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The Nagpur Nightmare Can Haunt India

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In the build-up to India’s most-crucial Group stage clash, captain MS Dhoni in his pre-match talk a day before stressed on the importance of a start from the trio at the top that could then allow the explosive middle-order to play its A-game. “If we have slightly longer partnerships at the top, the explosive power of our middle and lower-middle order can be used more in the positive way,” he said.

Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, and Virat Kohli form the technically-accomplished core of India’s top order and Sehwag as a devastating plunderer completes the picture. On Saturday, when India came out to bat in front of a full house the tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Sehwag hit a boundary off the first ball and was then beaten a couple of times in the opening over by Steyn. Morkel came from the other end as Tendulkar took guard to face his first ball of the match. Unlike Sehwag, the Master betrayed no nerves and played his first ball on the up, right under his eyes, with his front foot movement so precise that it looked calibrated to the last millimetre. He opened his account with a single of that first ball and Sehwag was back on strike. The third ball took the edge and went slightly to the right of van Wyk, who couldn’t move a muscle as the ball raced to the fence and Sehwag got a reprieve.

Morkel was bowling with good speed and extracting disconcerting bounce making it difficult for Sehwag but Steyn leaked runs from the other end. Lance Klusener had said the previous day that playing at home India would feel the heat but it was the South Africans who looked dazed at the start. A regulation catch was dropped in the second over and the third over went for 14 with an overthrow that cost five and a huge wide by Steyn another five. Morkel overstepped in his second over and was lucky India couldn’t cash in on the free hit. It was a frenetic start despite Morkel keeping things tight by giving just 9 of his first two overs.

The momentum shifted decisively in Morkel’s third and the innings’ sixth over when the floodgates opened with three hits to the fence. At the end of 5 overs India had 33 on the board and they leaped to 70 in just three more overs with the help of eight boundaries; Morkel conceding six of them in his two overs. At the end of 15 overs the scoreboard read 128 for no loss; Sehwag was 62 in 54 balls and Tendulkar was 57 in just 37 balls.

On the big stage of a pressure game Tendulkar was at his absolute best and it is difficult to describe how beautifully and brilliantly he batted from that first ball onwards. It was a knock that had the stamp of inevitability. He knew he was going to get the runs and if getting them had meant dodging bullets he would have done that and yet stood his ground. Even by the lofty standards of the Master this was a special knock in a crunch game where the nerves could have been frayed at the start. A commentator reflected on the first 25 overs or so saying that amidst all the commotion at the centre—where catches slipped, the South Africans conceded extra runs on more than one occasion due to overthrows, the world’s premier fast bowler lost it in the third over of the innings and conceded 14 runs, and Graeme Smith didn’t know where to hide—one man was calmness personified.

There has been a lot of useless talk before the World Cup about doing it for Tendulkar; useless because the World Cup is not about individuals. But if one were to just consider it for argument’s sake then here was a perfect stage set by the genius and it only needed some backing up. India’s veteran cricket writer R. Mohan in his beautiful piece said, “It takes far more than the world’s greatest batsman to swing an ODI even if he is Superman who once scored a double century to seal a game.” In the 90s Tendulkar did it alone on many occasions as he knew that his wicket meant the game was done for India. This is a different team though and he may well have been under added pressure to play the big shots in the powerplay with the knowledge that traditional accumulation would deny his team extra runs as the power-hitters were in the dressing room. He now knows better.

Dale Steyn, the man of the match in Nagpur, picked up 5 wickets but for his first seven overs he toiled hard and went for 46 runs without a wicket to show. His partner Morkel bowled six overs for 50 runs with the wickets column being empty. The threat was not just taken care of but had been dismissed out of sight.

What then happened to India? How come the explosive batting line-up Dhoni was referring to went off like a cheap cracker? It wasn’t a choke as umpteen newspapers proclaimed in bold and big headlines on the front as well as the sports pages. A choke happens in a situation where a team has victory in sight but to get there it has to absorb some pressure (little or big) and not let the situation, the opposition, or its own hesitancy/lack of belief get to it—when it gets to the team you can say they choked. At 267 for 1 in 39.3 overs with Steyn having just three overs left and India having nine wickets in hand even the remote possibility of pressure had been taken out of the equation. What unfolded was far worse than a choke as India imploded without any pressure at all. And unlike a choke, where a team loses wickets by being tentative, India blazed its way to hell. They fuelled and lit their own pyre.

The first problem was the batting order and it started with number three. Gambhir is a really good player and if an early wicket had fallen he was an ideal choice but he has not been in the best of form and a crunch game was not the time where he should have been sent up to find his feet, especially after a blazing start. Virat Kohli has been in terrific touch for more than a year now and he also did exceptionally-well in South Africa earlier this year and India needed a player high on confidence and scoring freely without risk to allow Tendulkar to breathe easy for a while. Kohli at number seven is a complete waste as he is not someone who bludgeons the ball but plays conventional and smart cricket.

The combined average for Kohli at number 3 and 4 is 52.90 while at number 6 and 7 it drops to 12.66. Dhoni picked on the top order needlessly as they have done reasonably-well in the tournament and his emphasis on the explosive game of the middle-order belies its fragility and builds a case for wanton hitting.

South Africa was under the pump at 144 for 1 after 18 overs and Smith would have given his life for a sedate partnership compared to the carnage that had taken place. The next 18 overs yielded just 93 runs and South Africa clawed their way back into the contest. Even Tendulkar lost the pace of his innings with Gambhir finding it difficult to break free.

The bigger mistake was to send Yusuf Pathan up the order and I am not saying this out of retrospective intelligence. The move was disastrous for two reasons and the first is that the team management should have considered how Pathan has done in different situations. In 9 innings before Nagpur where he has batted up the order (batting positions number 3, 4, and 5) Pathan averages 14.11 with three ducks and two single-digit scores and not a single half-century—that average has now fallen to 12.70. In 26 innings at number 6 and 7 Pathan has an average of 42 with two hundreds and three fifties.

