Tons of passion

Print edition : April 20, 2012

Tendulkar: I play this game because I love playing this game. Nobody forced me into it and it's my choice.

I prefer always playing fast bowlers because the ball comes straight on [to] the bat. There is a noticeable stress on the last syllable of the word bat. A boyish grin follows the quick answer and he looks away from the camera. That was Sachin Tendulkar in his first recorded interview. He was not even 16 when the veteran theatre personality Tom Alter, a cricket freak, spoke to him ahead of India's tour to the West Indies in 1989.

Tendulkar was not picked even though he spoke of his love and passion to play fast bowlers. He did earn the India cap before the year ended, making his debut, an insignificant one, in Karachi against a lethal Pakistan attack that included Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir. Before the tour ended, Tendulkar had given the world indications of what lay ahead.

He looked special, recalled Akram years later. What was striking about him was his timing, observed Imran Khan. It is a quality that has embellished his batting in all forms of the game. Timing is the hallmark of greatness, and shots have always flowed from Tendulkar's armoury on the strength of his confidence and conviction. It took him 14 innings to record his first Test century and 76 to get to his maiden one-day international (ODI) century. Twenty-three years later came the 100th century in international cricket, at Mirpur, Bangladesh. He spoke his mind during a recent interaction with the media:

My focus wasn't on it. My focus was, as always, to score a big hundred whenever I went out and [to] contribute, and that is what I have done in the past. As the time went by there was so much hype created that naturally the focus, even though I didn't want it, I felt it was somewhere there in the subconscious. Hundred hundreds wasn't my purpose. To win the World Cup was. I don't regularly follow what people are saying about me. Because I feel I should have a clear mind while making those decisions, and, hence, I shouldn't be thinking about what X, Y or Z are talking. I am not in the Indian team to prove people wrong. I play this game because I love playing this game. Nobody forced me into it and it's my choice.

Pakistan, December 1989: Aged 16, he was the youngest person to play Test cricket for India.-PICTURES: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

True to the expectations of past masters, Tendulkar grew into a phenomenon, set new benchmarks beyond the reach of all, and yet is striving to achieve more. The boyish passion to pick up the bat and run to the cricket field remains. Only, he now carries the hopes of a nation every time he takes guard.

Interestingly, Duncan Fletcher, the current India coach, was in charge of England in 2002 when India played a three-Test series in England. In his superb autobiography Behind The Shades, Fletcher observes, We had noticed that Tendulkar seemed uncomfortable against fast, short-pitched bowling, so we decided to test him out with that, but then suddenly changing to bowling wide outside his off-stump, frustrating him by not bowling to his strength. However, as his 193 at Leeds (the next Test) indicates, it did not always work! If only Fletcher had seen that 1989 interview of Tendulkar!

The proud owner of 100 international centuries (51 in Tests and 49 in ODIs), crafted his first Test hundred at Old Trafford in England in 1990. For a 17-year-old this was a taxing stage. He saw the dismissals of Ravi Shastri, N.S. Sidhu, Sanjay Manjrekar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin and Kapil Dev. The target was 408 and defeat was certain at 183 for six when Manoj Prabhakar joined him. We can do it, he murmured. Of course, we can draw, Prabhakar agreed. He realised his folly immediately. Tendulkar was visualising a chase.

I was amazed. He was thinking of winning when a draw seemed a dream, recalled Prabhakar. Tendulkar went on to score a century and India drew the Test. The parade of centuries had begun that afternoon in Manchester.

It took Tendulkar a year to cross the 100-century mark after having scored his 99th in the 2011 World Cup. During an interaction with the media, he wondered why it took him so long.

When I got to my 100th hundred, I looked at the bat and looked upwards towards God and said, It's been a tough time for me, why? Where did I lack in my commitment?' I was really thrilled and looked at the dressing room and pointed my bat to the players and also to the Indian flag that I have on my helmet. This is what I have done for the nation and everyone has been a part of it.

V.V.S. Laxman looks at Tendulkar's feat in the right perspective. The hunger to score runs at any level is what separates Sachin from the rest. I am delighted that he got his 100th century, which has eluded him for almost a year. It is a mind-boggling feat, considering that he has been playing international cricket for almost 23 years now. We don't normally come across players like him, who, after such a long-standing record, still opt for an optional practice. It shows his commitment and professionalism.

The elegant Australian batsman Mark Waugh once remarked, When you play against Tendulkar, you almost want to see him get a few runs, just to see him bat. How many players would get such a tribute from an opponent? Brian Lara possibly belonged to that class. The West Indian is one of Tendulkar's greatest admirers. He's an excellent player, one of the greatest batsmen of anybody's time. What I like about him is his technique. He's got a great technique and a great appetite for runs. He's very, very special, Lara said in an interview many years later.

