(‘Don’s Century’ is a book on the cricket career and life of Don Bradman, paying tribute to him in 2008, the year of his birth centenary. It is also a panorama of batting from the 1860s onwards featuring 35 of the greatest batsmen and discussing whether Don Bradman was indeed the greatest of them all).
With the spread of the One-day game, wickets got flatter and conducive for batting. Moreover, with the covering of the wickets from the late seventies onwards, the ‘sticky dog’ was put in the kennel, leaving batsmen more secure. Better protective gear, including more refined helmets with grills, gave greater confidence to batsmen. More and more batsmen began scoring freely in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the present one, and like the 1920s and 1930s, averages in the 50s are not a rarity. This is not a reference to any particular batsman, or batsmen, but a general observation, for there are several top-class batsmen on the scene today.
Of these, Sachin Tendulkar has been around the longest, and is perhaps the most debated since Bradman. The Don himself in that famous interview to Sydney’s Channel Nine television network in May 1996, paid Tendulkar the ultimate accolade as he said, “I asked my wife to come and have a look at him because I said, I never saw myself play, but I feel this fellow is playing very much the same as I used to. She had a look at him on television and she said yes there is a similarity between the two.” In the same programme, the then Australian captain Mark Taylor observed that Tendulkar was “probably the closest at the moment to the perfect player. Beautiful straight bat, takes his time if he has to, can be explosive if he needs to be, a very good all round player.”
A child prodigy, Tendulkar scored hundreds on debut in all three of India’s first-class competitions, at fifteen years of age, in the Ranji Trophy for Bombay versus Gujarat at Mumbai in 1988-89; in the Irani Trophy for Rest of India pitted opposite Delhi at Mumbai in 1989-90; and in the Duleep Trophy for West Zone against East Zone at Guwahati in 1990-91. At 16 years 201 days, he became the youngest Indian to make his Test debut, against Pakistan at Karachi in 1989-90, and at 17 years and 212 days, the youngest Indian to score a Test century, against England at Manchester in 1990. By 1991-92, during the arduous tour of Australia, Tendulkar became India’s best Test batsman at 18 years. In 1993-94 he secured his position as the country’s no. 1 in the One-dayers as well when, asked to open, he was explosive in the series in New Zealand, and continued in the same vein thereafter. Soon he was rated the best in the world along with Brian Lara. That was all by the time he was 21.
During the first stage of his career, till the winter of 2000-01, Tendulkar wanted to dominate the bowlers. He wished to show that he was the boss. Fast bowlers did not worry him, and the spinners did not tie him down. He would blast the bad balls, and often the good, driving on the rise through the gaps, cutting ferociously when the ball was not even discernibly short or wide, pulling contemptuously off the front foot. Anything on his pads, or hips, would be whipped to the fence. He would not allow the bowler to get on top even if he had to slog-sweep a great leg-spinner like Shane Warne.
All the while Tendulkar showed the straightest of bats to anything pitched up and on the stumps, which has been evident right through his career, in his driving – along the ground and in the air – between mid-off and mid-on. He was sure where his off-stump was, and would show perfect judgement in easily leaving those enticing and sinister deliveries leaving him sharply. Neither did the short-pitched ball bother him as he swayed away with ease, and well clear. He expressed himself with abandon, allowing his instincts to dictate his actions.
That Tendulkar was oozing with talent, and eager to show it off, was never in doubt. What he lacked was Bradman’s ruthlessness. Having blown apart the bowling to smithereens, he seemed to get bored with the lack of challenge, lose focus as well as his wicket with the opposition on their knees. The joke was that Tendulkar had a huge weakness in the 170s. He had six scores between 165 and 179 (three 177s), besides his other hundreds, before he got his first Test double century, against New Zealand at Ahmedabad in 1999-2000, a decade after his debut.
Brian Lara, on the other hand, made his Test debut in 1990-91, hit up a brilliant 277 against Australia at Sydney in 1992-93, and the record 375 against England at St. John’s in 1993-94. A few weeks later he took away the first-class record by becoming the only batsman to score 500. Astonishingly, a decade after his Test high, Lara wrested back the Test record against the same opposition at the very venue, with an unprecedented 400 not out, just months after Matthew Hayden had grabbed it. Tendulkar is yet to score 250 either in Tests or at the first-class level.
But then that is Tendulkar; he cannot be Lara, and vice versa. By 2001 Tendulkar was so good that opposing teams felt it was not possible to dismiss him before he got a big score, by bowling at him. His Test average at that stage was close to 60. It was reckoned that the way to ensnare him was to bowl wide of the off-stump. Frustrated at having to repeatedly let the ball go, he would reach out and cut, hopefully in the air into the hands of fielders at point or gully. If that did not work, then he should be thwarted by bowling down the leg-side.