It is no secret that Pathan struggles against fast bowling and since India had already taken a powerplay, South Africa was always going to use their strength and would not have foolishly obliged the Indians by bringing on a spinner against Pathan. The other reason why his promotion was a mistake has to do with the message that it sends to the dressing room. It means that we are going hell for leather even at the cost of digging our own grave. Was the middle-order under undue pressure to cash in big time after a great start to demonstrate that the captain’s belief in their explosive abilities was not unfounded?

This game has made it clear that the explosive middle-order can implode any moment and they should be chastised for their approach rather than given encouragement for their suicidal ways. India’s middle-order showed a complete lack of understanding of the game’s situation. Dhoni himself could do nothing to take charge of the situation and shepherd India at the finishing line. It wasn’t an epic fightback that brought South Africa back into the game and Steyn didn’t bowl a hostile and unplayable spell. It was a complete abrogation of responsibility by everyone bar the trio at the top that let South Africa in.

Tinkering with the batting order was not a good example of out of the box thinking. A good one would have been to take the batting powerplay right after 15 overs with the instruction of playing normal cricket to Sehwag and Tendulkar. That would have caught the South Africans by surprise and it would have forced Smith’s hand to either bring back his strike bowlers, who had gone for plenty, or operate with lesser bowlers to two set players in a powerplay. Either way India would have benefited and could have been above 170/180 in 20 overs without breaking a sweat. And South Africa would have been gutted with the game killed for them.

Instead this game has thrown India’s campaign in disarray and though this team has shown character and bounced back on several occasions the biggest disadvantage here is the lift that the South African team would have got from it. They were dead and buried after the England game and were down and out against India after just 25 overs before India handed over the impetus to them. Graeme Smith saying that it is a massive win for us is actually an understatement.

There are matches that have little bearing on a team’s campaign bar their result and there are those that have psychological implications that go well beyond the immediate and sow seeds of self-doubt in the camp. This match potentially has the power of going beyond the Saturday and India would do well to remember the lessons and forget the game. How they bounce back from here would be the thing to watch out for and it would be very interesting to see their approach if they meet South Africa again in the tournament.

The Boy From Bandra

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Sachin Tendulkar is on a different planet. Like Usain Bolt he’s left the competition to settle matters between themselves as he blazes ahead. Can we please have a bold 80-point newspaper headline saying ‘He Bats On’? Three lengthy breaks from cricket and two career-threatening injuries that needed surgeries are now years behind him and bowlers around the world are paying for the period where he was vulnerable, scratchy and out of sorts.

Tendulkar has been single-minded in his pursuit of excellence and in the past few seasons he’s looked like getting a big score almost every innings. From January 2008 there has been just one series in Sri Lanka—and a solitary Test against South Africa before that—where he hasn’t got to a three figure score and he’s scored one or more hundreds in all the other nine Test series’ that India has played since then.

Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo, wrote a piece on Tendulkar and the art of stealing a single and concluded it saying: “Fifty Test hundreds are but a formality. A hundred international hundreds are there for the taking. Tendulkar, though, endures not in the pursuit of milestones, but because he can’t fall out of love with cricket. And above anything else that’s the reason why he remains the most-loved cricketer.”

Tendulkar has always been reluctant to take a runner as the single is a vital part of his batting and he has said it more than once that only he knows the speed with which he has played the ball and also whether he’s played it to the right or the left of the fielder. He judges a single to perfection. Opposition captains have said that on some days they know they are up against it when Tendulkar is scampering for quick singles and is alive to any possibility of an extra run.

During India’s 2007-08 tour of Australia Peter Roebuck in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald also wrote about Tendulkar’s mastery of pinching a run and it came pretty-close to defining how Tendulkar approaches a Test innings in his new enlightened avatar.

“Among modern batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar is the master of the single. In some respects, it is not much of a claim. It’s a bit like saying Roger Federer has the best ball toss around. Tendulkar has many other more colourful qualities: a blistering straight drive, a cart that is liable to land in the fifth row, a square cut that singes the turf, a fine sweep and a defensive stroke played with a sculptured left elbow.

Comparatively speaking, the single tucked to mid-wicket seems innocuous. But the true masters do not disregard the little things. Moreover, four singles amount to a boundary, and can be more safely collected. Also, a single taken from a precisely-pitched delivery is profoundly discouraging.”

A mere 2.8 per cent of Tendulkar’s Test dismissals have been a result of a run out—out of the 250 times he’s been dismissed in 280 innings just 7 have been run outs. And if one is feeling fair then half of them can be said to be his mistakes and the other half that of the partner and we can give an odd one to an exceptional bit of work in the field; which leaves you with three badly-judged runs in a Test career spanning 21 years.


The single also has other fascinating aspects to it. What it does to discourage the bowler is another story and a different side of the coin is what it does for Tendulkar in the middle. A four from the first ball can be the result of having been offered a gift first-up or a brilliant ball that goes for a streaky boundary. Neither of it does anything remarkable for Tendulkar’s confidence. On the contrary, a well-played-and-placed single reveals to Tendulkar the speed at which the ball is coming off the deck—unless it is a full toss—the bounce in the wicket and his own timing.

A couple of singles and watching a few balls from the other end are enough for the Master to assess the conditions and he is up and running. In this watchful initial period he makes the adjustments and decides the strokes for the day and also those to be kept in his back pocket for some other day. The day he got his and the 50-over format’s first double hundred (unbeaten) against South Africa he got the strike on the third ball of the first over by Dale Steyn. Sehwag had just got a reprieve as Steyn failed to latch on to a tough chance and a single followed. The next four balls of Steyn were all on a good length and he was getting the ball to shape away from the right hander. All four balls found the middle of Tendulkar’s bat, who played them off the front foot in the region between cover and the bowler for no runs. Playing four balls and watching four from the other end and he was set. He fetched 15 runs from the next six balls that he faced and the rollicking show started.

