Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sachin: A batting troubadour for all seasons - Trevor Chesterfield

Senior sports journalist Trevor Chesterfield writes on the phenomenon called Sachin Tendulkar.

There is only one genuine way to celebrate an Indian victory at Lord’s: parade the nation’s tricolour inside the ground and later in the road outside it. It is such an impressive euphoric moment.

Late on that Saturday afternoon of July 13 in 2002, the giant banner, the orange, white and green flag was paraded behind the Edrich and Compton stands at the Nursery End. India were on the road to pulling off an incredible victory in the NatWest final, yet almost half the Indian supporters had by then adjourned to other less intrusive portals inside and outside the ground.

Chasing down an imposing victory target of 325, the departure of Sachin Tendulkar for a modest 14 with the total at 146 at the end of the 24th over of the innings, was the signal for some the end of an impossible dream. It showed the drawing power of the Mumbai batting maestro and the awe as well, that his dismissal meant the cause had become a lost one.

The miracle of the victory in the previous game at Lord’s two weeks earlier had already faded forgotten amid the yellowing headlines of yesterday’s glories. Yet, out of the debris of that middle-order collapse after the first wicket partnership of 106 had offered so much, rose the promise of the future: Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif. It was Kaif who carried the innings to its tumultuous finish as he helped chase down that target of 326.

Celebrations of that victory and the parading of the flag that eventually spilled into Wellington Road and the leafy environs was quite momentous. For hours, pubs around that part of St John’s Wood and into the High Street, understood the joy of this success. Repeating the victory of June 29 where Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj played a role, explained why there was such bubbling, frenetic joie de vivre that July evening: winning one game was special; winning the second and the sight of Sourav Ganguly stripped of his shirt on the Lord’s balcony expressed it all.

Later, many of those who had deserted the stands earlier after the Tendulkar dismissal sneaked sheepishly into the pubs to help celebrate.

Understand that St John’s Wood is an elite, area; with that well scrubbed look and with wealthy house owners from Sir Paul McCartney to Jude Law, Ewan McGregor, Kate Moss and cricket fan and singer Lilley Allen, who says it is her ‘favourite bit of London’ and bankers.

Yet so often when watching Sachin Tendulkar bat, it is as though we are watching pages of cricket and world history unfold. It is to be expected. His contributions to India and the game in the past 20 years are phenomenal. As with any great batsman not all his memorable innings have been centuries, there are others always remembered for their purity, quality and excellence in skill as well as the enthusiasm that brings touches of puckish humour to his game.

There are those as well, which bring the depth of a focussed mind and a batsman who is dedicated to doing what he can against odds to save his side, where his first role is that of responsibility, his second is that of challenging the odds for his side. Eschewing risky strokeplay to turn the game in his team’s favour and savouring labours of victory because of it.

First memories are of the quiet teenager who rescued India’s innings at Eden Gardens on that historic day of November 10, 1991 when he registered the first-half century by an Indian against South Africa in India. It was two years after his debut against Pakistan and an intense Allan Donald’s deadly pace had already ripped the head off the Indian innings. Batting at four, with Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Manjrekar already two of the five Donald victims and only three runs on the board, Tendulkar remained firm in face of the fiery onslaught in the cauldron of one the world’s great sports arenas.

There are other moments that carry with them a hint of theatre and his thespian qualities as well as entertainment value, if not singular star attraction. He is more than a mere troubadour with the bat.

In 2003, Centurion, India are batting second against Pakistan and his innings of 98 is regarded as the most impressive of the tournament because of its sheer quality and despite the Ricky Ponting century in the final at The Wanderers. Two Pakistan journalists are nibbling at their fingernails, chewing on the end of their pens.

‘All we need is that little man’s wicket,’ bemoans one. ‘How many times are they going to drop him? Twice already. With Sachin, you cannot afford to spill even a half chance.’

Then there is the final at The Wanders: Ponting had already laid the foundation with an impressive undefeated 140 off 121 balls. Fourth ball of the Indian innings and Glenn McGrath is punched for four. India and Tendulkar hit top gear. Fifth ball . . .a top-edge that McGrath chased for.

‘Oh, my . . . Oh . . . Oh. We’re dead. We’ve lost the World Cup,’ lamented an Indian colleague, heads in his hands, as if the Zaheer Khan 10-ball first over that went for 15 runs was not already a disaster.

Four years ago, a cheerful yet vociferous audience around the chilly and windswept Farozshah Kotla, watched Sachin Tendulkar regale their Saturday afternoon with a record-making effort that earned him a world record.

In what was a highly competent performance against Sri Lanka, he scored his thirty-fifth Test century, historically surpassing Sunil Gavaskar’s record of thirty-four three-figure innings. On the way, he curbed the spin threat of Muttiah Muralitharan as India took control on day one. Unfortunately the headline writers and some scribes sounded off in certain jingoistic terms.

It was fascinating to hear the chatter of how the little man from Mumbai had ‘Vaulted the Final Frontier’ as one suggested, and others adopted similar views. All of which suggested that he had been in some space capsule shot to the moon and performed a spacewalk.

Unbelievably, it was all so far-fetched. Final frontier..? Give over, Bhai. But that is how the analysts and headline writers were viewing that century against Sri Lanka in New Delhi.

Twice this year he has rated centuries scored as being among the best. The first was when he warded off cramp at Premadasa Stadium in a match-winning century against Sri Lanka in the Compaq Cup final, an innings of sublime skills appreciated by the cricketers but not the spectators. And the 175 as he faced the pressure to take India so close to beating Australia in Hyderabad.

What it explains is that Tendulkar is Tendulkar, not a Gavaskar, a Lara or a Don Bradman. He is his own man and no one can change that important fact.

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