November 20, 2011

Forget the fans, Sachin

Tendulkar seems burdened by the expectations surrounding his latest milestone

It used to be a pleasure to watch Sachin Tendulkar bat; the shots that flowed as he took the attack to the bowlers, constantly challenging them to maintain line and length under fire. At the moment it's painful to see him prod and poke as he seeks to eke out his 100th century.

Whereas he took the attack to a top-class legspinner, Shane Warne, and won the battle of Chennai in 1998, he fiddled with a trundler like Marlon Samuels and the steady Devendra Bishoo at Eden Gardens, while Rahul Dravid comparatively burned along at the other end.

In his prime those two West Indies spinners wouldn't have been able to contain Tendulkar. He wouldn't have allowed either a minute's peace with his quick footwork, and more importantly, his attitude that said no bowler would shackle him.

It wasn't just Warne; he challenged all the best bowlers. He especially enjoyed antagonising the metronomic magician Glenn McGrath. On occasions he deliberately provoked him into bowling aggressively, a frame of mind from which McGrath derived the least success. So why is Tendulkar suddenly allowing a trundler to tie him down?

It was quite revealing to read the other day that Tendulkar felt he couldn't forego a practice session to rest because the adoring Indian public would blame any failure on indifference. He has always appealed as an attention-to-detail person when it came to batting, but I could never understand his desire to hit so many meaningless balls in the nets. Most of the class players I've seen practised diligently but never excessively.

This was always a major point of difference between the two top batsmen of their time - Brian Lara and Tendulkar. Lara cared about his batting and thought very deeply about the process of making big scores quickly but he wasn't obsessed with practising his skills. He was able to enjoy his life away from the field, whereas Tendulkar, again, probably not wanting to give a demanding public a reason to criticise him for letting them down, has lived the life of a monk.

It's difficult to say how much a demanding and clamouring public has affected Tendulkar's batting over the years. However, there's no doubt that on occasions he has sacrificed personal satisfaction for clinical success.

One of the more incredible aspects of Lara's successful career was the way he batted in the same manner throughout. This is quite remarkable, as even the best batsmen tend to become more conservative as they age. Lara, by living a relaxed lifestyle and employing a strong will, was able to almost defy Father Time.

Despite external and extraneous pressures there's no doubt the hunt for 100 hundreds has contributed to Tendulkar's recent conservative play. This isn't the first time statistics have got the better of him. Watching him bat in England in 2007, where he was dismissed four times as he neared a century, it was obvious the thought of accumulating another three-figure score had brought on a bout of caution. Tendulkar is not at his best when he's playing with extreme caution; his body language betrays him and this acts as a spur to opposition bowlers and captains.

He showed just recently that he could shed the conservative approach and return to being the plunderer of his youth. A blazing 175 against Australia, and scoring even faster to register the first-ever double-century in an ODI, turning back the clock and batting like a youthful Tendulkar. His scintillating strokeplay on those occasions indicates he can still dictate to any attack when the mood strikes him. Unfortunately this frame of mind hasn't surfaced recently in the Test arena.

It's hard to not wonder how much of the conservative approach is Tendulkar's desperation to record the milestone century for his own satisfaction, and what portion is to please his fans. Just for once Tendulkar should try forgetting his fans and play in his preferred style. That's not only his best chance of completing the celebrated century but also the way to please everyone.

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