This is from an earlier piece of mine on how he started his innings at the Eden Gardens against South Africa when he got back-to-back Test hundreds: Tendulkar joined Sehwag and tapped the first ball he played, a 147 kph full delivery outside off from Morkel, to point for a single. That was the beginning of an assured partnership in which Tendulkar gave another display of his class and his mastery. He played the ball with that natural and intriguing intimacy that he has displayed in the last few seasons. He was solid in defence and gave no bowler even a hint of a chance. It was just beautiful batting.

I am leaving the single for now to look at the stratosphere that Tendulkar has made his home in the last three seasons or so. Just in order to have a frame of reference and make a comparison we can look at the other modern batting giant Ricky Ponting.

On December 26, 2007 India squared up against Australia in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne and began their long tour of four Test matches to be followed by the last edition of the traditional tri-nation ODI series—the Commonwealth Bank Series.

Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar came to this series having had very contrasting two years prior to this much-awaited Test rivalry. Ponting was peeling centuries from 2005 to 2007 and perhaps had the greatest run by a batsman in the modern era. Three times in this period Ponting made a hundred in each innings of a Test and overall in 28 Test matches he made 13 hundreds and 12 fifties at a phenomenal average of 74.68.

Sachin Tendulkar had a miserable period in which he had two surgeries, made comebacks to the playing XI after lengthy breaks, and was even booed by his home crowd at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai against England, when he got out, ironically in the context of this piece, having scored just a single off 21 balls. In 22 Test matches in this period he made three hundreds and nine fifties at a modest average of 42.72. Two of his hundreds came against Test minnows Bangladesh and one against Sri Lanka in New Delhi.


On that day in Melbourne the bowlers did well but in the course of the Test match the batting let the team down and India lost the match by a massive 337 runs. Tendulkar made an attacking 62 in the first innings of that Boxing Day Test and Brett Lee got him on 15 in the second. Ricky Ponting failed in both innings making 4 and 3 runs.

At the end of the Test match Ponting had 9515 runs at an average of 58.73 with 33 hundreds and 38 fifties in 113 Tests. Tendulkar after that Test had 11366 runs at an average of 54.90 with 37 hundreds and 48 fifties in 143 Tests. Ponting’s exceptional period of the past few years and Tendulkar’s miserable run during the same time had narrowed what seemed like an unbridgeable gap till the end of 2002.

In November 2002, Tendulkar was 19 hundreds clear of Ponting and in the period that followed and established Ponting as a modern great he made 21 hundreds as opposed to Tendulkar’s four and the gap narrowed down to just two after Ponting scored successive centuries at Brisbane and Adelaide in the 2006 Ashes in Australia.

That was the closest that Ponting came as Tendulkar was about to embark on another streak of brilliance. A brilliance as captivating as his majestic and dominating batting in the 1990s—for some, and I am one of them, this period has been even more satisfying than his demolition of bowlers in his heydays. This is Tendulkar the batting Buddha; a Tendulkar as close to perfection as an ascetic blessed with benediction after decades of rigorous and loving pursuit of the Lord.

From December 26, 2007 Ponting has played 36 Test matches (65 innings) and made 2742 runs at an average of 42.84 with six hundreds and 17 fifties. And from the same starting point Tendulkar has played 29 Test matches (51 innings) for 2951 runs at an average of 65.57 with 12 hundreds and 11 fifties. The overall batting record for Ponting now stands at 12250 runs in 148 Test matches at 54.68 with 39 hundreds and 55 fifties. For Tendulkar it is 14240 runs in 171 matches at 56.96 with 49 hundreds and 58 fifties. So despite playing seven Tests (14 innings) less than Ponting the Master has still surgically opened up the gap.

In the ODIs there is no comparison as Tendulkar has been phenomenal and has played some career-defining innings. The first-and-only double hundred in a limited over game, a brilliant match-winning hundred while chasing in a final in Sydney and a 138 to win a tournament final in Sri Lanka. The magnificent 175 in a losing cause against Australia and a 160 plus in New Zealand are some of the highlights of his performance.

Overall Tendulkar in 442 ODI matches has made 17598 runs at 45.12 with 46 hundreds and 93 fifties. Ponting in 351 matches has 13072 runs at 42.85 with 29 hundreds and 79 fifties.

Tendulkar is busy ensuring that only the name of Sir Donald Bradman be taken in the same breath as his. And even there more and more former cricket greats are now handing over the title of the greatest batsman of all times to Tendulkar; as apart from the Don’s staggering Test average Tendulkar is head-and-shoulders above the legendary Australian in many other significant ways. The Boy from Bandra is more than a match for the Boy from Bowral.

Phenomenal Tendulkar Kills The Debate

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Sachin Tendulkar is his own competition and it seems like he is quite unmindful of the fact that his business is the intrinsically-competitive arena of international sports. He keeps pushing his limits to come up with goods that no one else seems to be trading in. Yesterday he scaled a peak higher than the Mount Everest. A peak that did not exist before he set out to conquer it in the afternoon of February 24, 2010; just two months shy of his 37th birthday on April 24—and 22 years after he had shared that record partnership of over 600 runs that brought two schoolboys to the forefront.

Would Neville Cardus have called this Little Master ‘A devastating rarity: A genius with an eye for business?’ I presume he would have said something even greater as Tendulkar apart from being the efficient and consistent run-maker is also a classically-beautiful player to watch. He is efficient like a well-oiled and calibrated machine; only that no machine can be so joyous or can spread so much joy as the Little Master. He dedicated his innings to you and me; to the fans saying that their support was crucial during days when there was no rain.

His adaptability puts him way above any batsman who has ever played the game. The only comparison that makes some sense is with the great Sir Donald Bradman, who played just one form of the game and more importantly played his cricket in just nine grounds against four oppositions. Tendulkar, as I had mentioned in an article before, played on 32 different surfaces before he first played a Test on a ground where he had played a game before. One would have to seriously devote an hour or two to count all the various grounds where he has played Test or One Day International innings.

On top of that he has also had to live the life of a man who can’t pass through anywhere in India without everything going berserk. Tendulkar can’t go and hang around in one of his businesses on the eve of a Test match. Hell, he can’t even drive a car in his home country or go for a casual walk in any part of India. I can say it with certainty that if he lands up in a quiet hamlet like Dalhousie, the residents of the hills having a devil-may-care attitude would all congregate in the small and tidy Mall of the remote hill station to mob this phenomenally-loved son of the Indian soil. And I mean the old grandmas as well.

He adapts to alien situations and surfaces as if they were his backyard and is completely at ease with two diametrically-different forms of the game: 47 hundreds in Test matches and 46 in limited overs. With the kind of form he was suffering from around the injury years during the middle part of the decade that has just gone, it is an astonishing achievement that his Test match hundreds have caught up and then gone ahead of his ODI tally—the ODI numbers were much higher a few years ago.

Yesterday he made an unbeaten double hundred in a 50-over match against a very good South African attack on a surface that was good for batting. He got the strike on the third ball of the first over that Dale Steyn bowled and he played the first four balls that were shaping away right from the middle of the bat for no runs. One run came from that ideal first over where Steyn could not hold on to a tough chance that Sehwag gave on the second ball of the over.

Tendulkar took the first four balls to play himself in and then he hit two gorgeous fours off Parnell in the second over and then another one to Steyn in the third over and the rollicking show started. The BBC said: Tendulkar, whose previous best one-day knock was the 186 not out that he scored against New Zealand in 1999, is already the leading run-scorer in Test and ODI cricket. But to have reached such a landmark, with a single in the final over, only serves to underline his class and add to the legacy that already surrounds arguably the finest batsman to have played the game.

Tendulkar raised his 100 in 90 balls with the help of 13 fours; all of them odd in the sense that each one of them stood out as a perfect stroke. In his last two Test matches Tendulkar got hundreds against South Africa but got out shortly after that but here there was no letting up. Immediately after getting to a hundred he pulled Kallis for a four and then smashed one straight over the bowler’s head that went like a projectile. Then he took care of Duminy by stepping out to get his first six and drilled a four again over the bowler’s head. Karthik played a wonderful hand and was gone in the 34th over having made a very fluent 79.

In walked Yusuf Pathan and he negotiated Parnell’s over safely but without adding to the scoreboard. India took the batting powerplay and South Africa brought back Steyn for the 35th over. Steyn bowled full and outside the off stump and Tendulkar had to stretch to reach. The second ball had been dispatched to the boundary and Tendulkar missed the third and the fourth but he changed his plan for the fifth ball and walked across to the offside to flick the full ball between square-leg and mid-wicket. This is the order in which the runs came in the five power-play overs: 9, 8, 17, 18, 11. In five overs 63 runs were made and Pathan went from zero to 29 and Tendulkar added 33 to go up to 157 and there was a wide.

Then there was a sensational partnership of 101 in 8.5 overs and the only one of the innings that Tendulkar did not dominate in terms of runs as Dhoni shredded the attack. He was cramping a bit but he summoned the energy to reach the summit.

A blog in BBC began by saying: “How does Sachin Tendulkar do it? How does a 36-year-old cricketer stay at the top of the game for 20 years? How does he retain this insatiable hunger for achievement after scoring more than 30,000 runs in the long (Test) and shorter (50 over) versions of the game?”

He just simply loves doing it; his passion and love for the game makes it possible. The genius is constantly learning and is always working on his game. In the last tour to Australia when he scored a hundred in the Sydney Test he was asked in the post-day interview about the jinx of 90s that had plagued him throughout the previous year. Tendulkar said ‘I was getting into bad habits and I needed to break them this year’. Simply brilliant.

Since that day Tendulkar has made 8 Test match hundreds and 5 One Day International hundreds. The ODI hundreds were all hailed as one of his best until he went on to upstage them; the 117 not out he made while chasing in the first Commonwealth Bank Series final in Sydney, the 163 retired hurt he made in Christchurch where he could have got a double but he took the decision to not take a chance with a niggle before the Test series. The 138 in a final against Sri Lanka in Colombo was another match-winning knock; and then that tremendous 175 that could not see his side home but was hailed as his best-ever hundred coming under the pressure of chasing 350. Now he’s got the first double hundred in an ODI; an unbeaten 200 against a good attack.

The last word must go to one fresh and insightful voice in the commentary box; that of former England captain Naseer Hussain: “I have never quite liked comparisons between great players, but after Wednesday’s game it must be said—Sachin Tendulkar is the greatest batsman of all time.

Better than Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting, the other two great players of my era. Better than Sir Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border. And I would even say better than Sir Don Bradman himself.”

The Unrivalled Tendulkar And The Pugnacious Ponting

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Daryll Cullinan during commentary in the first Test at Nagpur brought out an interesting statistic and shared it with L. Sivaramakrishnan and asked the former India leg spinner what he thought about it. Cullinan said that when Ricky Ponting scored his first Test hundred Sachin Tendulkar had 11 and since then Ponting has scored 38 hundreds while Tendulkar has made 35 (now 36) so who do you think is the better batsman.

Interestingly Cullinan did not say anything explicitly but made his choice apparent by his line of questioning in which he challenged the assertion of Siva, who picked Tendulkar, by things like match-winning knocks and scores on bowling-friendly wickets and performance in big matches etc.

It is essentially a subjective judgement, with all due respect to statistics, but one can use facts to build an argument like Cullinan did. I’ll pick the Test Cullinan spoke about, where Tendulkar got his 11th Test match hundred, and use a way different to the one he used to make a comparison. It was a Test match that started on January 2, 1997 and Cullinan played in that game which South Africa won by 282 runs at Cape Town. Tendulkar was a ‘23-year-old veteran’ and the captain of his team and he made 169; an innings that began in complete crisis and helped India avoid a follow on after SA had put 529 on board.

After the Cape Town Test, Tendulkar had 3284 runs in 47 Tests (72 innings) at an average of 50.52 with 11 hundreds and 15 fifties and 179 as his highest score. At the same juncture of 47 Tests (74 innings) Ricky Ponting had 2830 runs at 42.87 with 8 hundreds and 14 fifties and 197 as his highest score.

The age is an important issue here and Ponting was just a month or so shy of being 21 when he made his debut while Tendulkar was 16-and-a-half. Why is age an issue? At 21, the body of an athlete is better prepared for the rigours of international cricket and at 16 it is more vulnerable to them.

My point here is not destiny but the simple observation that cricket at the junior level is organised age-wise, unless someone is exceptionally-talented—a 22-year-old, in all likelihood, would hammer the attack if clubbed with the under-16 team. Shouldn’t the first 47 Tests of the career of Tendulkar, where he grew from being 16 plus to 23 plus, compare unfavourably with the first 47 Tests of Ponting, where Ponting grew from almost 21 to around 27? The records present a totally-different picture. Tendulkar took only a couple of seasons to dazzle like an exquisite, polished and rare diamond; a Kohinoor. And he got world-wide recognition early in his career. It is difficult to choose between Brian Lara and Tendulkar as they are both natural and brilliant in their own way.

Ponting was a late bloomer and an average player till as late as about the end of 2001 and it was only in 2002 that his batting started to flower. In 2004 Tendulkar had a freak injury and then another one and he went under the knife twice and that cost him the better part of three seasons—the comparison started only when Ponting began scaling the Everest and Tendulkar began falling in a bottomless gorge.

Coming back to international cricket after lengthy breaks and to get going again is a very demanding task and though Tendulkar found his mojo in 50-over cricket he looked a pale shadow of his former self in the Test matches. The rub of the green also went against him a few times and on one rare fluent day he got a howler from Steve Bucknor at the Eden Gardens; he had got a reprieve in the previous match in Mohali so it did even out in that sense. What caused Tendulkar and his fans the anguish was the fact that he was getting his rhythm going after a long period? There was an outcry in India with the 2003 decision that Bucknor gave in Brisbane also boomeranging. A newspaper summed up the mood with a big bold headline saying ‘BUCKNORED’.

Christian Ryan wrote an evocative piece headlined ‘An Australian sort of hero’, when Tendulkar completed 20 years in international cricket, describing the maiden first-class innings of Tendulkar in Australia: “From the beginning, the relationship was about something bigger than admiration and affection. When Sachin Tendulkar set foot in Australia he brought with him rain.”

Lismore, on the far north hippie trail of New South Wales, was the strange location for Tendulkar’s maiden first-class innings in Australia. Lismore had not seen heavy rain in months. And when the Indian team arrived on a Friday, November 1991, it poured all morning. The net session was cancelled but the three-day match began on the scheduled Saturday, November 23: “Conditions were grey overhead and green underfoot, which made predicting the ball’s flight path tricky. The bowling was top-shelf—Whitney, Lawson, Holdsworth, Matthews, Waugh, Waugh—and the batting a little gormless, all except for the one who was 18.
Under the Oakes Oval pines he took careful guard, his head still, his footsteps like tiny, precise pinpricks, going backwards mostly, unless the bowler overpitched. Fifteen hundred people saw this, the great Alan Davidson among them. Davo was dumbfounded: “It’s just not possible… such maturity.”

Tendulkar hit 82 that afternoon, when no one else passed 24, then 59 out of 147 in the second innings. When Australians hear Indians grouch about their hero going missing in an emergency and having no appetite for a scrap, it always comes as a shock.”

What would be the position of Cullinan if asked to comment on whether Australia had the best bowling attack for the better part of two decades; an attack having phenomenal bite. It is an answer that Ponting can’t give because for no fault of his he never had to face up to them. For that answer we can look at Tendulkar; and much as I hate doing this at Cullinan as well.

Cullinan has a batting average of 12.75 against Australia and against Australia in Australia it further dips to 4.42 with 10 as his highest score. Harbhajan Singh has a better record than that with four fifties and an average of 21.83 against the Aussies; Cullinan missed having a fifty against the Aussies by 3 runs. The Aussie attack had his number and was just too good for him.

The first time he came up against them Craig McDermott nailed him for a duck; the same McDermott who told South African fast bowler Allan Donald that Tendulkar was going to be the best. And the same Donald who first bowled at Tendulkar in an ODI at the Eden Gardens and said that it was blatantly clear (Tendulkar made 60 plus) that he was going to be a player to remember.

“He is No. 1 in my book—the best player I have ever had the privilege of bowling to. There’s Steve Waugh and there’s Brian Lara, who was wonderful in 1995, but Tendulkar is a class above, consistently special,” Donald said.

Sachin Tendulkar averages 56.08 against Australia with 10 hundreds and 11 fifties; and against Australia in Australia his average goes up to 58.53. The bowler who tormented Cullinan the most admitted to having nightmares about Tendulkar stepping out and hitting him for a six over his head from the rough outside the leg stump on wickets suited for spin bowling.

The genius leg spinner paid the ultimate tribute: “Sachin Tendulkar is, in my time, the best player without doubt—daylight second, Brian Lara third.” What can be bigger than what the Australian captain Mark Taylor said after the three-Test series in 1998 and the ODI series after it in Sharjah: “We did not lose to a team called India…we lost to a man called Sachin.”

On the instinct of Tendulkar, Ryan wrote: “Every bolt and screw in the Tendulkar technique seemed put there to aid the getting of runs. Tendulkar was a run-getting machine, except no machine could also be so graceful—or instinctive, for that’s what it was, instinct, which told him that the way to bat was to attack. He didn’t learn this. He knew it, inside himself. Runs were what counted.

…You occasionally hear it said wistfully that Tendulkar is the Australian Shane Warne could have been. It is a neat line but it undersells what they have in common. For if any two modern cricketers might be soul mates, it is Warne and Tendulkar, grandmasters of their arts. Bowling legspin comes as naturally to Warne as batting does to Tendulkar, which is to say, as naturally as the rest of us find breathing.”

Tendulkar now is a batting sage. To see him build an innings brick by brick, by keeping the good balls out and dispatching the bad ones to the boundary, is a deep and fulfilling joy that no amount of slam bam cricket can give. He is solid in defence but not dour; that phase where he just hung around and looked purposeless is long gone.

