Tendulkar states his defence
People get anxious when Sachin Tendulkar starts to defend. Not just in bars and barbershops, not just on Twitter and in tea shops, but also in commentary boxes full of former Test players and Tendulkar's own team-mates. "The one that stays low can't be too far", "How long can he defend?", "He'll get out before stumps". Ever so simplistically, everybody begins expecting a wicket the moment Tendulkar begins to respect bowlers.
Everybody other than those who remember and swear by his hundred in Cape Town last year, where he basically defended and left alone through a crazy day's play because, in his own words, "one had to play a little bit outside the line" to take singles, which he didn't want to do. He scored 146 at a strike rate of 46.49 on a day when the ball swung and seamed to the whims of an on-song Dale Steyn, but by the time he went on his next overseas tour that masterclass in pure defence was forgotten, and pundits were back to predicting a wicket when Tendulkar blocked out as much as an over.
The thing with Tendulkar is, he has played for so long you can find examples of almost every kind of innings. For every Cape Town against Steyn, there will be a Sydney when he began to play for a break and got out. And for every such innings, there will be Sydney from eight years earlier, when he obsessively cut out the cover-drive, and defended, defended, defended before opening up and scoring a double-century.
It will be fair to say, though, that Tendulkar's dismissals when defending stand out more than his successful and long displays of defence, or even the dismissals of, for the argument's sake, Rahul Dravid when defending. Almost everybody has written off Tendulkar's defence or prefers his attacking game.
To Tendulkar it matters little. Speaking of his Cape Town innings, Tendulkar told ESPNcricinfo, actually making a larger point, "There are times when a batsman feels he is not moving well enough to take charge. And there are times when you feel, 'I need not do this. I am in control. Why should I just do it for the heck of it?' Somebody sitting in the stands or in the commentator's box wants me to hit a boundary. Why should I do it? I have to score runs, I need to make my decisions."
Kolkata on Wednesday was neither of the magnitude of Sydney nor were the conditions and bowling as challenging as Cape Town, but it was an important innings considering what Tendulkar is going through. This is a fascinating Test if you want an insight into Tendulkar's batting. He is 39, going through his leanest patch, India are struggling too, people are calling for his retirement, and he had both his edges beaten by a left-arm spinner in his last Test. How would he respond? Counterattack or absorb all the pressure and defend? Unlike outsiders, Tendulkar showed he trusted his defence again, playing an innings - albeit worth just 76 - that has kept India from rolling over and dying on a flattish pitch.
This was an obsessed innings. In both innings in Mumbai, Tendulkar was dismissed playing across the line, looking for that single around the corner. This time he cut that shot out completely. Only three times did he play that shot, and on each of those occasions the ball was safely down leg. It's a pursuit of batting perfection, played out in the pressure situation of a Test and despite his waning powers as a batsman.
Forget the single, he didn't mind playing out continuous maidens. Against Monty Panesar alone, his tormentor from Mumbai, he played six maidens. His 20 runs off 83 Panesar deliveries made for his second-slowest strike rate against a particular bowler in a particular innings (at least 60 balls long) since 2002. He either defended or left alone 88 deliveries out of the 155 he faced.
And it needed some of the best defence today. If defending against Panesar was to overcome a personal demon, had he not played out James Anderson and Steven Finn in the afternoon, India would have lost more than just two wickets in the middle session. He played late against the reversing ball, he kept out the yorkers, he swayed out of the line of sharp bouncers, he watching the ball so closely that even those that kept low could not squeeze through. One of them he even punched away for a four.
Just when Tendulkar was beginning to look comfortable, Finn managed to trouble him with movement each way. He was back to being cautious in those overs around the afternoon drinks break. It included that ferocious spell from Anderson too, which claimed Virat Kohli. After weathering those two spells, and a 21-over stint from Panesar, Tendulkar finally showed the first signs of confidence, lapping Graeme Swann to moving from 38 to 42. The innings began to flow, he even began to take the odd risk, but it ended to the first ball after the final drinks break of the day.
Had that amount of concentration taken all he had to give at this age? Did he just get a ball from Anderson that was too good? Those are questions for Tendulkar to answer. What is certain, though, is that the innings was a superb show of discipline, a reaffirmation that he was prepared to play at a level below what he is used to, that he might do it every time he comes out to bat if that is what it takes to prolong his career. Most importantly, it was something India still need.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo