ONE thing India really can teach South Africa is how to treat a sporting hero. Never mind the occasional, embarrassing gaffe — like the spelling of "Sachine" on a giant banner at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium and a waxwork model of the man that looked like it had started to melt — the Indians saw him off in style.
Sachin Tendulkar is the leading Test run-scorer and century maker of all time, records which may never be broken given the proliferation of short-format cricket at the expense of the real thing. The man in second place is still going strong, of course, although Jacques Kallis, having just turned 38, will run out of time well before he makes up the 2,781-run deficit which separates their totals.
But it is their respective careers in one-day international cricket and the perception of them in their respective countries which is far more fascinating, if only for the difficulties in understanding them.
The Indian maestro scored an obscenely large number of runs in an equally vast number of games at an average of 44.8. Kallis has 11,498 at 45.2, almost 6,500 runs less but in 321 games compared with Tendulkar’s 463. Kallis also has 270 wickets to Tendulkar’s 154.
Their bowling averages also favour Kallis — 31.7 to 44.5.
Another interesting comparison of players’ relative worth to their teams is man-of-the-match awards, although they tend to be unfairly weighted towards top-three batsmen and all-rounders. Tendulkar is top of that pile, too, with a staggering 62 awards, way ahead of Sri Lankan blaster Sanath Jayasuriya with 48 from his 445 matches. In third place is, yep, you guessed it — Jacques Henry Kallis with 32 gongs.
Tendulkar’s M-O-M rate is 13% to Kallis’s 10%. The all-time leader, incidentally, is Viv Richards with 31 from 187 — an astonishing 17% of his matches. (Of those much further down the list it is worth noting Virat Kohli, with 16 from 119 at 13%, and Hashim Amla, with 12 from just 79 matches at 15%).
So Kallis and Tendulkar can be regarded as similarly valuable assets in the 50-over game. Tendulkar is just over two-and-a-half years older than Kallis and, 15 months before the past World Cup, Gary Kirsten took a unilateral decision as head coach of India to rest Tendulkar for an entire year in order to "preserve" him for the big tournament. And look what happened. (India won, in case you’ve forgotten, and Tendulkar was in prime form.)
Tendulkar was lauded, Kirsten was celebrated and there were pats on the back all round for a plan well conceived and executed.
Kirsten then jumps ship from India to South Africa, implements a similar programme of part-rest, part-sabbatical for Kallis, and what happens? Kallis is criticised in some quarters for "picking and choosing" his games and for being uncommitted and selfish.
South Africa’s greatest one-day match winner, one of the finest one-day all-rounders of all time, approaching the end of his career but keen to extend it to a sixth World Cup, makes some tough decisions about his best chances of being mentally fit and fresh for the showpiece in Australia in 2015.
Indians missed seeing their hero but accepted it was in the best interests of the team. South Africans say their man should stop playing golf and get back on the cricket field. Or retire. Despite the team clearly lacking a middle-order batting anchor and the security of another all-rounder in the lower order.
Kallis never said he expected his place to be kept for him. He made no assumptions about form or fitness and was the first to admit it was a risk to stop playing. "I’ll have to prove myself again, I know that, and if someone better comes along then I’ll be the first to support him," Kallis said a year ago.
His journey to the World Cup begins this week. He may not get there, he knows that. But the least we could do is admire and appreciate the effort because he’s doing it for the team and, by extension, its supporters, not for himself.