His determination to give nothing away has remained special.

I think Tendulkar is the ultimate batsman in terms of technique, ability, intent, analysis and problem-solving, wrote the New Zealand ace Daniel Vettori in his book Turning Point. Who's the best between the recent greats [Ricky] Ponting, Lara and Tendulkar? I think Tendulkar is, he noted.

Tennis' loss?

I can only play cricket, Tendulkar told this writer many years ago even though he secretly visualised himself as a Grand Slam champion. Maybe I could have been a tennis player, he confessed once. But he was born to play cricket, to carry the team on his shoulders, year after year, making a place for himself in the dressing room on the strength of his performance and not just reputation.

To be Tendulkar can be challenging, demanding, strenuous, but not when you happen to possess his kind of passion and determination. He likes to be perfect in every aspect of the game. Perfect in preparation, execution of plans and follow-up.

He has amazing control over his mind when it comes to cricket-related issues. Nothing can shake his resolve. Nothing can compel a change of mind. True, some of his flamboyance in batting may have been missing in recent years, but then the enormous responsibility of seeing the team through has had an impact on his overall approach to the game.

A one-man movement

The former England skipper Nasser Hussain once remarked, He is not driven by money, he is driven by batting. Hussain said Donald Bradman was great, but for me the greatest batsman to have ever played the game is Sachin Tendulkar.

For the former Australian opener Matthew Hayden, Tendulkar is a movement. He has been scrutinised, reflected upon. He is one of the greatest cricketers of all time. Kapil Dev, the World Cup-winning captain, was candid when he assessed Tendulkar's recent form. He was pained at the master struggling to win matches as was his wont. From what we have seen in the last three months, he should have quit soon after India won the World Cup. It's important to know that every cricketer has his time. Having served the country for 22-23 years, there surely is no greater player than him. But he should have announced his decision to retire from the shorter format soon after the World Cup.

"He looked special," recalled Wasim Akram years later, about the first time he saw Tendulkar play, in Pakistan in 1989. "What was striking about him was his timing," observed Imran Khan.-

Kapil triggered a debate, which was set at rest only when Tendulkar made it known that he had no plans to quit just yet. I feel that the retirement decision is something I should [be allowed to] decide because the decision to start was [also] not decided by someone else. Those who are advising me about retirement did not bring me in the team, he said while sharing his thoughts with the media a week ahead of IPL (Indian Premier League) V.

The longevity factor is best explained by Tendulkar. The physios and masseurs are an equal part of my success. A specific innings is when I got that double century [against South Africa] at Gwalior. Before that game I was lying on the physio's table and getting various treatments, and all we were discussing was that let us win the series and then I am going to request the BCCI for a break because I am exhausted and can't even stand on the field. To deal with injuries is not easy, and at my age it becomes difficult. I went to the ground and forgot all about that. When you are focussed, you are willing to reach a destination, of winning that match. After the game we discussed and I was asked do you remember saying please sort out my body'?

After scoring his first 50 in Tests in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in 1989.-

For the youngsters, there cannot be a more striking example than Tendulkar when it comes to commitment.

That he holds his opponents in high esteem was evident when he was asked to name the bowlers who made an impression on him. I can name at least 25. How do you differentiate between Anil Kumble, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Glenn McGrath, Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose? How do you pick among Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis? It's tough. I have respect for all of them.

Old Trafford, Manchester, August 1990: Returning after scoring his maiden Test century. His unbeaten 119 on the fifth day helped India save the Test.-

He makes for compelling viewing. His style is flawless and character unpretentious. It is tough to get him to talk about his batting. He is measured when discussing rivals, critical on a healthy note and very accommodating when it involves youngsters. He remembers his formative years and readily shares his wisdom with the new faces in the dressing room. Nothing can distract him from his goals. They are short-term and realistic.

At the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai with the legendary Australian pace bowler Dennis Lillee.-

It is amazing how cricket continues to captivate Tendulkar. His career has remained free of controversies. Never known to argue with the umpires or get into verbal duels with his opponents on the field, he remains a humble student of the game. No one can be bigger than the game. No one. I have enjoyed a beautiful life because of cricket. It has given me immense joy at every step and I take it as a duty to pay back, Tendulkar has said.

He has come a long way from the ambitious 16-year-old, who had made his first-class debut with a century against Gujarat in 1988. I don't think I need to prove anything right now. I started playing this game because I loved it, I enjoy it. The passion for cricket was there. The dream was to play for India and win the World Cup. I don't think anything can be bigger than that.

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