September 21, 2006

The Master Plays Vintage Tunes

By H Natarajan

It was sometime before India’s tour of the West Indies that I had paid Sachin Tendulkar a visit at his La Mer residence in Bandra. His injured hand was not in a sling, but it was apparent that he was concerned about the injury and was taking extra care.

I did not visit him in the role of a journalist and I did not probe him to find out if he was fit enough to make the tour of the Caribbean – a subject that was the hotly discussed by the entire nation. Having interacted with him since his schoolboy days, I was sure that he would not miss the opportunity to tour that was so important ahead of next year’s World Cup. But I was also certain that he wouldn’t feign to be fully fit in his effort to get into the side. My instincts, at that point of time, told me that he was unfit and it was highly unlikely he would be so by the time the side was picked for the tour. As things panned out, his injury had not healed and he missed the tour.

The elbow injury has taken a long time to recover, but the one injury that’s going to take a much, much longer time to heal are the wounds from rubbish the rubbish hurled at him in recent times. He was even booed by people in his own city of Mumbai. Tendulkar is not known to react to adverse comments – justified or otherwise, but I have no doubts that he would have been hurt. And the hurt is not without justification. Anybody who knows him well will vouch for his unimpeachable integrity. But, sadly, even that was questioned by ignoramuses in a country that has copious conspiracy theorists.

It was, thus, in the fitness of things that Tendulkar stamped his master class in his comeback innings at Kuala Lumpur. An innings of 141 at almost run a ball in India’s opening match brought memories of vintage Tendulkar.

The wait for Tendulkar was agonising. The list of detractors was getting longer. The pressure on him was considerable. It was, now, the moment of truth. It was a test of the champion’s character.

He responded like a true champion in the very first match of the championship. The ball was seaming around, the wicket was wicket and the bounce unpredictable – in fact, earth-scrapers had destroyed Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. But it was a mastermind that was at work at the Kinrara Oval; he overcame the pressure on his career, the pressure of a long lay-off, the pressure of his side’s circumstances and the pressure to deliver when the team needed him most.

The maestro came up with was an art of kaleidoscope brilliance: Deft placements, audacious slashes, imperious inside-out cover-drives, bowler’s back-drive and many more that came from both books – the conventional coaching manual and his very own book. But the thing that I was most thrilled about was the precision of his feet movement which saw him come up with some of those mesmeric shots of his finest years.

He had compelling reasons to be very satisfied by the hundred. Not only it came when the odds were heavily stacked against him but he also remained undefeated till the end - something that he hasn’t done often for a batsman of his high calibre. There was, however, no overt show of elation. His celebration on reaching one of the most important of his 40 ODI hundreds was subdued. Many batsmen would have gone on a war dance. Batsmen have been known to angrily wave their bat in the direction of press box or a particular person in the team management in a manner that left nobody in doubt who the target of the response was. Mohammad Azharuddin expressed his disappointment once by refusing to acknowledge the applause. But Tendulkar, ever so dignified, raised his bat slowly in acknowledgment and then looked heavenward in gratitude to the blessings of his late father and the Lord Almighty.

Tendulkar is known to plan meticulously. An example of his preparation was the prolonged sessions against leg-spinners prior to Australia’s 1997-98 tour of India. There was a specific ploy to counter Shane Warne. What followed was “nightmares” for Warne, as the great leggie himself said.

There were more murmurs that Tendulkar was milking Mickey Mouse stuff while playing for Lashings in June-July. But all he was doing was to ease into the game after the rehab and recuperation. It was a confidence-building exercise against opposition that was less challenging and he did himself good with scores of 155, 147, 98 and 101. With Mumbai under the onslaught of monsoon on his return back home, he practiced with rubber ball – something players do while preparing before a tour of Australia or South Africa, which has bouncy tracks.

Tendulkar has played 366 ODIS – that’s more than one year of his life. Add to that the 132 Tests he has played; even if one were to account for early finishes, that’s at least another year and a half. Surely his body has endured more than most cricketers. Now add to that other matches, the criss-crossing around the world, the physical pains, the mental strains of separation from near and dear ones from a very, very young age and you will probably get a fleeting idea of what he has gone through to give so much for the nation.

The ravages of time spare nobody – especially a sportsperson who has been playing top-level cricket for 17 years. The back is not what it once were, neither is the elbow and the shoulder. There are, however, a few things that are as indestructible as ever: his fierce national pride, his insatiable hunger for success and the work ethics that is needed to make loft dreams a reality.

Tendulkar’s mere presence in the dressing room is a huge boon; it’s much, much more than a star batsman, a senior player. While players like Dravid and Anil Kumble may get respect by virtue of the seniority and stature, Tendulkar commands reverence – even from the seniors and megastars. It’s almost like the presence of God around the team. Yes, he is considered God by most players and they are not shy of admitting it openly. And it’s not just team-mates alone who speak about the master in such effusive tone. Brett Lee said the other day: "Look, as far as I'm concerned Tendulkar is God…”

The hundred in the first game of the DLF Cup in KL and the 65 on Wednesday – an innings full of promise that was truncated by an unfortunate run-out while backing up at the non-striking end – is a lesson for trigger-happy critics. One must exercise restraint writing quick obits of champions. Sell-by dates of champions are vastly different from the average player.

Where there is skill, there is a way. Where there is Tendulkar there are ways that’s beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.