The master gets ready for the big Test
Wednesday and Lord's is abuzz in anticipation of a week that will be high-profile even by its standards: the 2000th Test, the 100th Test between England and India, a gathering of cricket's top officials and the venerable members of the MCC. And then there is the Sachin Tendulkar question. Will he or won't he?
Assuming this is his last trip to England, millions of his fans will be praying, hoping, fasting, crossing fingers and doing anything they can to help Tendulkar get his name on the honours board at cricket's headquarters. Tendulkar might play it down but he knows its significance.
One reason athletes strive hard to excel is that they want to raise the bar. (Tendulkar has himself said that he wants to take his cricket to the 'next' level.) They like going places both dreamed of and not yet imagined. They like creating unimaginable stuff - take Magic Johnson's sky-hook.
Tendulkar has crossed almost every sporting milestone, won almost every prize and has created strokes that are breathtaking. Yet there is the small matter of the Lord's honours board, which records those who have scored centuries or taken five-fors in Test matches at the ground. At 38, cricket's own Father Time may be ticking but Tendulkar knows time is running out.
On the eve of the first Test Tendulkar walked out of the pavilion, dressed in the team navy-blue jacket, pads on, face encased in the helmet, one hand carrying two pairs of gloves, the other a pair of bats. He chatted briefly with the assistant groundsman about the nature of the pitch, then walked with a smile towards the Nursery, the training grounds.
There was only one more India player already padded up and marking his crease - Tendulkar's old ally, Rahul Dravid. Tendulkar did not waste any time getting ready to face the nets bowler, a fellow Mumbaikar who played at the MIG Club in the player's neighbourhood. This bowler (he would not like to reveal his name) has been Tendulkar's bowling machine at Lord's for a few years and one could sense the comfort and trust Tendulkar had in him as he openly confided his doubts and his thoughts.
Tendulkar first asked him to bowl normally with "a few deliveries outside off stump". He just wanted to get a feel. It took him a minute to hit the groove. The media and assembled fans gathered behind the nets. Michael Atherton, an old adversary, stood at backward square-leg for a few minutes, hands folded, studiously observing Tendulkar (and Dravid perhaps).
It is an experience to watch Tendulkar bat in the nets. He needs no cue to slip into the zone. Five minutes into the session he asked the bowler to bowl "cross seam with a ball that has the biggest seam". When the bowler pitched a straighter one just a couple of inches short of length and checked "do you want this (length)?" Tendulkar nodded and started doing shadow practice with his left shoulder. The permanent fuss to get the shoulder aligned in the right position was back like an incurable itch.
There was one delivery that jumped off short of a length, beating Tendulkar's defences. The bowler had no clue as he had never meant such at the point of delivery. But Tendulkar understood the reason: "The pitch is damp and the odd bounce is possible."
Just then Sreesanth walked in and told Tendulkar he would be bowling. Next moment Tendulkar noticed Arjun, his son, was about to enter the training ground along with a couple of friends. There was also Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a Bollywood director with his wife and child. Tendulkar swiftly asked the bowler to tell Arjun and the Chopra family to sit outside. He was preparing for a Test match and no one - not even his own kin - should bother him.
Back in the nets, the bowler made an interesting observation. "The bat seems to be coming from behind the legs. Don't you think so?" Tendulkar agreed, and said he was only trying to experiment with a new stance - stand in a position where his toes point slightly towards cover and his shoulders open up, too. "I am just trying as I feel I can sight the ball better this way."
Sreesanth was finding hard to get into rhythm meanwhile and bowled a ridiculous delivery down the leg side. Promptly he was implored. "Daal barabar (bowl properly). Come on," Tendulkar said. He did not want anyone to make him lose his focus. For the next half-hour he not only focussed on fine-tuning his own batting but also became the bowling coach for Sreesanth, who was having a sloppy afternoon.
It is fascinating to see Tendulkar's brain at work. He can compartmentalise things neatly. He asked the bowler to maintain a length but on a middle-and-leg-stump line. He also asked him to observe if he was opening his shoulders. His reasoning was simple; he wanted to be in the right position to play the shot especially on the Lord's slope, where right-handers face numerous problems as the ball comes in after pitching. When Sreesanth teased him with a couple of outswinging half-volleys, Tendulkar "thought about playing them, nearly played them, but I resisted."
There was an instance where Sreesanth bowled one slightly fuller and quicker. Tendulkar hit the shot blindly. "I did not see the ball. I don't know where it went, but I know it went straight." It showed that Tendulkar, too, at times reacts instinctively.
He was not angry with himself then but there was one moment that annoyed him. It was an hour after he started batting. Sreesanth bowled one that climbed into the ribs. Tendulkar tried to fend it away, but was slow to react and the ball touched his glove. He reacted with disgust. "Chalo, bas ho gaya abhi (let's go, I am done)." Sreesanth pleaded him to face three more deliveries. The last of which, a short one outside off, Tendulkar upper-cut. The look in his eyes was one of confidence.
And then he walked back relaxed to the pavilion. Sometime over the next five days Lord's might witness something special. Or not. Either way Tendulkar will still say it does not matter.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo