Sachin Tendulkar's landmark ton December 20, 2010

A decade of covering Sachin

Charting the highs and lows, the changing roles and the changing game of the Indian legend since century No. 25

The first hundred that I watched Sachin Tendulkar make was his 25th, at a venue that will always have a special place in his affections. It was March 2001, and VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid had just ruined everything. Whichever benchmarks are used, that Test match at the Eden Gardens will always belong in the top five whenever the greatest games played are mentioned. It was my first Test match and I left Kolkata suddenly aware that it would only be downhill from there on. The chances of covering such a match again? As likely as a Chris Martin hundred.

In Chennai on the eve of the decisive third Test, I was watching Tendulkar in the nets with Peter Roebuck alongside me. A lot of people there were trying to guess Tendulkar's state of mind. He had been magnificent in Mumbai, the Lone Ranger as India were outclassed in three days. Then, in the greatest match that India had ever played, his primary contribution was three wickets on the final evening. With the bat, he had contributed just 10 and 10.

As we watched him play ball after ball in the nets, Roebuck told me: "He'll score a hundred here. I'm certain of it." That prophecy couldn't be tested on the first two days, dominated by a Matthew Hayden double and the Australian collapse that was to ultimately cost them the series.

Tendulkar was in the middle to face the second ball of the third day after Glenn McGrath had trapped Shiv Sundar Das in front with the first. I don't recall each of the 15 fours or two sixes that he hit that day, but as ever it was the contest with Shane Warne that had everyone on seat-edge. There was one over in the afternoon, with Tendulkar and Dravid having drawn the sting out of the attack.

Warne was bowling round the wicket, targeting the rough in an effort to keep the runs down. Tendulkar backed away from the stumps and just bunted the ball over the slip cordon. Warne tried again. Same result. By the time Tendulkar did it a third time, he had been reduced to swearing in frustration.

The next time the two teams met in Australia, Warne was serving a suspension and confined to the commentary box. Tendulkar's fortunes had also dipped. In his previous seven Tests, including the first three of that tour, he had eked out 253 runs at less than 20. The Guardian commissioned me to do a story on the slump, asking me to talk to another batting great on the subject.

The obvious choice was Greg Chappell, then doing commentary, who had gone through a similar dip in 1981-82. "I don't think there's much wrong with his technique," he said. "The thing with slumps is that it takes just an innings or two to put doubts in your mind. And when you're tense, your reactions tend to be that touch slower than if you are relaxed."

As I was walking back to the press box, Chappell added: "There were signs here that he's getting it back [he had made 44 in the second innings]. Don't be surprised if he scores a big one in Sydney."

Sydney was where he had first unveiled his talent for an Australian audience 12 years earlier. Yet, the innings he played in January 2004 was a completely different beast. Reams have been written of how he hardly hit a ball into the off side through the innings. But for me, it was notable for how he grew into a different role. Laxman, in the form of his life, played an innings touched with magic. Tendulkar's 241 was workmanlike in comparison. After years of carrying the team, he now had a superbly talented support cast around him. It no longer mattered if he didn't set the tone.

By the time he got to Delhi in December 2005, having been level on 34 hundreds with Sunil Gavaskar for nearly a year, expectations had changed. Those watching still expected the moon each time he walked out, but the days of "Tendulkar out, all out" were long gone.

The middle of the decade was a tough time, with tennis elbow and a shoulder problem restricting movement and affecting confidence. At the Kotla, against Murali bowling as well as he ever did in India, there were glimpses of the Tendulkar of old, but by and large the dominator had given way to a man astute at assessing percentages.

Even then, the failures mounted. At Mumbai in March 2006, there were boos when he was dismissed on the final day, and up in the press box, an England international who had once played against him called him a "walking wicket". The consensus was that the glory days were gone. After all, even Gavaskar and Richards had only lasted 16 years at the top.

There were signs of revival in 2007 in England, but the rehabilitation was complete only on his favourite tour. He had never left Australia without a hundred, and in Sydney, in a Test now sadly remembered for the wrong reasons, he rolled back the years with a magnificent innings. He followed that with another in Adelaide, finishing the series with nearly 500 runs.

As much as the runs though, it was the way he was received that meant so much to him. At every venue, the ovation that he got when he walked out was spellbinding. It was common to meet fans who wanted to see India thrashed, and Tendulkar doing well.

Just as Picasso went from his Blue period to Cubism to Surrealism, so Tendulkar has tweaked his game to accommodate both physical changes and the demands of an evolving game

It was much the same at Centurion over the last two days. There was no question of mixed allegiances but the moment Tendulkar walked out, even the most vocal South African fans stood up to applaud. Some, like Dale Steyn, were small kids when Tendulkar first toured. That he was still around when they brought their own young families to the cricket almost defied belief.

At Chennai two years ago, when he scored what he says was his favourite hundred, Kevin Pietersen dramatically described him as Superman. Nearly a decade earlier, some in the stands had wept as one of his finest centuries had been unable to take India over the line against Pakistan. The tears I saw in 2008 were different, happy homage to a man who has been deified in his own lifetime.

What does it feel like to watch him, a decade on from No. 25? In terms of longevity, you can perhaps compare him to Pablo Picasso, another prodigy who never believed in resting on his laurels. And just as Picasso went from his Blue period to Cubism to Surrealism, so Tendulkar has tweaked his game to accommodate both physical changes and the demands of an evolving game.

The technique was always exceptional - how many 18-year-olds could have coped with the pace and bounce that the WACA offered in 1992? - but in recent times it appears more watertight than ever. The full repertoire of shots remains, but the frills are avoided. Like the rich man who knows the value of each penny, he simply refuses to ease up.

Such tunnel vision doesn't sit easy with everyone. "I'd rather watch Graeme Swann bat," said a friend a couple of days back. "Tendulkar's become bloodless and clinical," said another. But just as the praise often leaves him embarrassed and lost for words, so the criticism washes off him. After 21 years, which have encompassed a slump that might have ended other careers, he knows his game better than any outsider. And just like the battered old bat that has been such a trusty aide for the last two years and more, you sense that there are a few more shots to play.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harsh on December 23, 2010, 10:48 GMT

    In the end I ponder over the fact that is it fair to compare all these batting greats who all had their own uniqie qualities.Hobbs was brilliantly consisitent and a master on wet pitches,Bradman was statistically a batting machine on another planet,Viv Richards destroyed the greatset pace attacks with unmatched ferocity,Brian Lara posessed the ability to post mammoth scores at a phenomenal scoring rate,Gary Sobers championed a crisis in any conditions,Tendulkar is the most complete batsman of he modern age while Gavaskar and Len Hutton were technically the soundest.

    Scoring 50 test Centuries is a feat unlikely to be equaled ever ,and in the modern era it would be difficult to envisage even Bradman matching Sachin's temperament.In test history we may well say there has never been a Sachin Tendulkar or there may never be a Sachin Tendulkar.He could dominate any bowling attack in any conditions as though a he was a prophet sent by God for batting.

  • Harsh on December 23, 2010, 10:21 GMT

    In any statistical analysis Sachin will come out the second best test match batsman to Sir Don Bradman.In recent years it was always arguable bewteen Brian Lara and Sachin and even Ponting was a contender but Tendulkar has won the race with his remarkable Muhhamad-Ali style comeback-what no other great batsman has ever done.

    Statistics can never be a fair criteria and it is really difficult to compare Hoobs,Sobers,Viv Richards,Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar.What has marked out Tendulkar is that he has faced more pressure than any great batsman . Where Sachin is a champion is that he posesess every ingredient of a perfect batsman-Phenomenal consistency,abilty to perform in crisis and win matches,graet temperament,superb technique in addition to outstanding innovative ability.No batsman has resembled Bradman ever more than Sachin .

    In the modern era Sachin may have outscored the Don,in a crisis.

  • Rishi on December 23, 2010, 10:21 GMT

    @Dileep, Ironmonkey is right!! :) May be you should write articles about the other test cricket batting greats who have been sorry for the last two years, such as Ponting whose batting average has been nothing but paltry (last 2 years), Dravid who has been in the worst form of his career. Such articles probably would make ironmonkey happy. Because in his opinion writing about a test cricketer who has averaged over 80 in the past two years, reaching his 50th test century is a waste of time and embarassing! May be you should try writing great things about other batsmen who are not so great and havent achieved much or even anything in the 'last 2 years' so you can sell such articles to readers like Ironmonkey rather than the "largely Indian Publin". WHAT IS HE (ironmonkey) THINKIN?

  • Rajendra on December 23, 2010, 4:42 GMT

    All the people who talks about Sachin's negative things will feel when the Great retries. Generally people mind set is always like this they blame when players perform and feel after they retire. Can any one tell me which of the youngsters performs consistently as this man? Even the modern bowlers are planning a lot to remove this man. Please stop talking and admire his quality cricket until he retires. Cheers!

  • John on December 22, 2010, 13:18 GMT

    Why are there so many negative people when it comes to Sachin, if you are going to compare batsmen please look at the stats first. The Don is the Don if he had played in this era he would most definitely have demolished attacks maybe not with an average of 99 but still very high. Now when comparing other batsmen leave out the Don. Tendulkar is the best of the modern era bar none, his closest rival is Lara but Sachin averages better away from home that Lara, much better record in England and Australia than Lara and more hundreds in victories than Lara its a fact look it up and up until 2000 Lara had two all time great bowlers in his side in Walsh and Ambrose. Don't get me wrong Lara is great and more destructive than Tendulkar just not as good in all situations. I saw him really struggle in England on numerous occasions first hand and only hit runs when the series was over.

  • Dummy4 on December 21, 2010, 14:00 GMT

    Bulls eye ironmonkey. Dont know much technical to write? Just write a article worshipping and glorifying any and every ordinary feat of Sachin .. u will get the largest readership .. But the quality of readership???

    Same things happen in other facets too .. glorify RajiniKanth .. no matter the movies starring are just pure entertainment material! Many other examples

    All in all .. attitude seems to be ..just write what sells, not sell a good write!

  • Dummy4 on December 21, 2010, 13:48 GMT

    nair_ottappalam - I SECOND YOU!!!!!!

  • vinod on December 21, 2010, 9:16 GMT

    While it is a fact that no words can praise the achievements of Tendulkar, the Indian media has altogether forgotten our second best batsmen who also happened to reach a milestone during the course of the same innings. The "GREAT WALL OF INDIA" Rahul Dravid completed 12,000 runs in test cricket becoming the only third person after Sachin and Ponting to reach there. The media simply ignored this. Even there hasnt been any much importance given for this by our own I feel very disappointed on this account. Yes, I agree Rahul may not reach that 50 centuries, but his is by no means a mean achievement.

  • Anirudh on December 21, 2010, 5:02 GMT

    I understand that Sachin has been a servant for Indian cricket for a long time. A lot of questions rose regarding his stats on his match winning knocks.The most explosive batsman Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards and Legendary Imran Khan recently commented on this issue and made sense. You need 20 wickets to win a test match and all through the 90's so to speak until mid 2005 India has been gathering bats under its kitty, but, there has been a serious deficit of quality bowlers. Its quite ironic every bowler in recent times has lost his pace, had change in action, changed delivery stride, irregular footing and more. This has been the trademark of the MRF Pace Academy. I really wonder sometimes if this institution has done any good to the existing set of seamers we have today. You do not win matches merely by scoring runs,you need 20 wickets to win a Test match. And if the support system is not in place, i don't think its wise to put the entire cricket kit on one man's shoulder.

  • Samar on December 21, 2010, 4:33 GMT

    Yesterday in some Indian news media They were saying " Sachin is better than Bradman " ... I could not stop laughing ... reasons they gave were don played only test cricket , only in 3 countries , there were no technologies that time , funny explanation...

    From all cricket lovers(excluding India ) Bradman is double of sachin ... can we ever imagine sachin playing fast bowlers without helmet not even the spinners... did technology helped tendulkar or did not ... Had Brain lara and Ricky Ponting been Indian how would the Indian media rate him ??...I still feel Brain lara is a better player than Sachin ... Many people say sachin has all the shot in the book but how often we see sachin play pull or hook, very rare ... Sachin is over rated cause he is an Indian and BCCI wants to rule the cricketing body with money power... GOD save cricket from all these bunch of joker headed by Sarad Pawar (corrupted Indian politician)...

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