In the 50-over game he can still play the innings of a lifetime. Just look at his masterful performances after the 2007 World Cup; after six scores in the nineties he broke the jinx by an unbeaten match-winning 117 in the first Commonwealth Bank Series final in Sydney while chasing and made 91 in the second final at Brisbane to beat Australia at home. He made 163 not out and left the crease when he had a chance to get to a double hundred against New Zealand as he did not want to take a chance with a minor niggle flaring up before the Test matches. Then he made 138 in a final against Sri Lanka in Colombo.

Four match-winning knocks and three of them in tournament finals but it didn’t stop there and he produced another magical innings of 175 against Australia in Hyderabad that almost single-handedly carried India to the mammoth target of 350 and with a little more support it was an innings that would have seen India through.

Sunil Gavaskar, the other genius in the history of Indian batting, described how Tendulkar just practised the cradle movement on the morning India was to bat at the Eden Gardens; just the forward and back foot defence. Just that. Apart from the brief period, where physical injuries perhaps hampered the ‘psychological’ approach of Tendulkar, scoring runs comes as naturally to him as maternal affection to a new mother.

Ricky Ponting, the best exponent of the pull shot, has done much better in South Africa and in the middle part of this decade. Tendulkar has not had that kind of success against South Africa. The Little Master, though, is in a league of his own; a league that even the great Sir Donald Bradman didn’t mind sharing.

Eden Gardens And Post-Tea Ghouls

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India was almost there to make it two days in a row for them to get on top of South Africa and turn the Test match at Eden Gardens decisively in their favour but for the last six overs in which three quick wickets fell and the match was alive again. It has been a riveting contest for two days and India fought their way back into the Test valiantly from a seemingly-improbable position yesterday.

It was the magical combination of Eden Gardens and the Indian bowling attack, which had looked so out of sorts in Nagpur and for the better part of two sessions on Sunday, that turned the game on its head. With South Africa at 218 for 1 and both Amla and the debutant Petersen having reached their individual hundreds Sunday gave no intimation of the kind of dramatic turnarounds that have become part of the folklore of this magnificent venue.

Zaheer took over from a confidence-boosting spell by Ishant and got rid of both the centurions either side of tea. After tea when Harbhajan Singh was brought from the other end there were two new batsmen yet to open their account at the crease and two potent attacking bowlers operating in tandem.

The tension was palpable. You could see the destiny of the day and perhaps the match and the series precariously balanced as Harbhajan tossed the ball, got drift and some bounce. AB de Villiers used his feet to quickly reach to the pitch of a ball to defend it and then both Kallis and de Villiers stepped out to hit Harbhajan over the in-field for boundaries. Someone in the commentary box spoke about Harbhajan bowling just one maiden in Nagpur and that the pressure would not build if he went for runs. The fours came in the 60th and the 62nd over and they were both clean good hits. With two new batsmen, yet to reach double figures, stepping out to hit him over the top, Harbhajan needed no further indication to plot yet another episode of his serial killings. He kept at it.

Kallis and de Villiers were trying to upset the rhythm of Harbhajan; but the Turbanator is a sly fox with a good understanding of when to go for the jugular and from the moment Laxman took a blinder to send Kallis packing he was unstoppable. Harbhajan with a wicket in his bag is an entirely different proposition and this one was long due and Laxman did his bit to pluck a beauty running backwards after having dropped a sitter at first slip earlier. That was the beginning of the end.

It was the first ball of the 66th over and then there was the Harbhajan Singh magic show. With the first and second ball of his next over from round the stumps Harbhajan had both the south paws, in Prince and Duminy, dead in front of the wicket playing for the turn when the ball went straight. The batsmen plonked their pad to take the ball outside the line and play for the turn but the ball drifted in and pitched in line and went straight to have them both bamboozled and looking like ducks. Steyn survived the hat-trick ball by doing nothing silly; it was another lovely topspinner and he was on the backfoot with the ball missing the edge and the off stump by inches. It was pandemonium and de Villiers could not take it so he ran himself out. Zaheer picked the ball near short cover and in one smooth motion turned and sent it ripping towards the non-striker’s end to find the diving de Villiers short. Steyn looking gunned at the other end.

Today was good for India as their batting had not clicked in Nagpur and Gambhir looked solid with Sehwag and 73 runs came in just 9.2 overs. Gambhir’s run-out was unfortunate and though Sehwag compensated by making a big hundred himself he still would be kicking himself for a priced scalp like Gambhir needlessly getting out cheaply. Nine more runs and as solid as he was looking Vijay was back in the hut with India 82 for two.

Tendulkar joined Sehwag and tapped the first ball he played, a 147 kph full delivery outside off from Morkel, to point for a single. That was the beginning of an assured partnership in which Tendulkar gave another display of his class and his mastery. He played the ball with that natural and intriguing intimacy that he has developed in the last few seasons; something that can be metaphorically-likened to a completely in-sync romantic couple at ease with each other. He was solid in defence and gave no bowler even a hint of a chance. It was just beautiful batting.

Sehwag contributed 119 to the partnership and Tendulkar 106 and the runs came at a fair clip of 4.31 runs per over. The partnership was worth 249 runs and if Sehwag gave a few chances along with his exquisite strokes there was always the solid presence of Tendulkar to guide the partnership.

Alas, the twist in the tail came towards the end of the day and took some sheen off a day full of wonderful batting. Sehwag was the first to go, with a half-hearted drive to Duminy, caught by Prince at cover; the camera for a split second showing the anguish that it caused Tendulkar. With the partnership broken Harris went round the wicket in the next over and Tendulkar made his first mistake of the day and was caught in the slips. Steyn then uprooted the off stump of Badrinath and the game was more evenly poised than it was just half an hour before stumps.

The lead is only 46 right now and India should keep it in mind that the drama surely happens post-tea and if they can bat with application for two sessions before tea then it would not matter if the post tea ghosts of Eden Gardens surface again tomorrow.

The Prodigy Of Prodigies

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“During the summer of 1997 The Times Magazine published John Woodcock’s personal selection of the 100 greatest cricketers in the history of the game. This immediately sparked a wide-ranging debate in the cricket world but it was universally agreed that no one was better qualified to undertake so daunting and essentially controversial a task,” said the back of the book that was published in 1998. Woodcock had covered over four-hundred Test matches for The Times alone.

The innings was opened by W.G. Grace at number one and Donald Bradman at number two followed by Gary Sobers. For the batsman at number 25 Woodcock observed that he ‘has all the credentials to become one of the two or three greatest batsmen in the game’s history, as well as one of the most engaging’. “At Perth in Western Australia early in 1992 Sachin Tendulkar made a century for India against Australia on a lively pitch with a brilliance that no other batsman in the world could have surpassed. He was eighteen at that time—the prodigy of prodigies,” Woodcock wrote.

Then he spoke about an innings in 1997 at Cape Town describing Tendulkar as a veteran of twenty-three and his country’s captain. He played an innings of 169 against South Africa that began in a crisis and lasted for five and a half hours and was virtually flawless. But only time will tell for how long he is able to withstand the pressures of being India’s leading batsman, the relentless idolatry that goes with it, and the worry of wondering, when he is captain and India are on tour, where their next wicket is going to come from.

Time has only served to confirm that Tendulkar, even after 20 years on the road, still has the capability to produce a timeless gem. The few injury-marred Test seasons and the 2007 World Cup where he was, for reasons apparent to no one bar Greg Chappell, made to bat at number four rather than his favoured and successful position at the top of the order are among the major disappointments.

Ricky Ponting did not make the cut as he was a late bloomer but Shane Warne, Brian Lara, Barry Richards, Sunil Gavaskar and Graeme Pollock along with other legends all found a rightful mention.

On India’s 2009 tour of New Zealand, former Kiwi all-rounder Richard Hadlee called Sachin Tendulkar as the greatest batsman ever to grace the game. Hadlee, 57, who became the first official inductee to ICC’s Hall of Fame on the first day of the Wellington Test, said he was in awe of Tendulkar whose achievements down the years “clearly had been phenomenal”.

Hadlee said comparisons with Donald Bradman should also drive Tendulkar as a player. “Well, Sir Donald Bradman has been regarded as the greatest player ever,” Hadlee said. “He played just Test cricket. He hasn’t played any other forms of the game. Clearly, that is understandable. But to see Sachin and other players actually adjust to different forms of the game and different conditions all around the world, even though the average is fractionally more than half of the Don’s is in itself incredible. You got to respect it and write those performances.”

Mike Atherton, in a November 19, 2009 piece for The Times spoke about the advent of the helmet and how it helped modern players and wrote that “to suggest that Tendulkar — or, indeed, any modern, armoured or, to use Vivian Richards’s phrase, “pampered” player — is the best ever is demeaning to those former greats who stood at the crease in the knowledge that their next ball could be their last.” Fair enough; but just one factor and not the factor that decides the art of batsmanship in its totality; a heavily padded and protected Mike Atherton averaged 37.69 and I don’t buy the argument that his average would have dipped dramatically if he came out without a helmet or gone up had he dressed like an astronaut.

In all Bradman came to the crease in an international fixture a total of 80 times in one form of the game and scored 29 centuries with a phenomenal average of 99.96. “Though his batting was not classically beautiful, it was always awesome. As Neville Cardus put it, he was a devastating rarity: ‘A genius with an eye for business,’” Matthew Engel is quoted in Bradman’s Cricinfo profile page.

There is a lot more to cricket than just the helmet and those are also factors that need to be considered if any comparison has merit in the first place. The Don played his 52 Test matches against four opponents in nine grounds—five grounds in England and four in Australia. Thirty-seven of those 52 matches were played against England and 15 against the other three oppositions namely South Africa, West Indies and India all in his home conditions. Sachin Tendulkar played on 32 different Test match surfaces before he first played a Test match at a surface where he had played a Test before—the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.

Sachin Tendulkar has played on close to 60 different Test match surfaces and the limited overs game has taken him to even more parts of the cricket-playing world. He may have come out to bat on 80 occasions in just about two or three seasons in the 1990s. From 1989 to 2000, Sachin Tendulkar played 79 Test matches and scored 6416 runs at an average of 57.28 with 24 hundreds. Ponting was a late bloomer; his 2001 tour to India was a very dismal one and his resurrection as a batsman began after it. In that tour Ponting scored 0; 6, 0; 0, 11 in five innings of three Tests. After that disastrous 2001 tour for Ponting his average in 42 Tests was a decent-but-average 42.96 with seven hundreds to his name while Tendulkar had 25.

The comparisons of Tendulkar and Ponting began only in the years after 2002 and 2003 and then in the injury-marred period of Tendulkar; where he largely-remained stationary while Ponting had more than a few out-of-the-world seasons. In November 2002 Tendulkar was 19 hundreds clear of Ponting and in the period that followed and established Ponting as a modern great he made 21 hundreds as opposed to Tendulkar’s four and the gap was narrowed down to two hundreds.

The gap stands at six today with Tendulkar at 45 hundreds and Ponting with 39; there is no comparison in the ODIs where Tendulkar leads with 45 hundreds and 93 scores of 50 plus with a batting average of 44.71 and a strike rate of 85.90 and Ponting has 28 hundreds and 74 scores of 50 plus with a batting average of 42.88 and a strike rate of 80.28.

In terms of adaptability, Sachin Tendulkar as an 18-year-old on his first tour to Australia made two hundreds; a 148 not out in Sydney and the much talked about and unrepeatable 114 at the WACA in Perth. In subsequent tours Tendulkar has made four more hundreds in Australia to go with five scores of fifty plus; he averages 58.53 in Australia. He has never come back without a hundred from a Test tour and Brisbane is the only Australian ground among the ones he has played Test cricket on where he does not have a hundred. In 2003 he got a shocker from Steve Bucknor at Brisbane; and then despite being in decent nick that tour was a disappointment for the Little Master until he reached Sydney and accumulated runs with the ascetic discipline of a monk rather than the flourish of a genius; an unbeaten 241 and then a 60 not out salvaged his tour.

