As the Master Blaster turns 50, a piece by the late S. Dinakar on how the cricketing wonder stole a march over the best batsmen of the world.
Cricket, at the highest level, is very much a mental game and the warriors from Down Under are past masters at winning the battles of the mind. Shane Warne, the great Australian, loves to call it “a little game of chess”.
The Australians knew well before they landed in India for the Test and one-day series that Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar would be their biggest hurdle and the Mumbai ace was, from the beginning, a ‘marked man’. For over two months they looked for a slight chink in his technique, a small flaw in his mental make-up, that little sign of the body saying ‘no’. It was an effort in vain. Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, two of the shrewdest cricketing brains in the business, were up against a man, who, apart from being supremely gifted with the willow, had the strength of mind to carry the burden of expectations on his shoulders.
And that was again the secret behind Tendulkar’s greatest triumph, which followed in Sharjah. When he took guard in the summit clash, less than 44 hours after conjuring up a great one-day hundred to take India into the final, Tendulkar was looked upon by almost every Indian aficionado as the messiah. It was a daunting situation to be in—the media attention that his breathtaking 143 runs in the league game received was unprecedented, and a lesser man, physically and emotionally drained after the effort, would have been overwhelmed by the demands of the occasion. But not this little big cricketer. Tendulkar was an ocean of calmness; he produced another century of stunning brilliance to celebrate his birthday.
At 25, Tendulkar’s achievements are mindboggling—16 hundreds in Tests and 15 in one-day internationals. He has dominated both forms of the game, and if he keeps going in the same vein all records could be broken in the next seven years. Right now he is within striking distance of the West Indian Desmond Haynes’ 17 centuries in one-day internationals.
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The Australians surely will not forget him soon. Tendulkar’s deeds against them this season—1,130 runs from 12 innings in both forms of cricket at an astounding average of 113—have now become part of cricketing folklore. And incidentally, the greatest tribute to Tendulkar came from an Australian, the incomparable Sir Donald Bradman, who said, “He plays very much as I played.” It means that the world will look at Tendulkar with a sense of awe.
Following Tendulkar’s exploits in Sharjah, Australian skipper Steve Waugh remarked, “Take out Don and he has to be the best.” The significance of what the tough-as-nails Steve said cannot be ignored as he is someone who chooses his words very carefully.
Shane Warne, who, with 313 Test wickets, is the most successful spin bowler in Test cricket, and whose duel with Sachin was awaited with great anticipation, confessed: “I’ll be going to bed having nightmares of Sachin just running down the wicket and belting me back over the head for a six. I don’t think anyone, besides Don Bradman, is in the same class as Tendulkar.” Cricket might be a game of chess for Warne, but this time around Tendulkar made all the right moves.
Old-timers see a similarity in the manner in which both Bradman and Tendulkar execute the pull shot; getting into position early and then striking the ball, forward of square, with explosive power. Tendulkar says he has “his own game’ but feels honoured to be compared with the great Don.
While matching Bradman’s record of 6,996 runs from 52 Tests at an average of 99.94 (29 hundreds) is well near impossible for any modern batsman, it is the manner in which Tendulkar goes about his job, his physical similarity with Bradman (both are short, powerful men), his wide array of strokes, the speed of his run-making and the ruthlessness he shows towards bowlers that have evoked comparisons between the two.
The characteristic features of Tendulkar’s batting are his balance (head still, feet firmly in position, body-weight evenly distributed), ability to determine the line and length of the ball a shade earlier than most others, timing, power, felicity of either foot, capacity to adapt to the situation and innovate. Above all, he possesses something vitally important to perform on the big stage—courage.
If Tendulkar today has stolen a march over Brian Lara, Mark Waugh, and Aravinda de Silva to be called the ‘best batsman in the world,’ it is as much a tribute to his never-say-die spirit as to his talent. He was just 16 when he was up against a fiery Waqar Younis on a green Sialkot wicket. He was hit, there was blood on the pitch, yet Tendulkar refused assistance, waving off the Indian physio at the time, Dr. Ali Irani. Even at that young age, he had the heart of a champion.
Tendulkar’s 119 runs on a bouncy wicket in Perth, Australia, in 1992, a knock he treasures, reveals his combative instincts. Even as other Indian batsmen found life difficult against the lifting ball, he decided to meet fire with fire. The Aussie pace attack led by Craig McDermott was dismissed ruthlessly by Tendulkar, with the punched drive off the back-foot fetching him a lot of runs. It was a knock that showed that it would only be a matter of time before he would take his place among the kings of the game.
How do other great contemporary batsmen compare with Tendulkar?
With the highest individual scores in Test and first-class cricket (375 and 501 respectively) to his credit, Lara would mount the biggest challenge to Tendulkar for the title of the “best batsman in the world.” But Lara has not been too consistent of late. The Trinidadian had a highly forgettable tour of Pakistan where he made just 129 runs (average 21.5) from six Test innings even as the West Indies suffered a humiliating 0-3 defeat. But then Lara has always struggled on the pitches of the subcontinent; he did not enjoy the tour of India in 1994-95.
Lara recovered to have a good run against England this year, but the big scores eluded him. Unlike Tendulkar, who has no obvious weaknesses, Lara does give the bowlers more than a hint of a chance and there have been times when he was ‘sorted out’. Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath adopted the strategy of bowling around the wicket to the lefthander in the 1996-97 series Down Under with considerable success; Lara was often cramped for space as he shaped to drive on the off-side. He has also had his problems against quality leg-spin; Mushtaq Ahmed troubled him no end in Pakistan.
But despite these setbacks, Lara still averages 51.12 from 91 Test innings and Tendulkar would have to watch carefully over his shoulders.
With seven Test hundreds in 1997 and an equally outstanding run in the one-dayers, Aravinda De Silva would have been a serious contender to Tendulkar but for one problem; the bulk of De Silva’s runs in the last two years have come in the subcontinent.
The Sri Lankan found the going tough in New Zealand in 1997, where there was plenty of lateral movement for the seamers, and struggled to find his touch in the recent series against South Africa, tending to play too many shots against the moving ball. On the Australian tour of 1995-96 too De Silva could not produce the scores expected of him. While he is too talented a stroke-maker to be dismissed as an Asian Tiger, his record in these countries in the Southern hemisphere certainly merits improvement.
Mark Waugh is an easy rider galloping on his enormous skills, and in the past 16 months he has been there to help out Australia at important moments. His series-clinching hundred on a green Port Elizabeth wicket was a classic in every sense of the term. His centuries in Sydney against South Africa and in Bangalore were match-winning efforts, while his hundred in Adelaide was a match-saving one even as the Proteas moved in for the kill on the final day. Mark’s Test average of 43.13 from 128 innings is far below Tendulkar’s, though.
Steve Waugh has an impressive Test average of 48.72 from 162 Test innings. He reserves his best for crunch situations, but cannot dominate an attack in the manner of Tendulkar, quite the most important requisite when one talks about the best batsman in the world.
Tendulkar has made runs under all conditions—the bouncy wickets of Australia, the seaming tracks of South Africa, the swinging ball in England, and the double-paced pitches of the West Indies—and he has put fear into the bowlers.
He has set such high standards for himself that even relative failures often get magnified. Although as captain Tendulkar made 1,195 runs in 17 Tests (average 45.96) and 1,739 runs in 54 one-day internationals (average 37), there were murmurs about his losing form.
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Indeed, the last five months have seen Tendulkar going the whole gamut; as skipper he did not get the men he wanted, he was removed from the top job, and he suffered the humiliation of the selectors asking him not to open the innings. He has put all that behind him now, and his batting has once again blossomed under the captaincy of Mohammed Azharuddin.
While Tendulkar should rightfully receive a major share of the credit for India’s triumph in Sharjah, the contributions from the graceful blades of Saurav Ganguly, who made a vital century in the league game against New Zealand, and Azharuddin should not be forgotten. Azhar’s typically stylish 58 in the final was a gem, a captain’s knock.
Right now there is something magical about everything Tendulkar does on the field—be it his match-winning spell of bowling in Kochi where he sent down a delightful mix of leg-breaks and off-spin that left the Aussies shell-shocked, or his running like a hare between the wickets, or his returns from the deep with unerring accuracy. Tendulkar the cricketer can be aptly described as “ a natural winner”.
(This piece was first published in the issue dated May 22, 1998.)