April 1, 2001

Individual glory for a quintessential team man

When Sachin Tendulkar strolled the single that advanced him into an elite but singularly lonely club of one, he kept his emotions tightly in check. He did not twirl his bat in triumph midway through the pitch as Sunil Gavaskar had indulged 14 years ago in Ahmedabad. Apart from Tendulkar's natural reserve that held back a public display of joy, he would have been conscious that a greater task still awaited. From the onset of this one-day series, the 10,000 run statistic had hovered around him like a pesky mosquito within earshot; having swatted it away he settled down resolutely to the task of batting India into a position of strength.

The achievement is something that can be ignored only at one's own peril. True it may not have soaked into public sentiment with the same intensity as Gavaskar's corresponding feat in Test cricket. Maybe our proximity to the event is too close to place it in proper perspective. Again, the proliferation of ODIs in modern times ensure that they are ephemeral in public perception and have left many inured to their charms. Purists have long cavilled that one-dayers are not an accurate barometer of cricketing ability since they examine a combatant's skills over such an abbreviated period.

Be that as it may, Tendulkar's exploit remains a tour de force. Being the first through the gateway gives him an eternal claim to greatness. Of course his conversion into an opening batsman was the decisive moment when he stepped beyond the pale, affording him a tremendous scope of opportunity; as a middle order batsman he would have been still panting up the hill. But again opening the innings is not everyone's favourite pastime, it does require specific skill sets.

Patience and concentration, old-fashioned virtues that Test cricket demands, are not his greatest strengths. The one-dayers offer him the ideal vehicle to showcase his skills as a dominating batsman, making productive use of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs. Certainly the margin of error is that much greater when you decide to play premeditated shots and oftentimes these days, Tendulkar gets carried away by his own brilliance. But there are still occasions when he puts his head down and decides that he wants to play a long innings, a century no less, and succeeds. The fact is he has done it 28 times, a fair sight more than anyone else, so he can put a very high premium on his wicket.

Runs and centuries galore are not an end in itself, cricket after all is a team game. And Tendulkar is the quintessential team man. Did he not volunteer to bowl the final over of the Hero Cup semifinal in 1993, when he had not bowled before in the match and when it would have been so much simpler to watch from afar, for after all it was not his job. Like Brian Lara, Tendulkar has had to bear the cross of being an overperformer in an underperforming team. When the team loses, which is often, the finger is pointed at him; only when he performs the lead role in a victory is the public satisfied. But even Tendulkar's immense powers cannot always conjure up a positive result without the active connivance of one or more of his team mates, at least not often enough for a demanding public.

At Indore, Tendulkar paced his innings to perfection. It can be maddening sometimes that he doesn't play like that more often. Of late he had shown a disturbing intent to try for too much too soon, firing away and just as quickly burning himself out. Here it was pure percentage play. Starting briskly, he cut out the risks and dropped himself a notch until he got to 50, then used a stunning flair for improvisation to gradually raise the tempo and blast his way to a 94- ball 100. It's true his average can be much better if he's more careful but that is the essence of the man. Sachin will not be Sachin if his passion to dominate ever slackens. There will be times when his attacking instincts get the better of him, but he has also showed that he can summon up the willpower to keep temptation on a leash and carve out a knock of substance.

Tendulkar's record shows a preponderance of tons on the Asian continent. As many as 25 of his 28 hundreds have been scored in India, Sri Lanka, Sharjah, Singapore or Bangladesh where the wickets are generally easy paced. Of the others, two have been against Kenya and Zimbabwe. Tendulkar has 27 centuries in 174 games as an opening batsman, a ratio of one every 6.4 games. But in the 32 games he has opened the batting in Australia, South Africa, West Indies, England or New Zealand, he has just two, one of them against Kenya. It's a statistic he may not be aware of but certainly not one he will lose any sleep over. After all, didn't the Duc de la Rochefoucauld point out in his famous maxims that 'only great men are allowed great faults'.