March 11, 2010

Breaking down the double

Bat first, open the innings, dominate the bowlers, stay in the zone, be in top physical shape. But also be an exceptionally gifted player

"I looked to put pressure on the bowlers right from the start of the match," Sachin Tendulkar wrote in his reply to my text message to him after his epic 200. Reading his text made me wonder. I have never got close to scoring a double-century in a limited-overs match. Not even against club sides in England. I have scored a few centuries in List A matches and a few doubles in first-class cricket, but to be honest, even the thought of scoring a double-century in limited-overs cricket has never crossed my mind.

What is so arduous about a double-century that only one man in the history of the game can boast of having achieved the milestone?

There are quite a few pre-requisites anyone who wants to even come close to what Tendulkar has achieved must meet. Since you need to bat the entire 50 overs, or near enough, it's almost mandatory that you either open or bat one-down. Some may argue that even the No. 4 has a chance if the team loses two wickets in the first two overs. But to score a double-century you have to be aggressive right from the outset, and if you walk in after the team has lost two early wickets, chances are you'll be restrained. You'll be required to rein in your natural attacking instincts to play percentage cricket, at least for a little while, and so you will lose out on precious time. If you are to get anywhere close to scoring a double, time is at a premium.

When Tendulkar said he looked to put pressure on bowlers, he perhaps meant that you must start hitting the ball really well from the beginning. It's equivalent to hitting the first ball for four and keeping that up for the rest of the innings. We have seen Virender Sehwag or Adam Gilchrist hit a boundary off the first ball many times. Even I have done it a few times in my career, but that, of course, has never translated into a double-century. So what it means here is that the batsman sees the ball well and his hands and feet move in sync from the moment he walks in.

When a batsman is in top form, he rarely bats against the opposition. Instead he competes with himself to prevent turning over-confident. He must forget he's in great touch and start from scratch every single time

"My state of mind was the same throughout the innings," Tendulkar said. I think he meant he got into the zone early. The zone is like a state of nirvana: a certain stillness within, when everything flows naturally and things around you don't interrupt your inner harmony. You move at your own pace. The results are a by-product of that. Most players manage to reach this state from time to time but it rarely lasts for the duration of an innings. Some achieve it for a few minutes, others for an hour or so. Then you lose concentration and are lured into doing silly things.

When a batsman is in top form, he rarely bats against the opposition. Instead he competes with himself to prevent turning over-confident. He must forget he's in great touch and start from scratch every single time. During the course of the innings he needs to remind himself not to go overboard. Most people don't achieve this level of self-realisation while batting really well.

The lack of effort required to score runs leads to boredom. When the opposition can't challenge you, you stretch yourself. You try to play a reverse-sweep or a switch-hit. And if you pull it off, you try the same against a fast bowler and usually lose your wicket. We have seen Sehwag doing so on a number of occasions. But Tendulkar managed to stay in the zone all the way through and didn't try to outplay himself, which is a very difficult thing to do. Perhaps that explains why no one got to the landmark for so long.

I think batting first is also an advantage when playing such innings because you are not distracted by a target, an asking rate or pressure. The thought of playing a few dot balls doesn't play on your mind as heavily as it would while chasing a huge target. Also, to score a double-century while chasing, the target must be in excess of 350 runs. That means you are chasing seven runs an over, and that cannot be achieved alone. Neither you nor your partner can afford to play dot balls. If he does, you have to try and make up by playing more aggressively than you already are.

"Whatever shots I planned worked for me that day," Tendulkar said modestly. What actually happened was, he lured fast bowlers into bowling full by going deep inside the crease and they obliged. Knowing that the bowlers would target the stumps, he walked across, exposing his leg stump, and dispatched them to the square-leg boundary. Tendulkar made them bowl exactly where he wanted them to.

I remember Matthew Hayden would do something similar. He would walk down the track to fast bowlers, needling them into bowling bouncers. The bowlers who fell for it were dispatched with ease. But it's an art only a few have mastered.

"I wasn't tired at the end. I could have gone on for more overs comfortably," Tendulkar wrote at the end of the text. Batting anything over 30 overs in an ODI is physically challenging. That Tendulkar still had gas in the tank for more tells us how fit he is physically and mentally.

What was most impressive about his innings was not the milestone but how he got there. Some would think a certain amount of slogging is almost mandatory to score a double, but Tendulkar proved that wrong. He started with flowing cover drives and deft touches off his pads and continued to bat that way till the end. He did improvise along the way but didn't play a scoop or a switch-hit because he didn't need to. Getting the front leg out of the way to clear the off side, walking across the stumps to hit balls outside off to leg or using the crease were enough. That indicates the freedom his impeccable technique gives him.

A lot of aggressive players have opened, batted first, dominated the bowling and been physically fit. But all of it hasn't been and will not be enough to score double-centuries in 50-over cricket. I'm not saying this record will not be broken, because it will be. Yet it won't be like the four-minute-mile barrier, which was broken many times. It needed a Tendulkar to break this particular barrier and it'll need an equally gifted and special player to do it again.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here

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