So, there’s a T20 cricket tournament on, and there are hot women in cheerleader costumes gyrating to Bollywood songs on set. And there are whirlwind centuries being made by the likes of C.H.Gayle and S.R.Watson, bucketfuls of wickets being taken by the likes of J.P.Faulkner and A.Mishra and am sure physics-defying catches by the likes of K.Pollard.
With the torrent of games, the various team colours all merge into one psychedelic blob and it’s impossible to track who’s done what to the extent that it takes the fastest ever century in the history of the game to emerge from the humdrum to make a splash. Ask any “die-hard” fan about what are Virat Kohli’s scores over the course of the tournament and I’d guarantee a blank look followed by an angry bellow of “RCB!” I doubt most players, especially the internationals are losing sleep over their team’s lackluster performance in an environment that’s more exhibition than serious competition.
But seems there’s one constant in it all, unblinking scrutiny of Tendulkar’s batting. I’m guessing he’s scored about as many runs in the tournament so far as Gayle probably scored in his lowest scoring game, before taking guard.
Going by the facebook and twitter feed updates, he’s been looking like a creaking octogenarian, with a walking stick for a bat, blindfolded. And that’s probably a generous description.
Some hilarious takes on Tendulkar’s performance…
Even Messi knows when it is time to sit out. Unlike some certain aila people aila in aila other aila sports aila in aila India.
— Apropos of Nothing (@sidin) May 1, 2013
Is it time Barcelona retires from all forms of the game? #ImportantQuestions
— Sidvee (@sidvee) May 1, 2013
— Apropos of Nothing (@sidin) May 1, 2013
— Raving Shastri (@donbratman) May 1, 2013
All great people are charitable. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet gift the money they earned, Tendulkar gifts his wicket and reputation.
— Oculus (@daddy_san) May 1, 2013
Now, this is NOT a “jump to Sachin’s defense” kinda post, lord knows I’ve done enough of those on this blog. This is more a sense of wonderment about the hold he has had on us, and still continues to. I’ve followed the above gentlemen on twitter for a while because of their takes on, on sports and other topics, often wrapped in sparkling satire. Overall, hold them in high regard.
Now, without having seen nearly any IPL games, am sure his batting must be way below the standards of even competent openers in this format. Am also sure there are umpteen other underperformers strewn about and his failures are probably not even impacting his team all that much anymore. So, really, Tendulkar’s failures should ‘rationally’ get about as much airtime as those of a Yuvraj or an Utthappa. And yet, there is so much passive aggressiveness in the comments I come across, still fixating on his performance. Like cranky old men muttering their disapproval of the weather, the noisy neighbourhood kids, the universe.
I suspect this is a trait shared by those of our generation, the one that grew up watching Tendulkar bat in a time when India would be 12/3 in their 2nd innings by the time they cleared immigration on foreign tours. And I think the sly comments are a withdrawal from a decade and a half of rushing home to TV sets to look for his easily identifiable frame to be at one end before exhaling or acknowledging family members.
The fix of watching a Tendulkar rearguard was a powerful one and over time, even as the team needed it less and less, we, the 90′s viewer generation didn’t quite wean ourselves off. So, in a world, where the Kohlis, Pujaras, Dhonis fittingly take center stage, we still peek to check on Tendulkar’s score and let loose with a tirade about “why doesn’t he go away”. Or like the wittier among us, tweet satirically.
We didn’t have a television when he played his 1989 debut series in Pakistan. Scores suggest none of the matches came close to a result, with 28 being the highest number of wickets falling in the 1st test match of the series. Going by the high-strung emotion I remember experiencing in the ODI contests of the mid-90′s, one can imagine the pressure both teams must have played under in India-Pakistan cricket matches. The fact that Imran was “unhappy” with the drawn series while Srikkanth was “delighted” probably points to the superiority of the Pakistan test team. For India, the series belonged to S Manjrekar with 569 runs at an astounding average of 95 with a double-hundred, 1 hundred and 3 fifties.
Making his debut at 16 years 205 days and batting at #6, Tendulkar had a modest beginning with 215 runs in his debut series, at an average of 36 with 2 fifties.
Although I have no memory of it, apparently, the folks watched on our black & white Dyanora TV when he became the 2nd youngest by 30 days at 17 years 112 days to score a century at Old Trafford. This time, the batsman for India in the series was M Azharuddin with 426 runs at 85.2, 2 big hundreds and 1 fifty. Until the innings in Manchester, mentions of his name were more to do with his young age than his batting, Manjrekar, Azharuddin and Vengsarkar getting more of the mention, so much so that he was given the role of third seamer after India were thrashed at Lords.
The buildup to the 1991-92 tour of Australia was when his aggressive shot-making was mentioned for the first time. The overarching theme was, as usual, that of Indians as poor travellers who were unlikely to challenge Border’s Australians as he became the most capped test match player. The century at Old Trafford had got people’s attention and he had gone from being a young batsman to “Gavaskar’s successor” in the matter of one season. And he delivered. This was the first time he was India’s most successful batsman in a series, with 368 runs at an average of 46, that included that innings at Perth to go with the 148* at Sydney.
By the time, the 1991-92 Australia series ended, the words “prized wicket“, were ascribed to him for the first time. A tag that the most dominant team of the generation kept in place for the best part of the next two decades.
Concurrent to the test series, he’d started rolling them off in the ODIs as well, one of his fifties taking India to the Benson & Hedges World Series final. He scored 7 other half-centuries between the Benson & Hedges World Series and the World Cup combined on the 91-92 tour of Australia, for an aggregate of 684 runs at an average of 46, nearly 15 runs an innings more than the rest of the batsmen.
The ’91-92 tour of Australia was when he went from “reasonably-known prospect” to “flag-bearer for a country’s self-esteem”. It was as simple and abrupt as that.
Since that tour, I cannot recall a match, ODI or Test, where he didn’t carry the brunt of expectation, probably greater than that of the other playing 10, put together. Interestingly, it took until the 1994 New Zealand tour for the world to get a taste of his explosive batting in ODIs at the top of the order. Filling in for an injured Sidhu at the top of the order, chasing 143 to win, Sachin scored 82 in 42 balls and the rest, as they say, is Tendulkar.
From there, the aura surrounding him only grew brighter as an inconsistent team was guaranteed at least a few strokes of brilliance (pun intended), no matter what the conditions, or quality of opposition. In our eyes, the cricket-hungry Indian viewers, he became Superman and Mr. Dependable rolled into one. Impregnable in defense, Destructive in attack, rock-solid yet entertaining, that’s what we expected from Tendulkar. Every innings.
All across India, from the mid-90s to the early 2000′s, the routine was identical. People hurrying home from schools, colleges and workplaces, bursting into their homes to breathlessly scan the upper right of their television screens, searching for that all important number to the right of the “/”. If it read anything but “0″, there would be a frantic visual search on the television screen for the familiar short-statured wide-legged stance at the striker’s end or the hand-on-hip, body weight resting on bat-handle at the non-striker’s end. If found, it didn’t matter if it was 14/3, a long slow relieved breath would be expelled. As the customary set of commercials faded into the live picture, filling the room with the buzz of the crowd replaced by absolute stillness, as the bowler ran in. Then, a sharp intake as a delivery passed him, perilously close to the bat’s edge. The sharpest intakes were reserved for when the ball swung in to thud into the lightweight polyurethane pads and the bowlers and fielders went up in appeal.
If ardent prayers to various gods were to show up as server traffic on some divine network management dashboard , the biggest spikes would coincide with every appeal against Sachin Tendulkar.
Even my mother, a person incapable of thinking a negative thought about any person in the wide world, would darkly comment on nefarious intentions of the fielding team, that was “unfairly putting pressure on the umpire with their loud appeals”. Then, a delivery would stray down middle or leg ever so slightly, the trademark right glove turning over left on the bat handle, not so much hitting, as just redirecting the ball, to the square leg boundary. Crowds, those at the ground, those at home, erupt. Camera closes on Tendulkar, haring back for the second run, slowing down to watch the ball cross the boundary rope, the quick nod of the helmeted head, with the miniature tri-colour pasted on it, as he surveys the field before going through the most recognizable set of movements in world cricket before taking guard again.
If there existed an implicit measure of “Gross National Hopefulness”, for India, it was highest in those moments, when Sachin was at the crease, looking in solid touch with a couple of imperious boundaries behind him, the crowd surging in anticipation, seeking to be reassured by the resounding crack of his MRF adorned blade.
The difficulty of the task ahead was irrelevant. The quality of the opposition’s bowlers was irrelevant. For the 3rd most populous country in the world, every Sachin innings was like watching a big-budget Hollywood production of a Marvel Comics superhero. He had to prevail. Top class quick bowlers? Wrist spinners? Ball not coming on? Wickets going down in a heap at the other end? It did not matter. The script said he would prevail. He did, many a time. Except when he didn’t. And then for us, it was like a stoner coming off his high. Until the next match, and the next fix. He did a darn good job of delivering, in hindsight, so good that he got taken for granted. When numbers 1 and 2 were expected to not last longer than the first 30 minutes and didn’t make it past 10, Tendulkar had to stand firm. We would laud the lesser men with the same job description as him, just for getting into double-figures, while anything short of complete domination by India’s talisman, was failure. As the bar dropped on those he shared the dressing room with, we kept raising it for him. We were crushed when he didn’t surpass our ridiculous expectations, aggrieved at being let down.
Then reinforcements started arriving. First in support roles. His batting seemed to get a 2nd wind as he played with the free-stroking abandon of his early days. Then the mantle seemed to shift as the Indian team finally came of age, winning overseas with little contribution from the MRF blade. Of course, it took mammoth team efforts, just like was always required in a team sport. But the training wheels were finally off. And with it, the fervent dependence of the Indian cricket fan on Sachin Tendulkar.
And as the likes of Sehwag and Kohli laid into attacks, it became acceptable to do the unthinkable, to call out a Tendulkar dismissal for poor footwork. For cricket writers to even none-too-subtly call for Sachin to hang it up.
Rather than defend or counter any of the several and growing number of arguments, rather than being ungracious enough to actually pretend to understand what goes through a champion’s head, rather than to think I can differentiate between a few misjudged deliveries and slowing reflexes, rather than venture an opinion on when he should quit. For every square drive played at the top of the bounce, for every imperious punch down the ground, for every dance down the track sending the ball over long on, for every skipped heartbeat, sharp intake of breath, rapturous delight and for even for every heartbreak, the line that, for me, will capture the essence of Tendulkar’s batting, now and always, that byline on that print ad I saw all those years ago in a sports store: “When Sachin bats, all else…is irrelevant“
Image copyright Getty Images
On one side of the world, Ricky Ponting, the last of “The Invincibles”, called it a day and the South Africans quietly attained what they have looked good for, almost ever since they re-entered international cricket. On the other side, a constantly improving English side have finally exhausted every excuse that the delusional Indians threw at them and beat them on poorly prepared surfaces euphemistically called “rank turners”.
Irrespective of what ICC “rankings” say, the two best Test sides in the world by a distance are South Africa and England. Australia now is a distant 3rd with the rest bunching together in a pack further back with little to separate them. While it might be too much to expect either of those sides to dominate world cricket like the Australians used to, the English have the balance to outplay most other sides on current form.
A whole-body CT scan of world cricket today would highlight India as a candidate for the ICU. The statistics aren’t necessarily the giveaway. Since the start of 2009, India has won 11 of 18 home test matches and 6 of 22 away test matches. This isn’t drastically worse than how they have fared in the past. It is the nature of the wins and losses that indicate the problem. The losses have been one-sided and the home wins have come largely on tracks that were embarrassingly underprepared. With the current England series, the shortcut methods have finally backfired against the unlikeliest opponent, traditionally, the worst players of spin bowling. In balance, India now has the worst fielding side, an average pace bowling attack, a below-average spin-bowling attack and a perennially underperforming batting lineup.
Hardly surprising given how the BCCI hasn’t even tried to disguise its lack of interest in the traditional format as it has directed all efforts toward sustaining the IPL. With bits and pieces players becoming flavours of the month based on 8 and 12 ball innings, there are no batsmen pushing for places in a format that requires more than the attention span of a goldfish. Slow bowlers, mis-classified as spinners see more dividends from perfecting darts than understanding the vagaries of flight and drift. A few promising quick bowlers have emerged, but with the national captain publicly demanding turning crumbling tracks, there is little incentive for them to stick around long enough to learn their craft instead of adapting to reduce pace and introduce variations.
The irony is that with the resources and time diverted to the shortest format, India’s T20 performances since the first world cup, make the inaugural tournament win out to be a fluke. In retrospect, Misbah’s poor shot judgment in that final leading to an Indian win could’ve been the worst thing that has happened to Indian cricket.
