King of the crease

Print edition : January 14, 2011

Sachin Tendulkar in action during the first Test against South Africa in Centurion on December 19. He reached his latest milestone, 50 Test centuries, in this match. - ALEXANDER JOE/ AFP

Sachin Tendulkar crosses another milestone in his cricketing career a half century of Test centuries.

TRUE, 50 is, after all, just another number at least for Sachin Tendulkar. But the cricket world has viewed it differently. A half century of centuries in Test cricket is a reason to celebrate. The whole of India has joined in the celebrations, treating the achievement as a national event. For Tendulkar has trodden into a territory that will remain his own for a long, long time.

That Tendulkar had the traits of a genius was obvious when he made his debut in December 1988. As the lad, not yet 16, began batting for Bombay (now Mumbai) against Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy tournament at the Wankhede Stadium in his hometown, spectators like veteran cricketers Sunil Gavaskar, Ramakant Desai and Eknath Solkar were fascinated by his game. Tendulkar crafted a century. The act became a habit with him.

Lalchand Rajput, his first captain, recalls: Tendulkar showed no signs of nerves. The ease with which he faced the fast bowlers was amazing. He looked so mature in his approach. I remember telling him to play his natural game and not worry about the opposition. He was so confident. In the Irani Cup too, he made a century. We knew then that this youngster was different and was sure to dominate cricket in the times to come.

Less than a year later, Tendulkar made his Test debut in international cricket against a hostile Pakistani attack. Some of the legends from the opposition Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis remember Tendulkar as a special talent. They have always reflected warmly on their experience, showering lavish praise on one of the greatest sportsmen on the planet.Sachin Tendulkar has since been described as a maestro, a legend, an icon, the best batsman ever, and the greatest ever; the accolades are still pouring in. But he describes himself thus: I am just a cricketer! He continues to count himself as just another member of the Indian team.

His achievements have been documented in the most glorious terms in various forums. For Tendulkar, the best compliment comes in the form of a victory. Nothing pleases me more than India winning, he gushes. It is not just India winning in cricket. He celebrates when India wins in hockey or tennis; he is overjoyed when an Indian athlete or boxer excels. Too good, is his favourite expression.

Flanked by team-mates Kapil Dev (left) and Mohammed Azharuddin before the Test series against Pakistan in October 1989, when Tendulkar made his international debut.-ALLSPORT UK / GETTY IMAGES

No doubt he is a phenomenon a rare one at that. As the West Indian batting great Vivian Richards wrote recently, the difference between Tendulkar and others is in the level of commitment and the passion to keep going. To watch Tendulkar at training is an experience in itself how he looks after his body, tends his gear, prepares for the session, waits for his turn to bat in the nets', never imposes himself on the team.

Pravin Amre, his coach at Mumbai, is in awe. I have played with him long enough to understand his approach but I am amazed at the man's zeal. He wants to be perfect always. His humility is amazing. I have seen Sachin carry drinks for the juniormost, much to the embarrassment of the youngster. His discipline is infectious. For Mumbai nets, he comes in the Mumbai training gear. He would never don an India cap or T-shirt for a Mumbai match. He will also not allow anyone to carry his cricket coffin. Too good, Amre exclaims.

The devotion that Tendulkar brings to his cricket can be ascertained from this anecdote. Once, unaware that he had reached a landmark, he asked partner Rahul Dravid what all the applause was for. You have crossed 10,000 runs in Test cricket, an astonished Dravid informed. So engrossed was Tendulkar in his work that he had forgotten all about the milestone.

I don't play for statistics, Tendulkar maintains. No wonder, the 50th Test century at Centurion (in South Africa) remained a mere number for him.

Says Kapil Dev: You can't contain Sachin's deeds in a statistical frame. He brings unstinted joy to the art of batting. Statistics will happen because cricket is about runs and wickets. But how can you evaluate Sachin's contributions by just counting the number of runs he has scored. To me, he best symbolises the heights an individual can rise to dominate a team sport. Words can never capture the beauty of Sachin's cricket.

