March 2, 2012

Sachin of Benalla

They say no one ever remembers how you leave cricket, that the memory of you at your peak is what's everlasting. Is that true?

Anyone curious about whether Albertslund Under-13s or Chang-Aalborg Under-13s won the 1992 season final in Copenhagen can look it up on page 1168 of the following year's Wisden. In those same yellow-backed pages is not a peep, let alone a score, telling us of Sachin Tendulkar's fourth encounter with the soon-to-be-magic-wristed Shane Warne on a Sunday afternoon in Benalla. That game is gone.

Benalla is a town of 9000, proud of its roses. Cricket on a local ground is different. No cinema-sized replay screen - that's everything, it means each ball has a once-only importance, so people watch with crinkled and concentrating eyes, and the players can feel their eyes, especially since the watchers are invariably leaning close-by on the fence or boundary rail. All of this, and plenty else - sightscreens that are too short, a whispering gale unimpeded by grandstands, the full-strength drink being sold out of redeployed kebab vans - has a democratising effect. Top players' sheepish shots look more sheepish. Their good shots no longer seem so unlike ours.

"If you have ever," the local boast goes, "been privileged enough to play on the Gardens Oval in Benalla, count yourself lucky as it is truly one of the great grounds of our time." In 1884 Arthur Shrewsbury batted here and made 6. Frank Woolley hit 37 in 1921, Wally Hammond 53 in 1937, Viv Richards 11 in 1984. Through the mists, just once, an Indian team visited for a World Cup warm-up against Victoria. Tendulkar was teenaged and Warne 22, both puffy-cheeked still. No newspaper, country-based or city, sent a reporter along. What's known is scant - that Tendulkar batted third-drop and made 59, that Warne's ten overs went for 37, that Tendulkar was stumped off Warne's bowling, that Warne getting Tendulkar out had never happened before… enough, in other words, that we know to file it in the pantheon of cricket's lesser-watched gripping afternoons. We know as well that a boundary-leaner or two, peering at Tendulkar's feet and hands, would have murmured: "I could do that."

For that was the style of the man. Tendulkar batted, if not quite like us, then like us as we aspired to bat - us with swifter reflexes, softer hands, greater confidence, more talent, a functioning brain and five times the stroke repertoire. Little about this Tendulkar was exotic. Everything was textbook and explicable.

You'll note the past tense - was - because this Australian summer nearly gone, Tendulkar's batting has taken a Harlem Globetrotterish turn. Way back in the MCG Test, first ball after tea, he dipped down to a wicketkeeper's bent-kneed squat and paddle-scooped Siddle over the slips for six. Beyond us in our wildest dreaming, that was; and nor was it, not really, him. Two nights ago in Hobart he painted hopscotch squares round the popping crease. Premeditating a full delivery from Maharoof, he reverse-quickstepped nearly on to his stumps, only to then hover, dropping bat on ball with a heartbeat to spare and poking it wide of deep third man for two runs. Five minutes later he tried a mirror variation off Malinga, aiming at fine leg this time, and missed, out lbw.

With exit doors beckoning for fading members of two batting line-ups, the catchphrase of the summer has gone something like this: "No one ever remembers how you leave cricket. The memory of you at your peak is what's everlasting."

For batsmen, the more far-gone you are, the shorter your innings tends to be, but this seldom proves conclusive, it's more likely out-and-out confusing, the shortage of visual evidence making it tricky to second-guess where rust begins and decay sets in and pure bad luck intrudes

Is that true? Think of Bradman. He was pushing 40 when he boarded his last boat to England in 1948. Certain Englishmen sensed the Don drifting dangerously close to the banks of cricketing mortality. He flat-batted that notion back over the bowlers' heads. Sort of, anyhow: if he'd played on first ball to Alec Coxon at Lord's, as nearly happened, and if the slip fielders had then caught him on 22 or 30 at Headingley, where he proceeded to 173, Bradman would have averaged 39 in that series - confirmation, and right on cue at the end, of mortality. That 99.94 career rate would instead read 95.87. One's an Australian Broadcasting Corporation GPO Box in the making; the other is a (stupendously fine) batting average. Would we remember him just the same?

The decaying boxer winds up with chunks of his face on the canvas. Golfers on the slide spend whole afternoons hacking their way round the backblocks of the course. For batsmen, conversely, the more far-gone you are, the shorter your innings tends to be, but this seldom proves conclusive, it's more likely out-and-out confusing, the shortage of visual evidence - of raw crease-bound minutes - making it tricky to second-guess where rust begins and decay sets in and pure bad luck intrudes. It's in this emotional murk that an ever-lengthening bunch of ever-ageing batsmen find themselves today.

Tendulkar has long provoked in Australians that rarest wish: a hundred for him, whopping defeat for his team. With amazing regularity, the wish has come true. But there has been no hundred on this tour, and much inordinate fretting - not Tendulkar's fault, though he has looked a bit harried - about the hundred that cried wolf, Tendulkar's prospective 100th hundred. This sits uneasily with some Australians who respect Tendulkar but tell tales of Bill Lawry declaring an innings closed, for the team's sake, when Rod Marsh was 92 not out, or of Allan Border - Adelaide, 1991-92 - vowing to declare on himself on 90.

Border: "We've got this over, and then we're declaring."

Last man Whitney: "What? You're on 90."

Border: "I couldn't give a shit about that."

Border took a single. Whitney took a slog at Venkatapathy Raju and got out. Some AB-style hard-headedness will shortly be needed in India. If Sri Lanka win today, India are out of the finals, and then it's up to Tendulkar, or maybe it's up to the selectors, or maybe it's up to Tendulkar and the selectors to work out who it's up to, to determine if he'll be back or if his jitterbug effort in Hobart was his farewell to Australia. He's 38.

That afternoon in Benalla in 1992 must have been some sight to see.

Please may Sri Lanka lose today.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country