That is what the canny England captain Nasser Hussain did during the 2001-02 series, with limited success. In one Test he instructed his fast bowlers to pitch way outside off to Tendulkar. In the next he got his left-arm spinner Ashley Giles to keep landing the ball outside leg. But by then Tendulkar himself had changed. Perhaps stung by criticism that he was incapable of playing big and defining innings, he decided to play the Gavaskar way, watchful and cutting out the risky shots.
It had been pointed out that at Bridgetown in 1996-97, when Tendulkar was captain, he was unable to guide India to a target of only 110 in the fourth innings, the team folding up for 81. Then in the Chennai Test against Pakistan in 1999-2000, he was in command, chasing a target of 271. He had put on a stirring 136 for the sixth wicket with Nayan Mongia. But just when it seemed that Tendulkar would pull off a dramatic win, he fell for 136. India lost by 12 runs. It might smack of ingratitude, or even naivety, but had the likes of Bradman, Steve Waugh or even Rahul Dravid been in his place, they might have carried their team to victory in that game.
To be fair to Tendulkar, the Bridgetown wicket had worn off completely and the tall West Indies fast bowlers exploited it to the hilt. And in Chennai, it was a lone battle with a bit of help from Mongia. It was also the first time that he was hit by injury, his back giving way during the later stages of his innings.
Whatever view one might take, Tendulkar was stung. He yearned to play the really big innings that his friend and rival Lara churned out so effortlessly. He also wished to correct the impression that he had not played enough match-winning innings for India, at least in the Tests. More likely as a result of the back trouble, his belligerent pull shot off the front foot was gone forever. He now adopted a more cautious approach.
The first symptom of that was when he was uncharacteristically strokeless against ordinary trundlers like Zimbabwean Raymond Price and West Indian Mahendra Nagamootoo during that 2001-02 season. Physically also he seemed to have slowed down a bit, for during the tour of the West Indies he was dismissed for a succession of low scores, the ball often finding the outside edge of his bat. A succession of injuries dogged him and Tendulkar searched for a reincarnation. Things came to such a pass that in the Sydney Test of the 2003-04 series, Tendulkar did not play a single shot on the off-side – and still scored an unbeaten 241 with 33 boundaries. That, however, is also the genius of Tendulkar, carving out such a big score at a time when his technique needed to go back to the drawing board urgently.
In One-day cricket Tendulkar is, along with Vivian Richards, arguably the greatest there has ever been. He has slammed the best bowlers around the world, scoring by far the highest number of runs – 18,111 – 48 hundreds at last count and the only double century, averaging 45.16 at a strike-rate of 86.32, for an astonishing 62 man-of-the-match prizes. In two World Cups – 1996 and 2003 – he was top rungetter, and is way ahead of the others in terms of overall aggregate in the premier event, with an unmatched nine man-of-the-match awards, crowning it all with the 2011 World Cup. Just as Gavaskar created new statistical benchmarks in Test matches in the period 1983-87, so is Tendulkar doing in One-day Internationals now.
Since the summer of 2007, Tendulkar has been in wonderful touch, having found the perfect blend of attack and defence for this stage of his career. He is now a mature, complete master, tailoring his game to the conditions and the needs of his team. He took on the responsibility of blunting the swing and seam in England, attacking Australian pacemen on their bouncy tracks, and in between was his sublime self at home, finally exorcising the ghost of Chennai 1999 with his impregnable match-winning fifth-day hundred off the English attack at that venue in 2008.
Tendulkar has constantly re-invented himself in view of these factors, and in order to stay ahead of the opposition. He keeps reappearing in new avtaars to confound the critics. He still has the tendency, though, of getting a bit ahead of himself, at times playing pre-determined shots. That is why we have seen a profusion of dismissals in the nineties in the last few years. Bradman and Lara would never allow themselves to be denied a hundred, let alone bigger landmarks.
If Tendulkar takes his mind off the scoreboard, and focuses solely on the ball, he is still capable of playing a few of those really big innings that his legion of fans is waiting for, and which he so terribly yearns for himself. That is perhaps the only accomplishment left for the little champion to achieve. By surpassing Brian Lara’s record Test aggregate and poised to overhaul the milestone of 15,000 runs, Tendulkar is now easily the most prolific batsman in both forms of the game. With an unprecedented 51 hundreds and an average of 56.25, Tendulkar continues to justify Bradman’s faith in him. After all, he is the only middle-order batsman The Don chose, apart from himself, in his dream XI to bat at no. 4. Next in the batting order is the allrounder Sobers. Ultimately, that is what must sum up Tendulkar. If he was good enough for Bradman, he should be good enough for anyone.
(Sachin Tendulkar’s statistics in ‘Don’s Century’ are updated till 27th August 2011, the 103rd birth anniversary of Sir Donald Bradman).
Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email email@example.com. Follow Indra Vikram Singh on Twitter @IVRajpipla.
Indra Vikram Singh’s latest books published by Sporting Links : A Maharaja’s Turf ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6, The Big Book of World Cup Cricket ISBN 978-81-901668-4-3, Don’s Century ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0, Crowning Glory ISBN 978-81-901668-6-7.
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