Batsmen walk out into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the lifelong anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit their visored saviour. Wednesday or Friday, Tendulkar lifts his gleaming bat, points it like a sword towards the TV cameras after his customary hundred, and a million hands go up in blessing; and in begging, pleading silently for redemption from the oppressive reality of their existence; seeking a moment’s liberation from their India-bondage through the exhilarating grace of one accidental bat. One billion hard-pressed Indians. Just one hero…
The poor Indian lifts his hands to Sachin Tendulkar in supplication: give us respite, a sense of liberation; lift us up from the dark pit of our lives to well-lit places of the imagination with your skill-wrought perfections. Give us an idea of what a light thing life ought to be. Take our blessings; but give is a break. Please win. Win for us losers.
-Excerpt from an article titled “Would you be like to be reborn an Indian?” – C.P.Surendran (The Sunday Times of India – 26th April 1998)
Future historians and those born after the mid-nineties will be flummoxed by the unhealthy deification of merely a sportsperson.
Some sense can be made from the points put forth in Ramachandra Guha’s ‘A corner of a foreign field‘, the above excerpt has been sourced from the same book.
“Sporting nationalism has always been most intense where there is a general feeling of insecurity and inferiority…the ruthless rout of the English in the 1898 Ashes campaign, has done, more to enhance the cause of Australian nationalism than could ever be achieved by miles of erudite essays and impassioned appeals.”
Whether true or false, imagine being anointed as the personification of pride for any set of people, let alone a country of 1 Billion. Blows your mind.
A true pitch. A reasonably quick bowler. A short of length. The batsman rocks back, stands tall, the toe of the bat starts a scything arc from fine leg, moving parallel to the ground, gathering speed as it meets the ball in front of the batsman’s chest and carries on to complete the arc at square leg. Resounding crack of bat on ball as the ball goes speeding through square leg, past the boundary.
Living and watching cricket in the subcontinent, while having enjoyed some of the most ridiculously talented wristy batsmen to ever play, I’ve always felt malnourished when it comes to great back foot batting. Most good length bowling would arrive at the batsman, barely thigh high, well placed for the efficient clips off the waist that most batsman are good at. For me, when there was bounce on a surface, the kind where a ball not pitched quite short passes the batsman above waist height, the equation seemed to change. Like paddling a raft on a docile little stream that had turned into a raging foaming level 5 beast of a river. Adjustments needed to be made, the lunging front foot needed to be recalled post-haste, the weight even had to go on the toes as the batsman tried to tame the additional dimension of the bounce.
And when there was bounce, there was always, to my uneducated eyes, one batsman who looked at home.
Who looked like his technique was built, to take on bowlers looking to get the ball chest and shoulder high. Decisive. Aggressive. Majestic. RT Ponting.
Contemptuously dismissive of any half-hearted attempts at bouncers, rarely ducking out of the way, sometimes swaying out but always evaluating the possibility of sending the ball into orbit. Even his forward defensives were purposeful, with a large stride and some back lift, almost like a boxer looking, then aborting a punch, while looking for the next opening. He has had his problems early on, the most documented, the tendency to plant his front foot and bring his bat around it to the ball coming in, making him vulnerable to the LBW. Past that, you rarely watched the clock on a Ponting innings, a stream of punchy strokes, both sides of the wicket, front and back foot.
Perspective is a funny thing. Mostly it helps add depth to our understanding of an event or person. For example, Andy Flower’s test match average of 51.54 while impressive in itself, takes on heroic proportions considering the side he played in. Sometimes though, too much of it crowds out what should be fairly simple. He played and even lead most of his career in juggernaut-like Australian sides, only to preside over their decline, poetically heralded by a quick bowler hitting him on the grill and drawing blood. His abilities as captain, have been criticized, as the team struggled to find its new normal. But all of that only obscures the batsman that he has been. And that is one of the most entertaining batsmen to have ever played this game, especially, off the back foot.
If a dramatic rendition of cricket were to be set up with a hulking brute of a fast bowler, menacing look on his face, steam escaping from his nostrils, pawing the ground in anticipation before thundering towards the crease to bowl short thunderbolts, Ponting would be facing, and the crowd behind deep square leg would be fetching.
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This wasn’t in the script. The series was supposed to be deadlocked at 1-1 with 1 to play or even 2-1 in India’s favor going into Adelaide. The top 6 were to have fired, with a couple of Sehwag cameos and big hundreds from the big 3. The Indian media was supposed to be working itself into a frenzy over a series win and potential retirement announcements. Instead, the media is working itself into a frenzy over “the obviously over-the-hill players blocking the path of the shining new stars of India’s test-batting”.
The likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma should savor this. They will never again see such effusive and confident assertions of their potential.
In a way, it is comforting to see sport not being obsequious to the occasion. Gorging on an inexperienced bowling attack bowling ineptly would hardly add to the legacy that is Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. Instead, a feisty attack has bowled good lengths and the batsmen have paid the price for being lackadaisical in their footwork. They will know this better than any of the experts dissecting their videos.
- For Dravid and Laxman, there might be the realization that the reflexes aren’t firing the way they used to, that judgment of length and line is taking that fraction of a second longer resulting in an inability to cover for movement after pitching
- Maybe Tendulkar is letting it sink in that its getting harder to concentrate for long periods of time and the lazy false shot is increasing in frequency
That said, any writer is about as qualified to make these guesses as they are to pilot the space shuttle.
Adelaide will be the last test they’ll play in Australia. While a 4-0 result would be a likely and apt representation of the series, the flattest track in Australia should put thoughts of at least one final commanding innings in each of their minds. They need to think back to times when more than one top-class bowler has stood, hands on hips, a weary expression on his face as the ball has whizzed to the boundary. When their technique has looked impenetrable, their shot selection, immaculate.
There is this scene in the 1998 movie “Man in the iron mask” based on the three musketeers and their failed attempt at replacing the tyrannical Louis XIV with his twin brother. After their attempt fails, the 3 slightly “past-their-prime” warriors break into the castle to rescue the imprisoned brother. After some helter skelter running the three are cornered in a little cul-de-sac in the palace, with the royal guard covering them on all sides. After summarizing their situation as hopeless, D’artagnan says “If we must die, let it be like this…” as he holds his sword, tip on the floor in the center of the circle formed by his comrades. A brief pause ensues as his old friends realize what he means and place their own swords in the circle. A moment later they raise their swords, let out a blood-curdling war cry and charge the regiment arrayed against them. The captain of the regiment, a student of D’artagnan himself sees the charging musketeers, says quietly, almost to himself “What magnificent valor!“.
Adelaide 2012. Fluent stroke-filled 100s for Tendulkar and Laxman and a typically stodgy, “I’m not getting out come hell or high water” 100 from Dravid.
“What magnificent valor!”
They owe it, not to us, but to themselves. At least that’s what my script says.
Western Australian Cricket Association. No other venue in test cricket evokes the buzz that this serene looking ground, situated in probably the most isolated big city in the world does. Cricket writers suddenly turn war correspondents using phrases like “lethal”, “pace battery” in describing what’s in store for batsmen. Talk of “all-pace attacks” start to do the rounds. Cricinfo posted a picture 2 days before the game with the curator crouched in front of what looked a section of the outfield but was in fact the playing surface.
Relative newcomers to the game would be forgiven in thinking that maybe the ground had been built on an old improperly cleared minefield.
A cursory look at two numbers puts things in perspective. In 38 test matches at the WACA, 1234 wickets have fallen, 32.5 wickets / test match at an average of 32.58 runs per wicket. In comparison, at the innocuous sounding Wankhede in Mumbai, 725 wickets have fallen in 22 tests (33 wickets / game) at an average of 29.58 runs per wicket.
Hard bouncy surfaces are not the stuff of nightmares for good batsmen, and the Indian lineup is a good one, make no mistake. The ball coming on to the bat with true bounce on a fast outfield should get more than a couple of the batsmen thinking “big-daddy hundreds” as R Shastri likes to call them. Batsmen can play back to fuller length deliveries knowing that the ball will still arc over the stumps should they miss the line. That said, seam bowlers have the luxury of knowing that any edges will carry to the slips and can afford to bowl a fuller length while still hitting the shoulder of the bat.
What can unravel visiting teams is uncertain footwork from batsmen standing and hanging their bats and bowlers pitching too short. The Indian team will do well to block out the hype surrounding the nature of the pitch and just play the ball instead of the tons of newsprint. What will be harder for India is to get the likes of Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma to bowl a full length, which with a hint of seam or swing can be incisive.
With 31 results in 38 test matches, one thing is certain. There is no place for timid defensive cricket at the WACA.