Sachin's feat

Print edition : April 11, 2003

Sachin receives the Man of the Tournament award from Sir Garfield Sobers. - ANTONY NJUGUNA/REUTERS

In a fitting tribute to the master batsman, Sachin Tendulkar was adjudged Man of the Tournament at the ICC Cricket World Cup, 2003.

NELSON PARK is a strikingly pretty practice facility adjacent to the McClean Stadium, the chief cricketing venue in Napier. And it was a day of glorious sunshine, with the light bouncing off the green grass, a cool breeze blowing across the ground, and lovely mountains in the backdrop making the setting even more spectacular.

But things were not so bright for the beleaguered Indians on their tour of New Zealand just before the World Cup. They were outplayed 0-2 in the Test series by Stephen Fleming's men and had gone down in a tight finish in a low-scoring thriller in Auckland, the first of the seven-match one-day series. Clearly, this was crunch time.

Even as the Indians went about their net session, Sachin Tendulkar lay in a make-shift bench behind the nets, his sprained right ankle strapped, and physio Andrew Leipus beside him. Ater a while, he kept his right foot down and grimaced in pain.

The maestro had suffered the injury while bowling at the nets ahead of the first one day international (ODI) , and this marked a huge threat to India's chances. The Indian team management could not take any chances with Tendulkar, ahead of the World Cup.

Whispered affable Indian coach John Wright: "You know, we need Sachin to be fit and firing in the World Cup." Hors de combat, Tendulkar's mind was clearly trained on the premier one-day competition.

Sachin did not return for the Napier game, but came back for the last three ODIs of that disastrous tour, struggled to find his touch and timing on seaming pitches with bounce. His footwork was tentative, and his shot selection awry. But, the World Cup would witness a very different Tendulkar.

There is much talk about Tendulkar's breathtaking repertoire of strokes, his footwork and his balance, yet the strongest aspect of his batsmanship is the man's enormous strength of mind.

It is this self-belief and the desire to conquer, that shone through as he walked up to collect the Man of the Tournament award from the Caribbean legend, Sir Garfield Sobers.

Yet, Tendulkar would have swapped this ultimate individual award, for the World Cup winner's medal. Indeed, the disappointment on his visage was all too visible.

The mammoth Aussie score of 359 meant that he would have to fire straightaway, forcing him to pull a delivery not quite short in length from pace predator Glenn McGrath. Tendulkar's departure was the defining moment of the summit clash.

Sachin Tendulkar scores off Kenys's Collins Obuya in the semi-final at Kingsmead, Durban.-V.V. KRISHNAN

For the most part, World Cup 2003 had been an exhilarating journey for the Mumbai genius and the Indian team, even if the final proved to be a let-down in terms of providing competitive fare. And Tendulkar was very much the inspiration at the top of the order.

Indian captain Sourav Ganguly deserves praise for unselfishly vacating the opening slot for Tendulkar. In fact, ahead of the World Cup, there was considerable speculation about Tendulkar's batting position.

Slotting Tendulkar in the middle-order was a conscious decision that was made by the team management in a bid to provide the middle-order more solidity. With Sehwag running hot over the past 12 months, the feeling was that he and Ganguly would be the ideal right-left combination, with the team having the additional cover of Tendulkar trooping out at No.4.

The switch did make sense, since the Indian team has often reeled under the psychological impact of losing Tendulkar early. And the ploy worked well in the NatWest triangular competition in England, where Tendulkar sparkled, holding the innings together in the middle-overs, and then accelerating towards the finish.

However, when the cricket caravan moved to Colombo for the ICC Champion's Trophy, Tendulkar, who had been suffering a minor slump in form, expressed a desire to open the innings during a press conference. Ganguly averred that the team came first, not individuals.

Ganguly himself had shown flexibility in his approach, surfacing in the middle-order in the summit clash against Sri Lanka, the idea being to take on Muttiah Muralitharan's off-spin. There were two reasons for this Ganguly can strike the spinners out of the ground, and Murali, surprisingly, does not operate too well against southpaws.

This clearly suggested that Ganguly was not rigid in his methods. However, he had reservations about Tendulkar reverting to the opening slot, keeping in mind the balance of the line-up.

There were murmurs of differences between the skipper and the great batsman, and the issue was played up by certain sections of the media. Both Ganguly and Tendulkar have only the interest of Indian cricket at heart, and a conflict, if at all there was any, was only regarding what they felt was best for the side. In other words, there was nothing `personal' here.

Tendulkar missed the seven ODIs at home, when India took on Carl Hooper's Caribbeans, due to a hamstring injury. Then, on the forgettable tour of New Zealand, he was undone by an ankle sprain during the limited overs contests. When he flew into South Africa, along with the Indian team he had played only three of India's last 14 ODIs.

It had become evident that Tendulkar should be back in the opening slot. On the juicy surfaces in New Zealand, where Ganguly's form suffered, the pacemen were able to make the early inroads, and the side did miss the solidity of Tendulkar at the beginning of the innings; his sheer presence can have a demoralising effect on bowlers with the new ball.

Even as the team went into the practice games before the big event, the signals from the team management were unclear; there were signs that Tendulkar might bat at No 3. To his credit, Ganguly agreed to Tendulkar opening the innings again; this is what actually set up the maestro for the Man of the Tournament award.

From a psychological standpoint, the idea made sense. Tendulkar wanted to be at the top of the order, and, knowing how proud a cricketer he is, he would only be too keen to prove a point.

In fact, at the beginning of the competition, it was Ganguly who partnered Tendulkar, reviving a vastly successful combination. Tendulkar began with a circumspect 52 against the Netherlands. Against the feared Aussie attack at Centurion he did essay some pleasing strokes in front of the wicket before shuffling across to Jason Gillespie and paying the price. Yet, there was enough promise in that innings of 36 to suggest better things were in store.

Indeed, the maestro's disciplined 81 on a sluggish Harare pitch before he was castled by a left-arm spinner's dream delivery from Grant Flower, his strokeful 152 at the expense of minnows Namibia at Peitmaritzburg, and a 50 of stunning brilliance against England at Kingsmead, where he subjected the pace pair of Andrew Caddick and James Anderson to a savage attack, revealed the kind of mood he was in.

Although the pitch at Durban was slow, Tendulkar had begun to enjoy his cricket, an ominous sign for the bowlers. Whenever Tendulkar frees his hands with a free mind, he moves into a different plane altogether; he was a clear and present danger to Pakistan when the Asian giants clashed in Centurion in a high-voltage duel.

He cut loose against Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar and Waqar Younis after Pakistan set a challenging target of 274. It was an onslaught whose memories will last a lifetime. The occasion was huge, and Tendulkar by now he had Virender Sehwag as his partner whipped up magic, launching into the Pakistani pacemen with those booming drives, rasping flicks, whiplash pulls, and sizzling cuts, his quick eye enabling him to pick the line a shade earlier, his wonderful timing sending the ball racing to the pickets.

Mentally, he dominated the Pakistanis, never allowed the quicks to settle into a rhythm, and such was the pace of his run-making (98 off 75 balls), that the little man, knocked Waqar's men out of the game. India was in a pressure situation when it began the pursuit. However, once Tendulkar started rolling, all the heat appeared to be on Pakistan.

This is the advantage of possessing an aggressive opener; even in the event of a middle-order collapse, the side can always recover because of the runs that were gathered at a hectic pace earlier. Such was Tendulkar's blitzkreig that Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh, despite a mini-collapse, were able to guide the side home without resorting to risks. Tendulkar did waltz at the Centurion that day.

In the Super Six, where India faced off with the Lankans at the Wanderers, Tendulkar handled the swing of Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan's off-spin, with panache. However, he once again fell short of a hundred, by three runs.

During his cleverly compiled 83 against Kenya in the semi-final at Kingsmead, he revealed how well he could adjust to a slow surface. In the final, the odds were loaded against him, after the Aussies got to a big score, and he went down as a brave soldier would.

Nevertheless, his fourth World Cup has been a brilliant one - dotted by a century and six half-centuries. In the process, he surpassed Pakistani giant Javed Miandad's record figure of 1,083 for most runs in the World Cup. Tendulkar played with the desire, commitment, heart and the genius of a champion.

As Man of the Tournament, he had 14 points; Ganguly was his closest challenger with 10 points, which included three centuries. One would have to acknowledge the remarkable performances from pacemen Chaminda Vaas and Brett Lee, two contrasting bowlers, one relying on late swing and the other on brute pace.

But then, Tendulkar it was, who was the most influential figure of the 2003 World Cup, even if the awesome Australians deprived him and his team the final triumph. Maybe, four years from now, he will still be around when the Indians have another tilt at the glory that has eluded them since 1983.

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