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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Johnathon on March 5, 2012, 1:20 GMT

    How many Tendulkar pieces are written by Cricinfo since the 99th century against South Africa? I think we should get Raj the Stats man on that

  • Billy on March 4, 2012, 21:19 GMT

    Finishing a career poorly does not make one of the greats of all time suddenly be considered a non-great. However, it may change their rankings amongst the greats. Had Tendulkar retired in 2008, he would have finished probably fourth or fifth on the all time rankings. Had Tendulkar retired at the start of 2011, he would have been the clear and undisputed second greatest batsman of all time. Given his poor tours of England and Australia, there is a case for him dropping back down the order again. The same goes for Ponting, who in recent times has dropped in the all-time rankings.

  • Dummy4 on March 4, 2012, 12:38 GMT

    Sachin Seems to be an ELEPHANT in the India's Cricket Room...Seriously time to hang the boots for the sake of good future of Indian cricket Team.

  • Andrew on March 4, 2012, 9:13 GMT

    @csowmi7 - I really dislike the old chestnut about Piunter "...unlike ponting who played along some of the finest cricketers like..." It is almost like saying that India are not up to test standard! The fact is SRT has played with Mo Azzar, Harbhajan, Kumble, VVS, Sehwag, Dravid & Ganguly & Zaheer. Hardly a lack of talent, that arguement is tiring & not well thought out. Lara on the other hand, started his career with some of the greats, but was almost a one man band afterwards - not Sachin!

  • Naser on March 4, 2012, 1:42 GMT

    After match presentation, clearly M S Dhoni has been giving his comments about the fitness of seniors on field that team is losing 20 - 30 runs due to senior players . . . It is shame for Sachin as well as his supports because now he is blocking the younger generation to take the spot in team. . .

  • Dummy4 on March 3, 2012, 20:04 GMT

    Sri Lanka has defeated Australia in last three encounters - they deservedly walk into the finals for defending what was a distinctly sub-par total. As an Indian, and an ardent Tendulkar fan, the question which begs an answer ever since April 2, 2011 is: What more does Tendulkar aspire to achieve in ODIs? He played superbly in 2 World Cups - leading his team to Semifinals (1996) and Finals (2003) only to be pipped at the post by a better team. In 2011, he played just as beautifully, but also with the freedom which comes with the knowledge that he had a team to rely on, instead of a team to drag on. First ODI double ton, a career aggregrate, average against the best team of his era (AUS), century tally, matchwinning knocks, heck! even matchwinning bowling spells - which spell out loud and clear: great. But the clock spares none, and scared as any man who has played the game with his passion all his adult life might be: we'll weep when you're gone, but please let us Sachin ..

  • Dummy4 on March 3, 2012, 18:15 GMT

    True, but I think he's just playing his game.Others seem to be more obsessed with his 100th 100 than SRT himself.At the same time it would be better for him to concentrate on tests than ODIs to prolong his career just as Ponting is thinking.

  • sowmi on March 3, 2012, 11:53 GMT

    Tendulkar's legacy as one the greatest batsman will always live on in the minds of all true cricket fans. Nobody remembers that Kapil Dev took 2 years to go from 400 to 434 only that he won India's world cup or Gavaskar's 34 of 120 odd balls. Hope that Tendulkar gets the fairytale farewell that he deserves and goes out with a bang. Still believe that he still has 5-6 centuries left in him going by his form in 2010.

  • sowmi on March 3, 2012, 11:27 GMT

    @ king owl out of his 48 centuries in ODIs 33 have come in winning causes more centuries than any other man on the planet. His form took India to the number one spot in tests and the world cup. How many big matches has Lara won for his team? The fact is that when Lara and Tendulkar were at their peak in the 90s they had little support from their teammates unlike ponting who played along some of the finest cricketers like mcgrath, gilchrist, lee, and warne.

  • suhaib on March 3, 2012, 10:58 GMT

    I'm an Indian fan and was hoping India would qualify but given the way SL has played, they truly deserve. Yes i'm fed up of individual Indian cricketers Sehwag,s, Sachin's and Virat's etc. Pls stop talking about individuals as Cricket is a team game and fed up of SRT's 100th 100, dont care if he does or doesn't get it, hope he retires soon and retains his respect and India win matches abroad.

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