Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Star is Born By Imran Khan

A towering personality and astute leader, Imran Khan was rival captain when Sachin made his Test debut in 1989. Hard to please, he came out impressed with the courage and skill of the 16-year-old. Imran believes it is Sachin’s passion, temperament and discipline that set him apart

Amid whizzing deliveries on a green Karachi wicket, the seeds of greatness were sown. Often an unforgiving cricketing frontier, Pakistan witnessed the debut of Sachin Tendulkar, him of the curly hair, rosy cheek, steely glint in the eye and the hunger to demolish. Soon, the seasoned pros were nodding their heads, acknowledging that this was a legend in the making

When I first bowled to Sachin Tendulkar, I almost felt sorry for this small-built 16-year-old, who looked 14. It was an India-Pakistan encounter and we were playing hard, yet it almost seemed unfair when we saw young Sachin and I for one was tempted to go easy on him.

The wickets were tailormade for us, and they remained green for two full days. Batting against quality pace bowling was really hard in that series. But it’s hard to say how I would have bowled to him at my peak, because when he made his debut against us 20 years ago, I was at the end of my career. However, both Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis — who too made his debut in the same Test as Sachin — were bowling at a fiery pace.

My memories of that 1989 series are that we virtually played four-day Tests because of the light, which is why a very strong Pakistan side had to be content with a draw against a relatively weaker, inexperienced Indian side.

As far as Sachin was concerned, there was one shot he played right through that series that has stayed in my mind. It was off the backfoot between point and cover. The pitches were green, the ball was moving and it struck me that it was remarkable how he was timing this drive and getting it right so often.

More evidence that he was special came during a practice game in Peshawar. Abdul Qadir was at the peak of his bowling then. Sachin hit him for one six, after which I teased Qadir that a schoolboy was launching into him. The wily leg-spinner gave me a wink to suggest it was a trap. Sachin went on to hit another one over the boundary and I gave Qadir the look. After the fourth six, the smile was gone from Qadir’s face, and later that evening he told me that this boy was an extraordinary talent.

However, it was only over the years that I began to realise that Sachin was a special talent. This has nothing to do with the fact that his entry into international cricket was relatively quiet. It’s because I need to be convinced of a player’s temperament and technique before I rate him. I have seen many talented cricketers not achieve what they could because they lacked the other key ingredients that transforms talent into success.

Fortunately for India, Sachin’s passion was what set him apart from the rest. When one is passionate about one’s game, hard work becomes fun, and those long hours at the nets seem interesting and challenging rather than routine and monotonous. This passion helped Sachin tighten his technique and gave him the temperament to manage his innings well. Sachin’s concentration, his discipline and his unquestioned ability, all make him one of the best players of his generation. He does have that gift of timing when he plays the quicker bowlers, but he is also exceptional against spin, proof of which lies in his famous battles with Shane Warne.

Over the years, Sachin has remained remarkably consistent and has more records than anybody I can remember. His talent and versatility are unquestioned, which is why the only question that rankles is why he did not win enough games for his team. Very often, he has taken his team to the brink of a famous win before getting out.

I have two explanations for this. The first one is that Sachin often took the whole burden of team responsibility and expectation squarely on his shoulders. This often reflected itself as worry on his face, and his body language betrayed a sense of anxiety. A good bowler is a predator and once he senses this pressure in the batsman, he goes in for the kill. Perhaps if Sachin had developed the tunnel vision, which made him focus on one ball at a time, he might have been able to convert more games into wins for his side.

The other major problem was that for the better part of his career, India did not have a bowling attack that could take 20 wickets, especially outside India. If he had match-winning bowlers to back up his own excellence, many of his knocks would have become match-winning ones.

Sachin has had the misfortune of seeing some of his best efforts come in a losing cause, the 175 against Australia last week being the most recent example. Perhaps that is the one aspect of his career that he might look back at with some regret. Maybe he would feel that for a player of his ability and stature, he should have been able to pull off a few more victories in his long, illustrious career.

If there is one area in which Sachin is ahead of his contemporaries, it is focus. Inzamam-ul Haq was possibly even more gifted, but Sachin was more successful due to his commitment and focus. Inzamam had an exceptional ability to play off both feet and on both sides of the wicket — something Ricky Ponting also does so well. However, despite the long and distinguished career that he had, I still feel Inzamam could have done even more. Besides, Sachin never backed away from responsibilities, while Inzamam was always reluctant to bat up the order in One-day internationals.

Sachin did fill in a space that had been vacated by Gavaskar’s retirement. It’s hard to compare the two because both were the products of their respective generations, and their circumstances were different. Gavaskar came in at a time when cricketers from the subcontinent were not rated very highly.

Gavaskar changed all that thanks to his unwavering temperament, an area where I would rate him higher not only than Sachin but also many of his own great contemporaries. He had an incredible ability to soak pressure, and the only other player who comes close to him in this regard is Ian Chappell. Therefore, while Sachin is certainly the more versatile, free-flowing and talented batsman, I would still choose Gavaskar as the man I would want in a crisis situation.

Not only does Sachin have the role of being a key batsman of his side today, he is also a mentor for the younger members of the team. All this means that he needs to use his limited time in international cricket effectively. I would imagine that he will be around for the World Cup in 2011, and the Indians would hope that they see one last flourish from him. It is hard to say how long Sachin will play, but he is too proud a cricketer to hang around if he is not meeting the high standards he has set himself over these last two decades.

(Source: Times of India Crest Edition - 14th November 2009)

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