind too. Indian cricket is choc-a-bloc with regional and other politics and Tendulkar found that he had unwittingly become a part of the whole thing after he became captain.
Came the sacking and Tendulkar, while initially a bit down, soon realised that he had reason to excel. One, he had to show that the loss of captaincy did not mean that he would put less effort into his game. Two, he had to establish his ascendancy over Shane Warne; winning these battles is crucial, more so in the case of a cricketer who has some years left in the game. The memories will remain with Warne and it is doubtful if the famed leg-spinner will ever be able to get the better of Tendulkar when they meet in future. A similar battle between Lara and Warne was forecast when the West Indies went to Australia in 1996-97; that never materialised because in that instance, Glenn McGrath took care of Lara adequately. And one doubts whether Lara will ever be able to deal with McGrath without that memory coming back to haunt him.
Some of the strokes Tendulkar plays against fast bowlers are extremely difficult to follow, especially those sixes which he hits straight over the bowler's head inside out. For that one needs a very remarkable eye indeed, for with Tendulkar it is not so much power as sweet timing. His ability against spin is no less; witness the way he dealt with Warne. And now there is consistency as well; he appears to be coming to the point when he will go beyond the 200-mark.
For Lara, the year 1994 was his zenith; one can't go much higher than scoring both the highest score in first class cricket and the highest in Test cricket. Only the one-day mark remains but I doubt he will be able to do it now. Coincidentally, he was 25 at that time, the same age Tendulkar attained on the day when he hammered India to victory in the final at Sharjah. But after that period, it hasn't really been all great a time for the Prince of Trinidad. He has done little of note after that; centuries have been few and far between and he has won few matches on his own. And this is not just by his own lofty standards.
Tendulkar has just started approaching the records: Desmond Haynes' record of the most centuries in one-day cricket is likely to be the first one he claims. He has developed the ability to dominate a bowling attack to the extent only witnessed when one Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards was in his prime. There is a fear in the ranks of the opposing team when he walks out to bat and that is a feeling which only the very best can arouse. Lara used to inspire that emotion as well. I don't know if he still does.
A year from now, things may well be different. That is the beauty of the game of cricket; it lays a man low one day and resurrects him the next. People ride high one day and the next they are in the ditch. Lara may light the spark again and bring back memories of his days of glory. But as of this moment, Tendulkar gets my vote for the top spot.