So, now Shahid Afridi claims to have seen Tendulkar trembling at the sight of Shoaib Akhtar and Vinod Kambli thinks Shoaib should apologize. The marquee clash shows no sign of slowing down even as one has retired as the biggest “could have been” of recent times, and the other has to keep proving he is a ‘great’ even after owning possibly every batting record worth it’s salt. Is it true? Well, no one really knows. The question is, how relevant is it?

No batsman can claim to have mastered fast, accurate bowling. Bradman, he of superhuman batting average was tamed by Larwood. Then there was Eddie Gilbert who once knocked the bat off Don’s hand. That he didn’t play for Australia had as much to do with politics against aboriginal men as the Don’s disapproval. It’s no blemish on a batsman’s machismo to admit that a genuinely sharp bowler does rattle him. Neither is it an insult, that the man in question is someone like Shoaib and not an unquestionable bowling great like McGrath or Donald (both of whom have had fair amount of success against Tendulkar). Tough men like Gooch admitted to have feared for his life facing Patterson; Devon Malcolm’s inspired spell in the Oval (1994) left men like Wessels and Kirsten shivering. Barring Viv Richards in his pomp, who probably had the best of the bunch to give him net practice, few can claim to have dominated genuine pace.

Toughness while playing pace has many expressions. Steve Waugh, despite never quite mastering the pull shot, eyeballed Ambrose and ultimately thrived on that seminal 1995 series. Brian Lara kept carving McGrath with his high backlift flourish despite falling to him without scoring so often. Robin Smith simply smiled back at Ian Bishop. Tendulkar is a man of little words, he’d simply play the next ball on merit. It’d be a mistake to interpret that as lack of fight. Besides, ‘scare’ is a relative term. Murali on a Kandy dustbowl, or Warne on a Sydney turner would send a chill down the spine of any batting line-up. Even the best have their anxious moments. With Tendulkar until not too long ago, rose and fell India’s best, if not only chance of winning a match. Is it so unnatural that sometimes he does feel the nerves, especially facing one bowler who might be capable of getting him out? Shoaib himself felt the same anxiety and had a meltdown in the World Cup 2003 match. The heat of expectations in subcontinental cricketing scape has claimed mightier men. In any case I’d any day have a batsman who is ‘scared’ and scores as many runs.

To be fair to Shoaib he has had his moments. Indeed, he ‘arrived’ with those two searing yorkers at Eden Gardens, inflicting the first even golden duck on Tendulkar, then at his absolute peak. That he didn’t build on that early promise is as much problems with his attitude as the handling of him by PCB and captains, but never the lack of talent. At his best, he could mix in with the best of them and often come out a winner. He has felled Lara with a bouncer, nearly decapitated Ponting and drew blood from the face of Gary Kirsten. His penchant for show-boating and speed-gun inflated ego eventually did him in. That shouldn’t however, prevent him from having his say, or even making a fool of himself. Putting a ban on his autobiography, or denying him the right to present his side of the story isn’t what India and it’s democracy stand for, and is certainly no reason to claim an apology. Megalomania and libel aren’t the same thing.

Tendulkar debuted against Imran, Wasim and Waqar – took a knock on his nose and hit the next ball for a four. He played messrs Walsh, Ambrose, Donald, Pollock, McGrath and Hadlee – each one a fast bowling great in his own right – with enough certitude to define his class. He is also universally loved in both Pakistan and India. Shoaib on the other hand was a special talent who thrilled and promised much, but fizzled out an underachiever. He has tested the patience and lost support of fans even in Pakistan. But we can still hear him out. Cricketing history and statistics will bear out both Tendulkar and Shoaib for their rightful places.

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