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Magical Durban Test On A Knife’s Edge

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It’s still anybody’s game. Although India are certainly better placed having accounted for three wickets and still having a cushion of enough runs (South Africa need 192 more to win) to get the remaining seven. The pendulum would have swung heavily in India’s favour had Cheteshwar Pujara been able to hold on to a very tough chance when Kallis was yet to open his account and South Africa were 86 for three.

In the 11 balls that Kallis played before getting off the mark he survived three anxious moments. After that tough chance Zaheer Khan was pretty close to getting his man when Kallis almost nicked the first ball of the 21st over of the innings and was then lucky that his mistimed pull on the fourth ball did not carry to Tendulkar at mid on.

South Africa had earlier got off to a flying start with Smith in particular finding the boundary easily. The new ball did not work for India and South Africa raced to 60 for no loss in 12 overs. The 15 overs after that were fruitful and three wickets fell for the addition of 51 runs. For India it is a game of patience now and they would need to bowl in good areas consistently and then take their chances. If they stick to a plan and make it difficult for South Africa to get runs then they have a better chance of making the batsmen commit errors. The first hundred runs have come rather easily for the South Africans and India can take better control of proceedings if they can stem the flow of runs.

In the morning South Africa got off to a perfect start when Morne Morkel removed Pujara in the first full over of the day with just a run added to the overnight score. MS Dhoni walked to the crease and played with the same assuredness that he has displayed throughout in this series. VVS Laxman, who was looking in supreme touch, and Dhoni put on 48 quick runs to extend the lead above 200. South Africa again came back in the game strongly with two quick wickets and Laxman on 47 was again in the difficult situation of taking his team to some kind of security. And once again Laxman did the business brilliantly.

It was just a matter of finding someone to give him support and Laxman would have done the rest and this time that support came from Zaheer. The partnership started with Zaheer trying to heave a couple of deliveries in typical cross-batted and lower order style. Then he calmed down and there is all the reason to believe that it was the presence of Laxman that led to Zaheer applying himself. The partnership added 70 invaluable runs before Zaheer perished in the post lunch session. Ishant fell in quick succession and running out of partners Laxman was the last to go four runs short of his century but having taken his team a couple of runs over 300. It promises to be a match winning and series levelling innings. If that happens then it will be another addition to the priceless gems that he has produced with amazing consistency.

India have been at the top of the ICC Test rankings for almost a full year now but having played most of their cricket in the subcontinent South Africa was always going to be their first real test. No matter what they say India needed a couple of good tour games and then some luck. Their plight was exacerbated by the fact that they got to bat when the wicket was at its liveliest in Centurion and perhaps in Durban as well.

It no longer sounds like an excuse because now India have bowled South Africa out for 131 when the sun was out and the wicket was playing much better than what is was when India got 205 in their first innings in Durban. Harbhajan Singh saying that India was well-prepared for the series but not for a wet wicket has much more weight now as they batted well in the second innings in Centurion and have bowled and caught spectacularly in Durban on Monday. Whether India was undercooked is now debatable. Monday’s performance in the field was worthy of their number one ranking. They’ve come from being miles behind after the hammering in Centurion to sting South Africa badly. It remains to be seen whether they can turn the wound they inflicted in the first innings into a fatal blow in the second but regardless they have at least maintained their reputation by bowling South Africa out for 131 in decent batting conditions.

The bowling performance in Durban on Monday was delightful. It was as if Durban had turned into Eden Gardens where India squared the series after being blown away in Nagpur the last time the South Africans travelled to India. As has been the case with most of India’s superb bowling performances in the last few seasons it was Zaheer who gave a lion-hearted performance. For the first hour or so he toiled single-handedly taking out both the openers and being miserly with runs. The runs leaked from the other end though as Sreesanth was all over the place in his first spell. Then came the piece of luck that comes when whatever you touch is turning to gold and Jacques Kallis was short of his crease at the non-striker’s end when a firm hit from Amla brushed past Ishant Sharma’s hand and dislodged the bails. The short session became sweeter as Sreesanth produced a ripper of a delivery to get rid of de Villiers for a duck. The score at lunch read 74 for 4.

The magic started post lunch when Zaheer came to bowl his second spell and Harbhajan his first. Pressure was building from both ends and four runs came in three overs. Harbhajan struck with the first ball of his second over and trapped Amla leg before with a straighter one. From the other end Zaheer bowled two top quality overs to make Ashwell Prince unsure before nailing him in the third. Two more tight overs followed and then Harbhajan produced a magic over, the kind he does when he gets a wicket early in his spell. Steyn nicked a straighter one and Dravid took an unbelievably good catch at first slip. Four balls later Pujara at short leg took a sharp chance to send Harris back; South Africa sank to 103 for 8.

Then Harbhajan took a beauty at fine leg off Sharma’s bowling to end a small partnership between Morkel and Boucher. Next over he completed the formalities by getting Tsotsobe. South Africa 131 all out in 37.2 overs.

In the second innings India was coasting at 42 for no loss after nine overs and the South African bowling was looking flat. Steyn was out of the attack having conceded 21 runs in three overs and the openers were looking settled. Sehwag then went for a tempter well wide of his off stump and edged it to Boucher. Next over Vijay got a nasty ball from Morkel that reared up towards his head from a tad short of a length and had him fending in an awkward fashion. The ball ballooned up and Amla took an easy catch at short leg.

Then there were two moments of indiscretion from India’s most-experienced campaigners. And it was disappointing to see. The very next over in rather uncharacteristic fashion Rahul Dravid chased a wide one from Tsotsobe and nicked it to the keeper. From 42 for no loss and South Africa looking hapless it became 48 for 3 with India under pressure. Laxman walked out to join Tendulkar who was batting on four having cracked a short delivery from Morkel to the point boundary to get off the mark.

Tendulkar does not have a good record in Durban and it is his poor performances in Kingsmead that are mainly responsible for his overall record in South Africa being below par. The partnership lasted just 16 balls and Tendulkar was snaffled at third slip of the first ball of Steyn’s second spell. It wasn’t an edge it was rather an uncontrolled steer from the face of the blade. Steyn did him in with pace as Tendulkar was late for the stroke and couldn’t get on top of it for the drive. The shot was on but with just a few deliveries under his belt Tendulkar was not accustomed to the wicket that had quickened up a bit.

Laxman and Pujara took the score to 92 at stumps on day two with some sensible batting. Tendulkar has had a poor Test with the bat after a long time and with the kind of form he is in his presence would have made a lot of difference to the team in either innings. That’s why they say that sometimes good form can be your undoing as you tend to play aggressively without first getting used to the wicket.

Despite the great bowling performance on Monday the argument for poor preparation for the tour remains. Teams come with detailed plans and they plot well in advance on how to bring down the opponent in his own den but India seems to be an exception. It is only the television channels who seem to do the preparation by building the series up as India’s Final Frontier. How on earth do you otherwise explain the inclusion of journeymen like Jaidev Unadkat, Wriddhiman Saha, and Umesh Yadav. Was this really a tour where two uncapped players and the third a veteran of one Test had to be unleashed?

Tendulkar’s 50th century is definitely a landmark to be celebrated in isolation but it does nothing to ease the pain of a complete drubbing in the first Test. The wicket at Centurion was a perfect surface when India batted second and they got off to a great start before throwing it away. Having seen off the new ball threat Sehwag blew it away by being rash. Gambhir, Dravid, and Dhoni were wickets South Africa earned by their brilliant bowling but India was dented by a couple of casual dismissals.

Pujara should ideally have been drafted in during the New Zealand series and he would have been battle ready come South Africa. From the looks of it he seems to have both skill and temperament and he needs an extended run to be judged. MS Dhoni has shown guts in all his outings and the top six should take a leaf out of his book.

If India square the series in Durban then both teams will have all to play for in Cape Town. And if South Africa manage to chase the total then the series would be sealed in Durban and Cape Town would be a battle for the Number 1 ranking.

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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.

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.

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.

Cricket: ‘A Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’

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India is ranked the number 1 Test team in the world right now while Bangladesh is at the bottom of the pile and compared to India’s 3957 points the hosts have a measly 255; even then the cricket has been entertaining and has fluctuated like only Test match cricket can. Bangladesh bowled well on the opening day of the series and their lower order has batted with purpose and skill on more than one occasion.