After making his century for Rest of India against Delhi in the Irani Trophy match at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on November 7, 1989-S. KOTHANDARAMAN/THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Batting is rarely a strenuous exercise when Tendulkar is at the crease. Gaps are born when he drives the ball, boundaries appear short when he is on song, the bat is heavy but to play the shots he has more time than anyone else in the game, and his art assumes divine proportions as he decimates the opposition. Conditions do not matter to him. He is so adept at creating space for himself. South African fast bowler Allan Donald describes Tendulkar's batting so aptly in his autobiography White Lightning:

He hits the ball so hard with apparently little effort. His shot selection is superb, he just lines you up and can make you look very silly. He flicked one of my deliveries through midwicket from outside off-stump at a rate of knots and I was daft enough to shout Catch it!' as the ball was rebounding off the boundary boards. I said Good shot!' to that delivery, something I have never said to a batsman at any time in my career. He's the best looking batsman I've ever seen; everything is right in his technique and judgment.

Mark Waugh, the elegant Australian batsman, writes: When you play against Tendulkar, you almost want to see him get a few runs just to see him bat. It's amazing how hard he hits the ball. If the ball is a foot wide of you in the field, it's four. Tendulkar's innate knowledge of batting can provide material for the best coaching manual after Don Bradman's impeccable Art of Cricket. How he reads the ball in the air and on pitching, how he constructs his innings depending on the situation, his shot selection, and his calm and controlled approach to the game can make for an interesting case study. He can be computer fast in reacting to a situation, and his footwork is exemplary. Flawless, as Sunil Gavaskar described his technique once.

That he continues to entertain speaks for his brand of batsmanship. Of course, he has picked and chosen some one-day international (ODI) assignments but he remains on top of the list in all forms of the game. On his last appearance early this year, he made an unbeaten 200 at Gwalior, in his 442nd ODI match. Not bad for someone who made no runs in his debut ODI knock against Pakistan in 1989. No cricketer, contemporary or past, draws his Dream XI without Sachin Tendulkar at Number 4. When it comes to picking a batsman for all seasons, there is none to beat him. Often he has been compared to Bradman, Brian Lara, Gavaskar, Ricky Ponting and such greats. But he plays down such comparisons.

He actually does not like such comparisons; he sees in them disrespect to the others. Tendulkar's batting canvas is vast and vibrant while his contribution to a team under pressure is unique. No batsman would have ever faced the kind of pressure that Tendulkar does every time he takes guard. I enjoy it and it gives me extra thrill, is his modest response.

It is not that Tendulkar is at ease always. There have been times when he has spent sleepless nights or arrived at the ground a bit tense. But such occasions have been few. That he is deeply religious helps him overcome such phases. Once, during a Test match against Sri Lanka in Mumbai, he was not happy with his batting at the end of day one. He was restless. A midnight visit to a temple in Shivaji Park calmed him. He completed a hundred the next day.

Upon completing his first Test half-century, in Faisalabad on November 24, 1989. At the non-striker's end is Sanjay Manjrekar.-V.V.KRISHNAN

Injuries have troubled him. Having carried Indian cricket forward for so long, he suffered a back injury, which was followed by a tennis elbow. He even missed a tour to the West Indies, in 2006. But Tendulkar battled on. The tapes on his body and on some of his favourite bats bear testimony to his passion for the game.

History will cherish Tendulkar not just for his batting style and cricketing feats. He has inspired a nation, a generation, to strive and succeed. He signifies young India's self-belief in conquering the world, and not just in sport. He is committed to working for society, and accepts every invitation to promote awareness on various issues.

Charity is close to his heart. He supports an unspecified number of orphans and underprivileged children and takes care of their health and educational needs. When a private hospital in Hyderabad wanted Tendulkar to be on its board, he made a condition every sportsman from Andhra Pradesh should receive free treatment in the hospital. Tendulkar does not receive a penny from his association with the hospital but the goodwill of every sportsman who gets free treatment at the state-of-the-art hospital is priceless.

Sachin Tendulkar, 37, is an everlasting colossus, who needs four more to reach the fifty-century mark in ODIs too and make it a century of centuries. The cricket-loving world is lucky to have experienced this magnificent phenomenon. He is indeed the Kohinoor of cricket, as former Indian captain and bowling great Bishan Singh Bedi lovingly portrays him.

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