Sachin Tendulkar’s desire to play and the hunger to compete have not diminished, but it is the other intangibles — of sinews grappling with age, of rival bowlers sensing a tentativeness and a dressing room that is increasingly featuring an entirely new generation — that he has to shrug off, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.
The legend of Sachin Tendulkar had its finest first exposition on a Perth pitch, always known to be the strongest ally of pace and bounce. During that February in 1992, Tendulkar’s 114 in a losing cause, proved that he had the skill to conquer all odds at an individual level though the rest of the team, hamstrung by its own drawbacks at that juncture, may not have rallied around his genius.
Most importantly, Tendulkar had truly arrived at that moment though a few cricket historians may look at his famous assault on Abdul Qadir in Pakistan in 1989, as the first steps to his becoming the ‘forever dispenser of hopes’ to the Indian Diaspora. It is an image that has lasted nearly 24 years and it looks as though the maestro’s cricketing life has come a full circle with Australia setting foot in Chennai as a prelude to a four-match Test series.
This surely would be the Lord of Batting Numbers’ final tilt against Australia, often his rousing opponent in a chequered career. He would turn 40 this April and there is only so much his body can endure. If the 1991-92 tour was all about Tendulkar proving that he was indeed the numero-uno of Indian batting then despite the presence of Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin and Sanjay Manjrekar, the current joust against Michael Clarke’s men is all about proving that his skill-sets have not dimmed.
Sachin Tendulkar with a gen-next player, Ajinkya Rahane. As one gets on in years one should guard from going out of ear-shot.
The first flowering was relatively easy as he had age on his side while this final act would draw every physical and mental resource in his body. A familiar foe might well provide him the needed impetus, a trait that he has amply revealed over two decades. Be it countering Shane Warne’s leg-breaks with a blistering attack in India, be it the ‘Desert Storm’ knocks in Sharjah, be it eschewing the cover-drive while compiling a double-century in Sydney in 2004 or be it the ungainly sight of him sledging Glenn McGrath in an ODI, Tendulkar has revealed his multiple layers while squaring up against Australia.
Past masters like Sunil Gavaskar, G. R. Viswanath and Vengsarkar were largely judged by their runs against the West Indies but when Tendulkar reigned, it was runs against Australia that defined a batsman’s pedigree though he did script knocks of pathos (Chennai 1999) and panache (Centurion, 2003 World Cup) against Pakistan.
Yet, for a man often spoken of in the same breath as Sir Don Bradman — the latter having also referred to the Mumbaikar as the closest to his batting style — it is often Australia that has provided a peg for Tendulkar to hang his coat of greatness. More than ever, in the aftermath of Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman’s retirements, India needs Tendulkar to wear that coat again and do battle against his old rival.
The extreme dependence on him to provide stability to a weak middle-order despite the promise of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara and his own travails against diminishing reflexes will test Tendulkar.
In the lead-up to this series, Tendulkar has scored a 108 in the Ranji Trophy and an unbeaten 140 in the Irani Cup. It is a good augury and yet his back-story in Tests has revealed a despondent streak broken by a few incandescent outings.
Tendulkar’s last Test hundred (146) came against South Africa in Cape Town in January 2011. After that brilliant knock, he has played in 30 innings without reaching the three-figure mark. The runs have not matched up to the stratospheric standards that he himself has set. His last 10 innings read: 13, 19, 17, 27, 13, 8, 8, 76, 5 and 2. It is not that only Tendulkar struggled and the rest have prospered because with the exception of Dravid in England and the few outings of Kohli and Pujara, the others too are equally guilty of a run-drought.
It is imperative for India that Tendulkar gets back into the groove soon, for, his insight will be invaluable on the tour of South Africa later this year.
The master’s desire to play and the hunger to compete have not diminished, but it is the other intangibles — of sinews grappling with age, of rival bowlers sensing a tentativeness and a dressing room that is increasingly featuring an entirely new generation — that he has to shrug off. A man can feel weary when most of his mates have walked into the sunset. However, playing for India is his biggest high and that coupled with the itch to make up for the losses against Australia during the last tour, will drive Tendulkar.
“As long as I believe that I can contribute to the team, I will play,” he had said last year. In the same breath, he added: “I take it series by series.” Ideally India needs Tendulkar’s guidance when the team sets foot in South Africa in November, later this year but it remains to be seen if he would will himself for another joust against Dale Steyn.
The series against Australia will throw pointers to the Tendulkar story. As ever, India needs him. Now.