This is about all the Test cricket that India was originally supposed to play in an entire season; five Test matches, which have now become seven—courtesy the two that we are playing against South Africa at home. The shortest form of the game is celebrating and cricket has expanded its fan club and found new and rich sponsors; the business end is thriving.

Journalist and writer Alan Ross once said: “In other sports, people have no time to think; a cricket match is a storehouse of thought, of thought occasioned by the game itself, by the beauty, wit, or intelligence of one’s companion, or simply a private unravelling of problems, personal, political, moral.”

Cricket now has no time to think and the speed at which it travels is dizzying and causes nausea. I don’t complain much as there are other benefits. One of them is that my wife is very happy as she knows that I have all the time to be with the family at the expense of a Twenty20 game or even a 50-over one. A good Test match makes me immobile and captive; a prisoner to the inherent beauty of its form. It needs a good sporting surface and then there can be five days of endless possibilities that sometimes produce something beautiful and almost magical.

That is not how everybody likes it and the fuss is all about what is popular and marketable. Enter the Board of Control for Cricket in India. And they are not going to listen to my old-fashioned mother; who, by the way, is on my side and knows the difference between a brutal 20-over assault and the subtle morning session of the opening Test of an overseas tour. It is quite natural to presume that the governing body of cricket in this country—and for good or bad, the financial powerhouse of the game in the world—would also know the difference. On the evidence of it I am not too sure whether they know the difference. And if they do; then what the board finds alluring is different from what this post finds alluring.

About four years ago, I was lucky to be at a training programme where I met an accomplished financial journalist and training editor who was brilliant in explaining all kinds of economic activities by breaking them down to simple basics that he had already hammered in for the participating group on the opening day of the week-long programme. We worked around a lot of charts and market graphs and he then came to the volatility of the market and showed how the financial markets have historically followed a pattern. Look at the fundamentals and if they don’t support the highs of the market then smart money is soon going to swallow stupid money. When the dotcom graph was going up, one just had to walk in dressed and spell a domain name and the venture caps were ready with the money—it may not have been that bad but it surely wasn’t as good as they told us. The sign to look out for a dangerous situation is that when the last person you associate with ‘investing in the IT stocks’—for example, your neighbourhood taxi-driver; with due respect to him —starts talking about precisely that then it is high time that you exit the market. Someone is playing it up. And if that someone is you and your gang then enjoy the spoils; otherwise better save whatever little you have before the burglary happens.

That playing it up is what the IPL is all about. And Preity Zinta—regardless of my bias in liking her as one of the few achievers from my hometown state of Himachal Pradesh—Shilpy Shetty and Shah Rukh Khan and some others expounding on the game are the equivalent of the ‘neighbourhood taxi-driver’ talking of the dotcom revolution with the big difference being my due respect to the imagined taxi-driver. Six gorgeous sixes in an over to a frontline fast bowler places Yuvraj in the company of the great Sir Garfield Sobers; but being a cricketer Yuvraj knows it too well that he still has to make his bones and he knows that they will not be made in front of cheerleaders.

The team owners are the stars and they have an audience, but it is largely a time-killing soap opera audience; an audience that is the enemy of the cricket lover in the same manner as a ‘harlot is the enemy of a decent woman’. This is not an audience that would be reading Harold Larwood’s biography by Duncan Hamilton, or A Corner of a Foreign Field by Ramachandra Guha, or the brilliant biography of Australian spinner Jack Iverson by Gideon Haigh. This audience would not be interested in Boria Majumdar’s Once Upon A Furore nor Harsha Bhogle’s Out of the Box; and this audience would not be visiting the website Cricinfo fifty times in a day. And it gets me worried and makes me sad that it could be this audience that decides the future of the game.

The BCCI is a master of all conditions and unlike the great Sir Donald Bradman it has even mastered playing on “one of those ‘sticky dogs’ of old, when the ball is hissing and cavorting under a hot sun following heavy rain.” On a few occasions when the BCCI has found that it is at odds with the government it has clarified that it is a private and independent body that functions like an enterprise. So it is not answerable to the government. In fact all the parties here, the government, the BCCI, the IPL administration and the franchise-owners, distance themselves from each other as and when the need for it arises.

I am not too sure about the other boards but something that Shane Warne said a few years ago tells me that there are no exceptions. It had something to do with Mark Waugh having voiced a ‘harsh opinion’ about Warnie on air. Warne gave a polite mouthful saying that he understands that his mate Mark Waugh has retired and he’s somehow got to make a buck. Simple horse sense. And something that Gideon Haigh wrote confirmed my own hunch that there is no board that is not willing to prostitute itself. “While the West Indies seemed to tour every other summer, Australians were denied a Sachin Tendulkar Test innings for almost eight years. The reason? India were not perceived as sufficiently bankable—and this is worth remembering lest it be imagined that the BCCI somehow introduced the evils of money to a cricket world of prelapsarian innocence.”

If India is playing 35 days of Test cricket in a season and that too because the board found itself on a sticky wicket after writers and fans and the Little Master himself said that five Test matches in a season are just too few then do I need to tell you where the priorities lie.

I have always been over-optimistic but here I am worried. And that is because I realise that even though I am the one who has invested so much of his life in cricket yet it may turn out to be that my wife has the last laugh. And to rub it in she may choose to do it while having a packet of chips during an IPL match.

In Focus: ‘‘The Mumbai Meat Market’’

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“Say that cricket has nothing to do with politics and you say that cricket has nothing to do with life,” wrote journalist and cricket commentator John Arlott. It is a statement that can be appreciated by anyone who is aware of—or has even remotely tried to understand—how the game is run in his part of the world.

Let me say at the onset that just like millions around the world I enjoy watching the mercurial talent of Pakistan cricket and I admire the quality of players they have produced over the years. Sport, though, is not played in a vacuum and cricket at the international level, especially, is a game that has always carried the undertones of the social fabric between the opponents.

Last year it was the Pakistan Cricket Board that did not allow their cricketers to play in the IPL as a measure taken after the November attacks in Mumbai. India’s tour to Pakistan was never a possibility after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the worst nightmare of cricket unravelled in broad daylight in Lahore on the 3rd of March; when the bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers was ambushed on its way to the Gaddafi Stadium.

This year, at the last moment, the players have not been picked. May be the owners were concerned about the availability but Rameez Raza had a point when he wrote that ‘the assurances of selection and the clearances given to them by the Pakistan government to participate in the tournament gave rise to false hopes among the fans and the media. The subsequent process of elimination was seen by the public as political and undignified.’

That is about all that Pakistan can be legitimately offended by because specific permissions should not have been sought if there was even a modicum of doubt in the minds of the franchise-owners. The franchise-owners could have easily done this a bit more graciously and taken the business decision early rather than at the last moment when, for instance, the name of a player like Shahid Afridi was announced and there were no takers; in a format where he is more than just handy.

This is what Harsha Bhogle had to say: “We live in times of violence and hatred; there are many people who seek peace but equally some who seek to deny us what we thought was given. Sport cannot exist in isolation, cannot fly free from this cage of reality. We would love the two to be separated but that has never happened. In times of peace, or relative peace, we could produce the path-breaking tours of 2004 and 2006. Now we are all pawns in the drama our subcontinent is enacting and the cricketers are merely more visible pawns. The conspiracy that Abdul Razzaq talks about is the reality of our times. The IPL will be poorer for the absence of some extraordinarily gifted cricketers, but this is just another victory for those that infect us with hatred. To believe there is a conspiracy against cricketers from Pakistan is wrong. It is the times we live in.”

“Make way for the Mumbai Meat Market” was a captivating headline when the players went under the hammer in the first edition of the IPL. Many cricketers expressed disbelief at the amount of money that changed hands on that eventful day where players were traded like commodity futures minus the presence of any visible rationale that governs the various commodities exchanges.

Things changed after that first year, on every front, and we were told that team owners had learned more about how to spend their money while buying ‘their livestock’. On the political front the dynamics changed so much that the second edition of the Indian Premier League was possible only outside India, and was hosted in South Africa. This was also about time when cricket fans and cricket writers were finding it difficult to digest the nauseating speed of the shorter version (A topic for another post, perhaps).

The Pakistan cricketers would tell you, in less than a minute, that they are heroes in India. That wherever they go, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam, Afridi, Rameez Raza, and Imran Khan and Javed Miandad—in their cricketing avatar—can be mobbed for autographs or they may find themselves in the company of youngsters seeking some advice on any eternal cricketing problem. And I’ve just taken those few big names for we associate more with legends but the fact is that the team is respected, loved, and surprisingly even cheered and supported. We know how Umar Gul ran riot against New Zealand and Gul’s 19th over against South Africa at the World T20 semi-final, when South Africa needed 29 runs from 12 balls with Duminy and Morkel at the crease, has gone down in cricketing legends. I got a message from a friend in Mumbai saying ‘That Gul over was the best bowling at death I have seen since Ambrose and Walsh used to operate.’ We know your cricket; the news of Umar Akmal batting on any turf becomes a buzzword in India. So the reasons, of course, have not been cricketing because we love your cricket. In a way, though, they can be called reasons that make ‘sense’ if not ‘cricketing sense’.

To suggest that there has been any conspiracy is like listening to the ridiculous Hamid Gul and the entertaining Zaid Hamid; both good at using the spinning jenny to churn out preposterous conspiracy theories out of a non-existent yarn. Someone from India needs to apologise for the ‘corporate inelegance’ in which the matter was handled and it should end there.

I’ll touch on the politics now despite the fact that I don’t relish it as much as Test cricket; but in extraordinary circumstances the King becomes a subject and has to be dealt like one. The effigies being burnt in Pakistan and the matter being taken up with the ICC is just plain overreaction and carries no meaning; what carries meaning is again what Rameez Raza said ‘that India should have been large’. Pakistan also needs to be large and look within as the Indian government has observed and this is one of those few things with which the nation may agree with the government.

At the centre of all this is Mumbai; and the still raw, complicated and bleeding ‘Mumbai Meat Market’. The effigy burning only reminds me of the column Thomas Friedman did for The New York Times after the Mumbai attacks. This is an edited extract from Friedman’s December 2, 2008 article: “On Feb. 6, 2006, three Pakistanis died in Peshawar and Lahore during violent street protests against Danish cartoons that had satirized the Prophet Muhammad. More such mass protests followed weeks later. When Pakistanis and other Muslims are willing to take to the streets, even suffer death, to protest an insulting cartoon published in Denmark, is it fair to ask: Who in the Muslim world, who in Pakistan, is ready to take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people, not cartoon characters, right next door in Mumbai?

After all, if 10 young Indians from a splinter wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party travelled by boat to Pakistan, shot up two hotels in Karachi and the central train station, killed at least 173 people, and then, for good measure, murdered the imam and his wife at a Saudi-financed mosque while they were cradling their 2-year-old son—purely because they were Sunni Muslims—where would we be today? The entire Muslim world would be aflame and in the streets.

We know from the Danish cartoons affair that Pakistanis and other Muslims know how to mobilize quickly to express their heartfelt feelings, not just as individuals, but as a powerful collective. That is what is needed here. Because, I repeat, this kind of murderous violence only stops when the village—all the good people in Pakistan, including the community elders and spiritual leaders who want a decent future for their country—declares, as a collective, that those who carry out such murders are shameful unbelievers who will not dance with virgins in heaven but burn in hell. And they do it with the same vehemence with which they denounce Danish cartoons.”

Time for some champagne

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It is time for some elaborate and well-earned celebrations. India at this point of time is the number 1 Test team in the world and it is a nice place to sit and reflect on things before moving on to the bigger challenge of consolidating this position.

The fourteen players who were in the squad against Sri Lanka at the Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai were the last ones who came to my mind as my memory went back to listening about India playing abroad in the late seventies and early eighties. It went back to days when Sunil Gavaskar used to walk to the field and display character while playing in an era that had a battery of great fast bowlers. It also went back to Kapil Dev, Vishwanath, Jimmy Amarnath, Vengsarkar and to all those people who paved the way from the time when India were just considered pushovers in world cricket to this day.

Of course it went to our fabulous spinners; the unmatched Bishen Singh Bedi and the quartet that had Eknath Solker, near the bat, as a part of their hunting pack. Sandeep Patil hitting a spectacular 174 in the Adelaide Test after having been hit on the head by Len Pascoe on his ear in the Sydney Test of the 1980-81 series came to my mind. The list is long in this 77-year-old history and each step has meant something.

Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble can be clubbed with the squad of fourteen as they are an integral part of recent successes. Ganguly displayed steely resolve after his comeback and Kumble showed what a tremendous leader he is. The graph can be plotted from end-2007 when India defeated Pakistan 1-0 at home with the last Test finishing on December 12.

This was after a hectic ODI season and commercial greed ensured that India went to Australia without much of a rest or a decent conditioning camp and no time to acclimatise apart from one game that was washed out. Melbourne was the wicket that would have suited India the best and the bowlers did well to keep Australia below 350.

Two tour games may have shown form and adjustment factor. Sehwag may have played from the start and Yuvraj could have warmed the bench; our experts did not get it but Ian Chappell was right when he said that Sehwag may give just about 50 but his attack puts the train in motion. An attacking opener at the top would have put the bowlers on the defensive and the middle order could then have taken things forward. Yuvraj had made runs in India and so the entire furniture was rearranged to accommodate him. India lost the first Test by 337 runs and Ponting said he hadn’t expected such an easy win.

Then it was time for the back-to-back Sydney Test in the New Year and along with it a chance for Australia to match its previous highest winning streak of 16 Test matches on the trot. Never mind the washed out preparation game as that bit happened in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. In hindsight, Sydney was very unlucky for Andrew Symonds in the long-run and it was lucky in the long-run for India.

On the match days, though, every bit of luck went Australia’s way beginning with the toss. “We’re going to bat today, mate,” said Ponting. “The wicket looks pretty good, a bit of moisture this morning. We played well in Melbourne but that’s all behind us now. We created momentum and hope to do the same. It was as good Test cricket as we’ve played in a long time.”

Anil Kumble looked calm and confident. “There’ll be early juice in the wicket; I’m looking forward to a couple of early wickets,” Cricinfo’s commentary said. The attack was RP Singh, Ishant Sharma, Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble. RP got both the openers cheaply and then Ponting and Hussey consolidated but from 119 for 2 in 29.4 overs Australia slumped to 134 for 6 in 34.5 overs. Brad Hogg joined Symonds, who had seven runs from 17 balls, and the counterattack started.

At the end of 46 overs Hogg was 35 and Symonds 29 when Ishant came in to bowl the 47th over with Australia on 191. At 193 for 6 on the fourth ball of Ishant Sharma, Symonds got a massive edge and looked back as Dhoni pouched it. Umpire Steve Bucknor was stone faced as Symonds looked at him. It was a giveaway. Australia ended up with 463 and Symonds added 132 more to his score of 30 when he had got that big let-off. On top of that the drama of a ‘reported incident’ at the end of the third day’s play meant that news agencies had a field day. That continued for a while.

To cut the long story short, Australia went on to win the game as India failed to survive over two and a half sessions on the last day and the team trailed 2-0 in the four Test series with the next match to be played in the Australian den at Perth.

Sehwag and Irfan Pathan got in the playing eleven and Harbhajan was out in the cold awaiting the decision of a judge after the acrimonious Sydney Test. Australia crumbled despite talks of a four-pronged pace attack and the two replacements justified their inclusion for India. That bit was Kumble’s leadership and India haven’t looked back since and beaten Australia 2-0 at home and won a series against England at home. There has been a 1-1 draw against South Africa at home. The only blip has been a 2-1 loss in Sri Lanka. Symonds has gone fishing or has hit the bar a bit more than the leadership group of the team would have wanted him to. He’s had the support of the captain and the team mates but he has found it hard to justify it.

Gary Kirsten had joined the team in Perth and one can hear about the value that he has added as players have been very vocal about his role even as he has been quiet about it. This year India has dominated and had a series win in New Zealand and now an emphatic 2-0 win against Sri Lanka at home. It is the Test matches that matter but we are just playing two more so the top ranking could be for just a short while; it is worth celebrating nonetheless.

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