Memories of a cricket devotee

I remember the day I anointed Sachin Tendulkar atop my own little cricketing pantheon.  The details are a little bit hazy, but it was sometime in 1989-’90. India was playing Pakistan in a one-day international that ended up being an exhibition 20-overs-per-side match because of poor light. India was set a stiff target (stiff by late 80’s standards) requiring the team to score in excess of seven an over or so to win the match. With the opposition boasting the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Quadir in the bowing line-up, India was always going to struggle. Kris Srikkanth, in his own inimitable style, was giving it a right old go, but he was getting very little support. I think it was at the fall of the fourth wicket that the young man boy who had recently made his debut walked in. I was already fascinated by this 16-year old prodigy, who, like Javed Miandad suggested, looked more like he should be at school, concentrating on his homework, rather than playing international cricket, facing bowlers who either were already, or were on their way to becoming, some of the best in cricket history.

Tendulkar went on to launch a fascinating counter attack on Quadir. Imagine the excitement of a 7-year old watching somebody who looked barely older than him, tonk Abdul Quadir for sixes. I don’t remember the exact number of sixes that he hit.  I am sure I can find out if I look it up, but I don’t want to. The memories that I carry are too valuable to be sullied by dry facts and figures. These were not fluky hits, either. They were full-blooded shots that found the middle of the bat and carried long and far. The most incredible thing about the performance was that this young man believed that India could still win the match and that he could do it for his team. The confidence was more precocious than the talent. India went on to lose the match but Sachin Tendulkar had replaced Azharuddin as my favourite cricketer on that precise day.

Of course, if I remember correctly, he got out for a duck in the very next match, going for a big shot too early in the innings. He was a much more instinctive batsman than he is now, and he would often be criticized in his early years for being too aggressive in his approach. He had an 80 plus strike rate in one-day cricket in the early 90’s – a time during which a batsman with a strike rate of 70 was considered fairly aggressive. He was Virender Sehwag before there was Virendrer Sehwag.

Not that he did not have the patience and the mental discipline to buckle down and play longer innings when the occasion demanded it. The 600 plus partnership with Kambli and his own 327 is the stuff of legend. He was famously the first cricketer to score centuries on Ranji, Duleep & Irani trophy debut. He came close to becoming the youngest centurion in test cricket ever but fell short by 12 runs in New Zealand. He made test hundreds in Australia as an 18-year old, including one in Perth that had the Australian commentators, infamously stingy in their praise for non-Aussies, waxing lyrical about the young man’s talent. He was Brian Lara before Brian Lara became Brian Lara.

Mental toughness was never a problem for him. He made his first test hundred at Old Trafford with the pressure of a test match to save and the company of a lower order batsman.  He was felled by a bouncer bowled by fellow debutant Waqar Younis in his first test match; yet carried on, merely pausing to wipe his bloody nose. He withstood a barrage of ‘mental disintegration’ (read abuse) from the Waugh twins while scoring a hundred at Sydney in his first test match there, only remarking to his batting partner and Mumbai senior Ravi Shastri that he would give it back to them after reaching his hundred. He was Steve Waugh before Steve Waugh became Steve Waugh (And co-incidentally enough, he played his most Steve-Waugh like innings in Waugh’s last test match – 241 while cussedly refusing to cover drive throughout the course of the innings).

There was a period during the early 90’s when Tendulkar just couldn’t make a one-day hundred.  He would give free rein to his attacking instincts in one-day cricket and would often be dismissed between 50 & 100, trying to accelerate. Or he would end up not out on a half-century. It seems strange to say this about someone who is miles ahead of everyone else in terms of one day runs scored and one day hundreds made, but there was a time when  people thought he would become only a ‘very good’ one day batsman, as opposed to the ‘great’ test batsman that he already was. He used to play fascinating cameos that would captivate audiences and would tantalizingly leave us wanting more. He was Aravinda De Silva before Aravinda De Silva became Aravinda De Silva.

