November 8, 2009

Sachin's mind is still strong

More than a decade after his exploits in Sharjah, Tendulkar has proved he still has the spirit of old
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On a couple of balmy nights in Sharjah in 1998, Sachin Tendulkar carved out successive scintillating centuries against Australia to convince those of the men in gold who weren't believers that he was the best batsman in the world.

More than a decade later Tendulkar has converted a whole new set of Australian non-believers with a mercurial ODI century in Hyderabad. Well, that's actually not quite true. Ricky Ponting was in attendance in Sharjah, and for him Tendulkar just reconfirmed his great skill and tenacity.

As the opposing captain, Ponting was constantly plotting Tendulkar's downfall in Hyderabad, and it came in the nick of time to seal an Australian victory that for a time looked like it would be snatched away by one man. As the third, along with West Indies' champion Brian Lara, in what was a three-way battle for the batting crown, Ponting would've appreciated, if not welcomed, Tendulkar's mastery.

One of the more amazing things about Lara was his remarkable feat in recapturing the world record 10 years after he first established the high-water mark. Longevity isn't the hallmark of greatness but it's a requirement.

Not that Tendulkar needed another century to convince anyone of his prowess, but a masterful knock like the Hyderabad one was a timely reminder that he still has a few great innings left. That's the main difference between the Tendulkar of today and a decade ago.

In Sharjah he belted the Australian bowlers all over the park to get his team into the final, and then followed it up two days later with an equally dynamic showing to win the big prize. Now the hard part will be reprising his starring role in Guwahati when his body is still recovering from Hyderabad.

Tendulkar did prove one thing in Hyderabad: the mind is still willing. He displayed the same fighting spirit that was evident in Sharjah, the same desire to trump the opposition, and amazingly, his strike rate was better than in both of those 1998 gems. "I can't concentrate like I used to," I recall Greg Chappell saying near the end of his illustrious career. "I can still apply myself occasionally, but other days it's just a battle." And he was a strong-minded batsman.

Tendulkar is a strong-minded person but that isn't what defines his batting. His is more a mercurial attitude that allows him to sense the moment when to let loose his full array of shots and leave the bowlers clutching at straws. Straws that in his pomp were whisked away by a whirlwind of shots.

Tendulkar's is a mercurial attitude that allows him to sense the moment when to let loose his full array of shots and leave the bowlers clutching at straws caption:

In recent times Tendulkar's batting has gained a mortal quality. He often has to battle and graft for runs, like a 40-average batsman. The fact that even in that mode he still churns out centuries, like a press printing 10-rupee notes, is a testament to his greatness. However, occasionally all the magic returns and on that day he can light up a cricket ground, the way he did in Hyderabad. The cover drive flows, the flick off the pads races to the boundary and the short-of-a-length delivery is punched off the back foot, while fieldsmen are left grasping at fresh air.

In batting maturity Tendulkar resorts to more deft deflections and little glides to third man but they are as much about resting tiring muscles at the non-striker's end as any concession to the bowlers' ability. He's also moved with the times and is now more likely to upper-cut a short-pitched delivery rather than employ the hook shot. He even indulges in the premeditated shovel shot over the short fine-leg fielder's head. It was one of those that ended his epic innings in Hyderabad, just short of him achieving deity and a thrilling Indian victory.

There will be nit-pickers who say, "There he goes again. Tendulkar succeeds but India fails to claim victory. That's the difference between him and Lara." The difference appears to be that Lara had a ruthless streak when it came to winning the match, while for Tendulkar one more risk is never too many.

To me the only disappointment is that 11 years after Sharjah, the Indian batting is still so heavily dependent on Tendulkar. After all his magical displays you'd think some of the next-generation batsmen would be clamouring to imitate Tendulkar's starring roles rather than being content to play the bit part in the shadow of the little master.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist