The ferocity of desire
Sachin Tendulkar: calm before the storm
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That burning gaze, the shuffle of the pelvic muscles, the contempt for leather ... every time Sachin Tendulkar picks up his weapon of choice and readies to dispense justice, he makes a compelling sight. Watching him bat from three meters is like establishing a touch of intimacy with his genius, feeling the ferocity of his desire, the thunderous blaze of his bat. As a spectator, it's the closest you can get to a master rehearsing his cherished art.
Tendulkar does not bat regularly at the nets these days, preferring throws in to full-fledged engagement. In fact, he has been bowling more than batting during the practice sessions on the tour so far. But at the MCG, he has had two long nets at the batting crease, and once he commits himself to a session, he brings all his intensity to it.
A couple of days ago, he kept a few local bowlers toiling away till long after his team-mates had packed their gear and one of the bowlers was awestruck enough to concede that he had never seen anyone hit the ball harder. He spent a good part of the morning today dispensing legspin, a mixture of long hops, full tosses and some real rippers, one of which foxed Rahul Dravid completely, before padding up. He took guard on a pitch Dravid had found to be ill-behaved, stood a couple of inches outside the batting crease and egged the bowlers to give their all.
Ashish Nehra was given a few lessons. "This line is no good," Nehra was told when he pitched a few on the middle, "you will never trouble good batsmen with this." Even when Nehra managed to hit the pad once, he was chastised. "No use, this. All you will get with this is some gasping from the stands, but bowling down the leg is only asking for trouble." There was humour too. Sadagoppan Ramesh's honest attempts to impersonate a medium-pace bowler earned him this gem: "You are just like McGrath. You can't bowl a bad ball even if you want to."
A local bowler was politely asked to bowl a fuller length just outside off stump and bring them in. "Good stuff. I want you to keep on bowling there." Preparing for Andy Bichel? He smiles at the questions, looks away and takes guard for the next ball. Murali Kartik is challenged to toss it up and is met halfway down the wicket with the full face of the bat. "How much for that," Tendulkar enquires and furnishes the reply himself: "Four."
Tomorrow is a big day for Tendulkar. He cannot be oblivious to his team's need for him to deliver. His team-mates consider it a blessing that they have done so well without a contribution from him for they reckon that a big score is round the corner. "Ever since I have started playing," Sourav Ganguly said yesterday, "Sachin has never gone through a series without scoring runs. A century is due." The Australians are wary of just that. "Sachin is too good a batsman not to score runs for too long," Steve Waugh said, "I am just hoping that it will not be in the next two Tests."
It will not be human for Tendulkar to not feel the weight of expectations. But outwardly, he betrays no nerves. He goes about his routine with a calm that has been the feature of his 14-old international career. His record against Australia is not open the question, but Tendulkar is a proud man, who sets his own standards. The next five days represent as much a challenge as an opportunity.
Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.