It was clear from very early on in his career that we were watching an extremely competitive man.  Even when he failed with the bat, he would try and contribute with the ball (seam up in his early years and spin later on) and in the field. I remember an ODI against the West Indies during the tri-series in Australia in 1991-’92, when India were bowled out for a paltry score (120-odd). In response, West Indies was consistently pegged back by India with wickets, but finally, Azhar had bowled out all his main bowlers, and the Windies still had a wicket in hand with only a handful of runs to go. He turned to his young wizard, who, with the scores level, took the last wicket, producing a tie (caught brilliantly by Azhar in the slips).  During the Hero cup in India in 1993, Tendulkar was going through a wretched run with the bat and had even been demoted in the batting order. Yet, in the semi-final, with 6 runs for South Africa to win, he was entrusted with the last over. It seemed almost pre-ordained that he would do the trick and that is precisely what he did.  He was Yuvraj Singh before there was Yuvraj Singh.

Despite all his tremendous achievements in one-day cricket, to me, he is first and foremost, a great test batsman. He made runs, hundreds, all over the world, against all kinds of attacks. The hundred that he made in Bloemfontein in South Africa in 2001 on a bouncy pitch is one of his less-heralded favourites of mine. So is the hundred that he made in Edgbaston in 1996 when nobody else seemed to be able to take command over the bowling like he did (including Nasser Hussain, who received a lucky reprieve from Darrel Hair off Javagal Srinath) and the 110 that he made against Australia in Melbourne during his first away series in his second stint as captain. His 169 in Capetown in ’96-’97 included a breath-taking partnership with Azharuddin, which looking back, gave me the most aesthetic pleasure I have ever had watching a sporting event. The reason why he could make runs in such varied conditions against such challenging bowling attacks was quite simply because he was one of the most technically equipped and well-prepared test batsmen to ever play the game. He was Rahul Dravid before Rahul Dravid became Rahul Dravid.

He had an amazing run of consistency in 1998, scoring something like 9 ODI hundreds. He would have made a lot more test runs that year, having already slog swept Shane Warne on the way to a magnificent 155 not out in Chennai and bedazzled the Aussies once again with 177 in Bangalore, had the money-hungry BCCI scheduled a few more test matches that year. Since Tendulkar’s debut, I can remember only one batsman enjoying the same kind of extended consistent run in international cricket, during the mid-oughties. He was Ricky Ponting before Ricky Ponting became Ricky Ponting.

One of the most bitter-sweet Tendulkar memories for me is the fourth innings hundred that he scored against Pakistan while attempting to drag India over the line in a chase of around 250-odd in the last innings. India had lost 5 wickets in the chase before reaching 100, and against Wasim, Waqar, and Saqlain, most of us had given up hope. But Sachin hadn’t, and in the company of Nayan Mongia, he brought India close to the target. To this day, I believe one of the most impressive things about that innings is the fact that he managed to inspire Mongia to play a crucial knock when it really mattered to the team, than when it merely mattered to Mongia.  He was dismissed by Saqlain a few runs short of the target, and Sunil Joshi and the rest of the Indian lower order batsmen proceeded to put on a display of panicky batting that made headless chickens look like Buddhist monks, ultimately resulting in India losing the game. Such is the thin line that separates a great fourth innings masterpiece that could have gone down as one of the ten or so best innings of all time, and a mere ‘good innings’. He was VVS Laxman before Laxman became Laxman. Later on we learned that he had played that innings through the kind of excruciating back pain that would have had me and you refusing to get out of bed. He was Anil Kumble before Kumble became Kumble by dismissing Lara, bowling with a broken jaw.

Recent times haven’t been quite as kind to him, and he himself hasn’t helped matters by appearing to be too obsessed by personal landmarks like his 100th international hundred. The achievement of that milestone was itself an embarrassment, reached with the help of an unnecessary crawl against Bangladesh in an inconsequential ODI, in a match which India ended up losing. Even more embarrassing to me, was the fact that Tendulkar never felt the need to express regret for the way in which his personal landmark took precedence over the team’s interests.

Having said that, by and large Tendulkar remains a committed team man and a generous person, and by all accounts, is a good human being. I was prompted to write this piece after I went down to the Wankhede stadium to watch the second test match of England’s tour to India.  India was fielding for most of the two days during which I watched the match. Whenever Tendulkar would take a fielding position near the boundary, the Mumbai crowd would cheer and wave to him, and would expect him to wave back. He would always graciously acknowledge the cheers, without making a fuss about it, unlike one or two of his younger colleagues who have a lot more to be humble about than him. Whatever happens from now on, irrespective of how long your career goes on, thanks for the memories, Sachin. There will never be another Sachin Tendulkar.