April 9, 2010

Tendulkar transcends the format

To watch the master in Chennai was to be reminded of how he unites India, and also of how his batting has remained pure, even in Twenty20

The moment the ball soared into the night sky in Chennai from Sachin Tendulkar's bat, nearly 40,000 people, most of them screaming, rose to their feet. The match had swung dramatically Chennai's way after dehydration had forced Tendulkar off the field. Till then, he had been majestic and had kept Mumbai in control but, from 66 for 1 in the ninth over, Mumbai had sunk to 89 for 7 in the 15th. Tendulkar was forced to drag himself back.

Mumbai now needed nearly three runs off every ball to win but for the Chennai fans, as long as Tendulkar remained, there remained the possibility of the win being snatched away.

It wasn't so simple. If that moment when the ball left Tendulkar's bat could have been frozen, a peculiar conflict might have been detected. The Chennai fan would have wanted the ball to land safely in the palms of the long-on fielder; the Indian fan would willed it to travel further.

In the event, Murali Vijay, Chennai's new poster boy, took the catch safely, and the crowd celebrated. Having spent the whole evening among them it was easy for me to sense they would have celebrated even if the ball had landed beyond the rope. In a perfect world, of course, Tendulkar would have taken the game to the last over and Chennai would have won by one run.

The crowd continued clapping as Tendulkar made his way back. It was hard to tell at what point cheering for his wicket merged with simply cheering for him. A man stood up with a poster that reflected the mood. It read: "XI Super Kings v one Superhuman."

They may not demonstrate their devotion as vociferously - or as quietly, as Virender Sehwag found out after scoring his half-century at Eden Gardens - as the Kolkata fans, but franchise loyalty has been strong in Chennai from the very first year of the IPL. Perhaps I chose the wrong match to experience it first-hand: Tendulkar loyalty is a huge counter-balance.

A few months ago Tendulkar antagonised regional chauvinists in Maharashtra by proclaiming that Mumbai belonged to all Indians. To watch him play Chennai in the IPL was to feel the true import of that statement: Tendulkar, Mumbai's proudest possession, belongs to all Indians. MS Dhoni got a big ovation to the crease, a spontaneous cheer broke out when Mike Hussey's image was flashed on the giant screen, and Doug Bollinger found his name chanted when his turn came to bowl. But inevitably Tendulkar received the loudest cheer. They cheered him when he strolled out before the toss, they cheered even louder when he was being interviewed on the square, they cheered when he stopped a ball, and they cheered his boundaries with nearly the same enthusiasm as they did those by their own.

A few months ago Tendulkar antagonised regional chauvinists in Maharashtra by proclaiming that Mumbai belonged to all Indians. To watch him play Chennai in the IPL was to feel the true import of that statement: Tendulkar, Mumbai's proudest possession, belongs to all Indians

And what boundaries those were. There has been zest in Tendulkar's batting in all forms of the game over the last 12 months, and the best thing about his batting in Twenty20 is that it does not lack purity. It has been pointed out how the two leading run-scorers in this year's IPL are orthodox players but Jacques Kallis has often had to go outside his zone - lofts over extra cover, swipes and heaves towards the leg side - whereas Tendulkar has batted almost serenely: the upper cut, the paddled sweep, the lofted drive against the spinners, are all part of his regular fare.

His first five fours against Chennai came off five different strokes. Sudeep Tyagi was driven through the covers off the back foot and pulled behind square, R Ashwin was cut to point, Bollinger was whipped to midwicket from off stump, and Ashwin again was lofted over mid-on. You can tell great players from the way they move into their strokes: Brian Lara, Tendulkar's great rival, was all flow and beautiful arcs; Tendulkar is about precision and balance, and not a muscle out of place.

It is a grossly unfair comparison, but what a contrast it was to watch Saurabh Tiwary, who has been one of the successes for the Mumbai Indians this season, bat with Tendulkar. Tiwari threw all of himself - shoulder, body, feet - into his strokes, often sending the ball in unintended directions. He can sometimes be savage, but he is unlikely to ever provide aesthetic pleasure. Twenty20 is a restricting form, but it takes only one stroke or one ball for great players to distinguish themselves.

Tendulkar couldn't carry Mumbai over the finish line that day. But while he shone, not only did he transcend the limitations of the format, but also the partisanship. While it lasted, it was a happy reminder of the things we adore about cricket.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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