Monday, December 24, 2012

A career built on reinvention | Sharda Ugra

In limited-overs cricket Tendulkar represents reinvention - of form, of technique, of order, to some extent of the passage of time

On the night of April 2, 2011, the Wankhede Stadium was more than a stadium. It was a wall of volume, a tidal wave of noise that began on land and spread towards the Arabian Sea in the west and the train tracks to the east, as India won the World Cup after 28 years. 

Then, the figure of Sachin Tendulkar was seen sprinting down from the dressing-room stairs onto the grass and his teammates. From the other end of the field where we stood - my colleague Nagraj Gollapudi and I, at ground level - Tendulkar was a speck in a surging sea of specks. 

Yet, driven to an insane joy they will probably never experience again, the crowd spotted the speck, one stand at a time. And the noise began to grow larger, as if it had a tangible, physical size. As if the air had expanded to fit in the sound of 40,000 lungs each calling out to Tendulkar, in a joyful sharing. The stadium, it felt, was about to be lifted off its architecturally solid foundations

This was the last time Sachin Tendulkar played an ODI in India. It was his best of times in the game's short form. Yet he played ten ODIs after the World Cup final, which gave rise to much hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing and plaintive queries of "Why didn't he quit right then?" 

The World Cup was Tendulkar's sixth, and his second final turned out to be successful. That would have been the ideal time to wave goodbye to the one-day game, a movie-script-finish, with thunderous music. But he didn't and maybe he will tell us why he didn't quit the ODI game right then. Or maybe he won't. 

For any neutral Tendulkar observer/watcher/analyst, the decision to linger on and retire from ODI cricket 20 months after winning the World Cup must be handled like a DRS-free, 50-50 umpiring decision. Deal with it, buddy. The last 20 months could either be interpreted as Tendulkar's blip or blemish, his private battle against time or his stubborn refusal to surrender one half of his cricketing identity. 

With the passing of time, though, the 20 months will pale against the monument created by Tendulkar's ODI career in its studious, raging pursuit. The numbers are formidable - 18,426 runs from 463 matches, 49 centuries, 96 fifties, at an average of 44.83 and a strike rate of 86.23 - and won't be matched. But the reason Tendulkar has become the standard by which batsmen must measure themselves in the limited-overs game requires the imagination to be stretched a little beyond those numbers. 

In limited-overs cricket, Tendulkar represents reinvention. Of form, of technique, of order, to some extent of the passage of time. His ODI career was crafted with a riotous method in the first half and scientific consistency in the middle. Towards the end, though, there came unexpected abandon. For everyone who thought they had understood Tendulkar and his approach to one-day batting, around the corner there lay surprise. 

If statistics can be turned into symbols, Tendulkar's highest score fits all this perfectly: 200 not out, the first double-century in ODIs, scored in his 442nd one-day match, when he was two months short of his 37th birthday. In a sport growing younger and faster, 200 off 147 balls came from the most experienced man in the game. 

Tendulkar's surge in ODI cricket - and in India's imagination - had much to do with his constant request to the team manager Ajit Wadekar to allow him to open the innings in 1994. Over and over again he asked for one chance, "And if I fail I'll never ever come to you again." The chance was given and Tendulkar and limited-overs batting and Indian cricket were forever transformed. 

The advent of the attacking opener came to public notice at the 1996 World Cup through Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. Tendulkar did not have an opening partner to match his pace but by the time the 1996 World Cup began, he had played 32 ODIs as an opener, with four centuries and nine fifties, at a strike rate of 94.

He has often spoken of the impact his ODI batting had on his Test career, in improvisation, widening and making flexible the canvas of his strokeplay in both forms. His peak as an ODI batsman was always carbon-dated to Sharjah 1998, particularly as he chose to play the anchor's role at No. 4 for a while. As a returning opener, Tendulkar accumulated scores with consistency and fluency but without the Sharjah aggro. 
Yet, once past the cricketing dotage of 35, with injuries set aside, Tendulkar the ODI batsman turned up at the top of the order and smashed the clocks.

He won't play the ODI game anymore. His retirement from the short form, whether brought on by an inner voice or a nudge from the selectors, indicates that Tendulkar wants to give his Test match batsmanship another crack, against the Australians next year. It could be his final shot at reinvention.

Tendulkar, Indian emotion, and in the past couple of years some anguished questions, have always travelled together. As he brings his ODI career to a halt, here though are a few less anguished ones. Why didn't Tendulkar lose his way at the age of 25, having gone crazy with the adulation? Why didn't he turn into a boor or a prima donna? Or give the crowd the finger when they booed or heckled him, which they did? Or give up the hardship of Test cricket and coast, like he could have done, in ODIs? Stats cannot measure drive or ambition. Nor indeed its benefits or hindrances.

For the moment, though, a favourite memory of Tendulkar in ODI cricket. It is not the teenager whose cherubic cheeks bulged from under the helmet visor and who wielded his chunky bat like a razor-blade in a knife- fight. Or the boy who grabbed the ball to bowl the last over of the Hero Cup semi-final against South Africa. Or the "desert storm" of 1998, or the upper cut of Centurion, or even the speck in a sea of specks rushing down the steps at the far end of the Wankhede Stadium.

It lasted all of a few, fleeting minutes, in Jaipur. This was the match before the Gwalior 200 not out, the first of three 2010 ODIs against South Africa, who needed seven to win with two balls left. On the penultimate ball, Charl Langeveldt pulled one that travelled at speed past short fine leg. Tendulkar, on the boundary, ran full tilt towards the ball and flung himself, diving and sliding along the ground like he was 16, to get his hands on the ball. The batsmen had taken three and Tendulkar saved a single. India won that match by one run.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

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