Ponting, on the other hand, has had a miserable time in India and he got his first and only hundred in 2008; twelve years after his first tour in 1996. His average in India is a poor 20.85 and he has two fifties to go along with his only hundred. The home and away average of Ponting is 60.08 and 49.23 respectively but for Tendulkar it has been ‘equally-comfortable’ playing home or away with averages of 55.28 and 55.44 respectively. Clearly the Little Master is at home in all conditions.

Tendulkar And The Zen Masters

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The Master, in most of the mystic religious sects around the world is a man that can be described as the finite form of the infinite. The word is used in most of the religions of the East; like in Japan, where an ‘enlightened’ Zen monk is referred to as a Master. The 20th Century American writer J.D. Salinger, known largely for his ‘unusually brilliant’ and ‘controversial’ book The Catcher In The Rye used a Japanese ‘haiku’ (poem) in his book Franny and Zooey, first published as a story in two parts in The New Yorker magazine as Franny in 1955 and Zooey in 1957. The haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828) translated in English goes:

O Snail,
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

There are many interpretations of the haiku and one way of looking at it is that man can reach the summit by having the endurance to overcome adversity. Forgive me for digressing but this is the closest that I can come to describing the mastery of the man who is popularly known as the Little Master around the cricketing world. An old Japanese proverb says that a wise man climbs Mount Fuji once in his life and only a fool climbs it again; the implied meaning for the fool here is that it is so tough and has such inclement weather that only the really-daring would go again.

If Mount Fuji had a cricketing equivalent then Tendulkar is the man who has been living at the summit for just a few days less than 20 years now. There is no typhoon greater than the one he can still generate and there is no one from his time who has survived the hostile weather of international cricket with such elegance that even the violence that flows from his blade looks like the serene poise of a Zen monk.

On the eve of the fifth game in Hyderabad, the Indian captain MS Dhoni said, “Top order batsmen need to bat well and not rely on the lower order. If you are playing with seven batsmen, it’s better to get a big score from six of them rather than use the seventh, who we call as a backup batsman, especially when you are chasing. If one among the top order gets a big score it becomes easy for us as the others can rotate around him.”

The man on top of everything heeded the captain’s call and apart from another one at number six, no one else found it easy to rotate around him. Australia had belted 350, riding on the momentum they had picked when India had dropped it in the second-half of the ODI in Mohali.

For Australia just the top order came out to bat and everyone scored above a run a ball. Shaun Marsh and Watson scored 112 and 97 respectively. Ponting made a run-a-ball 45 and White and Hussey gave the finishing kick.

No matter what the conditions and the trueness of the wicket, chasing 350 is the cricketing equivalent of climbing Mount Fuji; and it was too stiff a climb for one man to pull the weight of 9 others. Apart from Tendulkar—who made a sparkling 175 in 141 balls studded with 19 square jewels and four large-sized pearls—the other significant contribution in the chase came in the form of a 59 from Raina at number 6. The 38 from Sehwag and the 23 from Jadeja had the possibility of becoming significant but Sehwag played one shot too many and Jadeja for the second time in the series ran as if his run out was essential to India’s victory.

If I look at the top 5 then it was just one man who made it possible that the game came down to holding one’s nerve in the end. At the stage where 19 runs were needed in 18 balls with four wickets in hand and a set Tendulkar batting as good as he ever had; the match was India’s to lose.

Tendulkar single-handedly kept India in the hunt; he played the booming drives, the lofted on the rise strokes clearing the inner circle, the delicate and the furious square cuts. He used the pace of the bowlers, when his deft touch was needed to place the ball behind the wicket on either side. Tendulkar danced down the wicket to hit the spinners out of the attack. He played perfect chip shots and the pulls that went along the ground. The Master bisected the boundary raiders using his wrists as if they were meant to solve a geometric problem. He dusted his cupboard to bring out a pull shot that sailed for a six over midwicket. He played with a fearless flamboyance so that the newcomers could adjust to the wicket without worrying about the run-rate.

Earlier, as Australia had preserved wickets, their late charge added 90 runs in 48 balls for the team. The way the Little Master had calculated and scored from the beginning and then in a big partnership with Raina; his team needed just 52 runs in the last 48 balls. The Aussie bowling had been thrashed, mainly by Tendulkar and to an extent by Sehwag and Raina. Two overs changed the game after Tendulkar and Raina had put India completely in front. The first of the two overs was the 43rd and the second was the 48th. In the 43rd over bowled by Watson, one run came for the loss of Raina and Harbhajan.

It has been such a series for Australia that it would not be surprising if an Aussie tourist is picked and brought to the ground in case Ponting suddenly finds that he is left with only 10 fit men for a game. The score-line says 3-2 in Australia’s favour and that is a massive achievement by an inexperienced as well as an injury-hit team that Ponting leads. I don’t think I’ll see a headline that says ‘India out to hit injury-hit Australia’ again in this series at least.

In the 48th over again two wickets fell for 3 runs. A crestfallen Tendulkar departed to a rising ovation off the first ball of the over. From the beginning he knew how to climb this summit; he created and shaped the reply knowing exactly where and how to take a risk and to keep his companions steady. There was nothing that could stop him in Hyderabad and even after the dismissal of Raina and Harbhajan; 32 more runs were added between Jadeja and Tendulkar.

And then the Master came down from the peak and made an error of judgement; as in that form no bowler could have taken his wicket had he kept his shot selection on the cautious side. After the dismissal he saw his work of art falling short just like it did in Chennai 1999. He had been phenomenal in Hyderabad but in the presentation ceremony he looked the most-disappointed and the-most forlorn man. Tendulkar knows it very well that the infinite is expected of the Master. And he knows that people forgive everyone but they never forgive a genius.

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