From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.29 :: NO.38 :: Sep. 23, 2006

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COVER STORY

The cricket NUT

There has been plenty of conjecture about Tendulkar's future ever since he first went under the knife for a troublesome elbow. But his 40th ODI century, against the West Indies, at the Kinrara Oval, Kuala Lumpur, illustrated that his powers hadn't decayed, at least perceptibly, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

S. SUBRAMANIUM

SACHIN TENDULKAR with coach Greg Chappell during practice on the eve of the match against West Indies at Kinrara Oval. "It is a challenge (to return) because you're coming out of a serious injury," says the little master.

"Worried they're going to come at you harder than what you're bowling them at eh, Sachin?" asked Greg Chappell, pointing to his thigh, as the man in question ambled in to bowl. "That's why you've got your thigh guard on eh?"

"That's for me not to get carried away," replied Tendulkar, an imp's grin playing on his lips. "Don't want to think I can," — a quick wave of the hand, fingers wrapped around an imaginary seam — "you know, bowl."

Sachin Tendulkar had satisfactorily completed his batting stint, test-driving many of the glorious strokes he would reproduce the next day against West Indies, but wild horses on speed would have done well to drag him from the remainder of the practice session.

This story has been told well, and told often, with only the details changed. Some narrators have been woken by the muffled thuds the maestro, gripped by insomnia and shadow-practising his back-lift, has caused when tapping the bat in stance. Others — not as privileged — have had to make do with net sessions in venues around the world such as the Kinrara Oval, Kuala Lumpur, in this case. The theme veers more or less around to Tendulkar the passionate, Tendulkar the kid, Tendulkar the cricket nut.

Indeed, Tendulkar's cricket obsession often borders on the besotted. "Well, cricket has been my life," he declared to no one's surprise after taking the West Indies bowlers for an unbeaten 141, "and let's be honest here, I'm living a dream, and every time I go out on the field there is a lot of excitement."

That at 33 he retains the dewy-eyed wonder for the game he showed at 16 is why his fans — and fans of cricket everywhere — should rest a little easier. The possibilities for the ICC Champions Trophy and the World Cup look most enticing. It is why the episode of banter played out on the eve of his comeback proper was probably more important than anything a deconstruction of the match would have yielded.

There has been plenty of conjecture about Tendulkar's future ever since he first went under the knife for a troublesome elbow. A second surgery, and wild theories that the end was nigh began doing the rounds. "Well, it is a challenge (to return) because you're coming out of a serious injury," said Tendulkar. "I had a couple of surgeries, it was a huge setback, but you just have to keep fighting, you know, and be mentally strong to hit back."

Of his future, three primary questions arise: Will his body, already subjected to a 17-year pounding, hold up? Will he retain an appetite so keen he's prepared to do the work necessary to keep his body in order? Are his skills intact?

All three were answered in different measures by his 40th one-day hundred. The innings demanded stamina, elasticity of limb, skill, and total confidence that he had healed completely. Tendulkar's range of strokes — elbow-led lofted drives, whips to leg, mows over long-on, pulls — offered evidence on counts of both skill and healing. That he could conjure such an innings on a troublesome track, much like he had constructed the masterful 95 at Lahore earlier this year, further illustrated that his powers hadn't decayed, at least perceptibly.

After all Brett Lee doesn't call everybody God.

"The difficult surface meant I had to work out different things and play differently. I had planned how to play the innings," said Tendulkar. "All those things clicked, the plans were translated to runs, so I'm quite happy about it. I was able to last 50 overs, and right till the end, I was running hard. It was just a reflection of what I've done in the last few months. It's (batting 50 overs) a good habit, and I hope I build this habit."

Brian Lara — fellow batting genius and opening partner for an International XI charity match against Pakistan, one of many practice games Tendulkar played as part of his rehabilitation programme — said, "It's good to have him back. Hopefully, he's duly recovered. Opening the batting with him was a lot of fun, and even though it was only a charity game, you could tell that it was special." And Lara later added that he had suffered at his mate's hands during the course of the hundred.

Unfortunately, a contest that would have shed further light on the current powers of its combatants — Tendulkar and McGrath — was cut short by rain. The linear quick bent the Indian master around with one that cut from middle to outside off, and nailed him on the noggin with another. Tendulkar responded with a skip down, and a swipe over mid-wicket. "My whole career I have enjoyed bowling to guys who are the best in the world," said McGrath. "Sachin is one of them."

The two have a lot in common. Both bring to their craft a high degree of repeatability that makes troubleshooting infinitely easier. McGrath has understood his action perfectly, much like Tendulkar has understood the mechanics of his batting. Both should play major roles over the next seven months.

Tendulkar's return gives India's one-day unit — not that it was bereft of it — a certain presence. "I have always said that Sachin is the best player I have played against and seen," said Ricky Ponting. "Him at the top of the order makes the team look much more formidable. He gets in there early, he has technique to play the new ball, and he can be as damaging as anyone. He is a pretty good package when he is at his best."

Another point many have sought to labour is the change in Tendulkar's batting style. It is felt that he dons the role of dasher all too infrequently. As the man from Mumbai showed in the slog against West Indies, he can mix it with the best when needed. The advent of younger match-winners necessitates him doing things differently at times.

Later that night, he explained why he plays second fiddle more often these days. "Sometimes, the team's plans are different," he said. "We're told to play different roles. So, we have to play accordingly. This is not an individual game where you play as you like. Every time, the team plans out who'll play the big shots, who'll bat out 50 overs." Often, Tendulkar switches seamlessly between the roles more than once during an innings.

India will hope the day Tendulkar decides to leave the stage — yes, such an unfortunate day will indeed dawn — will not come anytime soon. What is known though is that Tendulkar won't linger when he knows it's time. "If I find it a burden, I'd know when to step back, step aside, and say it's the end," he said, before touching a more cheerful chord. "But, I'm enjoying this, and I just want to continue like this."



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