Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A 50-ton salute (of sorts)

(Published in the latest issue of Sahara Time)

In the past – even on these pages – I have criticised Sachin Tendulkar for not being a match-winner, for not playing in the interest of the team at all times. Well, nothing’s changed on those fronts, but right now is a time to push the criticism to the back of the mind and celebrate what we will never see again. Celebrate the good fortune of growing up and becoming cricket-wise in the era when Tendulkar strutted his stuff around the playing fields of the world.

50 Test centuries!

We knew it was only a matter of time, but now that it’s happened, and we have witnessed it, it really is worth pausing for a bit, and thinking about how it all unfolded over 21 long years.

So how did it unfold? Well, credit it to Tendulkar’s longevity and his insatiable hunger for runs. 21 years. That’s less than two-and-a-half Test centuries per year. Not difficult, except that to play in a Test team for 21 years itself is mindblowing, isn’t it? It means that irrespective of whether he was at his best or not, he has been good enough to be India’s best number four batsman. It means that he has been at the top of his game – or thereabouts – for two decades.

Look at it like this, and then compare him to the rest of the best (barring Bradman, whose career was sliced in two chunks by the war years): lots of batsmen debut early, but are not good enough to play for two decades. There are others, who start late, and then blame their ill-fate for not being picked early enough – but then, were they good enough to be thrust into the Test arena at 16? And then you have Sachin Tendulkar. Good enough to face Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram at 16. Now, at 37, still agile and sorted enough to face Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel – the fastest pair in the world. Along the way, many bowlers have gotten the better of him; but not one can say that he had the measure of Tendulkar all the way. Not Glenn McGrath. Not Shane Warne. Not Muttiah Muralitharan. Not Shoaib Akhtar. Not Shaun Pollock. Not nobody!

If that isn’t greatness, what is?

And Tendulkar’s 21st year of international cricket has probably been his best – personally, even if all of it hasn’t contributed to India winning games. Seven Test centuries. Across in ODIs, the first ever double hundred in history. Away in the Indian Premier League, the highest run-getter for the tournament. Is there anything he hasn’t done this year? At the age of 37. When he has nothing to prove to anyone. When he doesn’t have to bother scoring big to hold on to his place in the Indian team. When he knows that bunking a sequence of one-day series means nothing as far as his ticket to the 2011 World Cup is concerned.

Find another batsman who has been able to juggle the three formats of the game with equal panache – you can’t. In any case, most of the batsmen who can, theoretically, hold a candle to Tendulkar never had to bother with more than two formats; many only one.

Why then? Oh well, mainly because he doesn’t know better. Speak to him, and you’ll know that he thinks of nothing but cricket – he doesn’t know anything but cricket. The rest of the world is a blank to him. Take cricket away from Tendulkar, and you’ll be left with a mere shell of a man; a void. As far as Tendulkar is concerned, cricket is life. Nothing else matters. If anything did matter, would a 37-year-old father of two be able to challenge Bradman – at least for one calendar year? Not quite 99.94, but Tendulkar’s average for the ongoing year is a fantastic 85.72 at the end of the Centurion Test.

And secondly, because over the years Tendulkar has reached a zone where his basic level of performance is a couple of notches above the rest of the world’s. A 50 doesn’t matter to Tendulkar anymore. It has to be a hundred for him to be convinced that he was better than his opposition.

And thirdly, because time is running out. He still looks good to play top-notch cricket for another couple of years, but Tendulkar knows more than anyone else that his curtain call is just round the corner. Many records need to be broken by then. New benchmarks need to be set. And there isn’t much time left.

What else can he do then, between now and then (when it gets over)? He has already scored a Test double century, in Australia, without hitting a single boundary on the off-side; only because he wanted to correct an outside-the-off-stump flaw in his technique. Just for the record, it’s Anil Kumble’s favourite Tendulkar innings. He has scored a 114 against Australia, at Perth, when still a teenager – in 1992; the greatest Tendulkar innings according to – among his peers - VVS Laxman, Javagal Srinath, Sanjay Manjrekar and Navjot Singh Sidhu.

What else is left to achieve then? Well, maybe the World Cup in 2011 – the one he is targeting. And with the way India has played at home recently, it’s a very real possibility.

And the one he won’t be able to do again – my favourite Sachin Tendulkar moment from the 37 I have collected over the 21 years: The famous Calcutta Test of 2001…when Tendulkar got Shane Warne plumb in front of the stumps with a googly! Yes, the greatest batsman in the world against the greatest leg-spinner in the world with their roles reversed – and our little hero gets Warne with a googly. Beat that!