The joy of Tendulkar
It is now more than a year since Sachin Tendulkar scored his 99th international hundred. On that day in the World Cup when he made South Africa look clueless for 40 overs in Nagpur, it seemed the 100th was imminent. At 37, he had just had his most productive year of a decorated career, and had made two masterly centuries against top opposition in the World Cup.
Now, after 33 century-less innings, one less than his longest barren spell ever, and the disappointments of England and Australia, even the usually reverential media are raising questions about his place in the side, at least in one-dayers. Is the burden of the 100th weighing him down? The man himself hasn't said much. But would someone who has shouldered surreal amounts of pressure all through his cricketing career buckle when faced with a milestone that many have argued is a made-up one?
Tendulkar made his debut in 1989; on Tuesday's game against Sri Lanka, the team-mate with the next longest career span was Gautam Gambhir, who entered international cricket nearly 14 years after him. Was Tendulkar losing his appetite for the game, especially as the more familiar faces in the dressing room are starting to disappear? Not on the evidence of Wednesday's training session.
It was an optional session, and it was expected that on the day after the win against Sri Lanka, only the reserve players would turn up. Only three members of the 15-man squad showed up; Tendulkar was one of them.
A meticulous 70-minute batting session followed, as he faced Yusuf Pathan and Rahul Sharma, besides some sharp medium-pace from new bowling coach Joe Dawes, more mild medium from the computer analyst and throwdowns from fielding coach Trevor Penney. There was plenty of chat with the bowlers, and Fletcher kept a close eye on the batsman, providing the stray bit of advice. After the session, Tendulkar had a long conversation with Fletcher.
Till then, there had been a few laughs but the training had been mostly business-like, bearing the hallmarks of a batsman short of runs trying to iron out problems. He rarely bowls these days, and his practice for the day could have ended there, and he could have retired to the shade.
Instead, he stuck around and immensely enjoyed himself with a cat-and-mouse spell of legspin bowling to Rahul Sharma. First, he tested each of the bats Rahul had carried out, and picked out the best one for Rahul to use. He sent down a ripping legbreak that Rahul tried to clobber from the nets to the main Shere Bangla ground, only to be beaten by a long way, to Tendulkar's amusement. The next legbreak was solidly defended, prompting Tendulkar to jokingly ask why he didn't try to slam that one as well. There were googlies that thudded into Rahul's thigh, a straighter one which fizzed on to middle stump, and many times when the batsman struck the ball, Tendulkar would signal that it would have been caught at mid-on or midwicket. The session ended with Tendulkar giving Rahul some batting tips.
Tendulkar has already played more Tests and one-day matches than anybody else. Surely the relentless grind of international cricket would have bored him by now? Whenever asked why he continues to play, Tendulkar invariably says he does because he still loves the game and enjoys it.
It may sound like a pat cliché but in that brief spell against Rahul, it was clear that even after all these years, he still relishes playing the game and derives much delight from it. Add to that the rigorous preparation and the craving for improvement he showed while batting, and it suggests he is in no hurry to join fellow batting legend Rahul Dravid in retirement.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo