September 5, 2012

Tendulkar not finished yet

He may have a problem with the full-length delivery but he's still valuable to India's Test side

A few weeks ago on this website I strongly recommended that Sachin Tendulkar be in the Indian touring party to South Africa in November 2013, and my mind remains unchanged. To me, the way Tendulkar got out in his three innings against New Zealand does not suggest by any stretch of the imagination that he is finished as an international batsman.

I will stand by what I have said all along about Tendulkar: that his run-making at the international level will stop only when he stops playing. Until then, he may not dominate as he used to but he will still be a good enough batsman to get runs at the highest level, and to add value to the Indian team, especially in Test cricket.

I was sitting next to Sunil Gavaskar in the commentary box when he said, "It worries me the way Sachin Tendulkar is getting bowled." It was an instinctive observation about a great batsman by another. I knew where Gavaskar was coming from. I believe that you don't have to play the game to be a good student of it, but there are some things in cricket that people who have played it will pick up on that most others will miss. This has to do with what you could call a cricketer's instincts, which they will sometimes find hard to explain to a lay person. Very often when cricketers make these observations, they are drawing from their own experiences. This is an advantage people who have not played the game will never have.

When Tendulkar missed another full-length delivery against New Zealand and was bowled, Gavaskar saw an age-related issue in the way he got out, and this analysis would most likely have had to do with his own experience of having played top-class cricket well into his 30s.

My reaction to Gavaskar's comment was to find out what it is with great ageing batsmen - not just Tendulkar - and full-length deliveries. I have seen with great players as they age that it's the full delivery that seems to bother them more than short ones.

Short balls land on the pitch well before full-length ones do, so their mystery is revealed to the batsman earlier. Unless, of course, you have a genuine problem with playing the short ball, but we are talking here about batsmen who have mostly had answers to all the questions posed to them through their batting careers.

Watching a ball from the point of release to almost right under your eyes is not easy to do; great batsmen do it as a matter of habit, but with age they have to remind themselves to keep doing it right through their innings.

When you are young, the obvious gift of better eyesight and quick foot movement mean such deliveries are easier to put away. In fact, these are balls that good batsmen wait to score off. The two deliveries that bowled Tendulkar in the second Test were balls to be hit for four.

When you start ageing, the ball that you would instinctively hit for four starts becoming one to respect, more so when you are new at the crease. Once you are set, that ball will be driven past the bowler for four, but here again an ageing player has to be watchful, for he will still be susceptible to such a ball, even when he's well into a long innings.

With regard to Tendulkar specifically, it's interesting to note that even in his pomp he used to get out bowled quite often to the same kind of delivery, but what Gavaskar found worrying in Bangalore was the manner in which Tendulkar was getting bowled. It seemed more a miscalculation of length in his head, as opposed to when he was younger, when his downfall would come when he tried to dominate the bowling.

If you have observed Tendulkar over time, after he got to 30 years of age, you may have seen when he has arrived at the crease from the way he has shadow-practised and shaped up to play the first few balls that it's that full-length delivery that he is most wary of. I am also told that it is this length that he practices most against in the nets in preparation for Tests.

Tendulkar is not the first great ageing player who is finding the full ball a bit of a handful. Other outstanding batsmen have had the same problems - Javed Miandad and Gundappa Viswanath, and more recently Dravid and VVS Laxman among them.

So what conclusions can you draw about Tendulkar from these dismissals?

Certainly not that Tendulkar is finished, but clearly, as in life, it does not get any easier in cricket as you age. But you know what - Tendulkar knows this better than anyone else, for age has not been on his side for a while now. He knew before most others about the inevitable age-related hindrances that would creep into his batting, and that is why he started becoming a more defensive batsman, more reliant on technique for long-term success and consistency.

Tendulkar knows that his batting discipline needs to become increasingly more rigorous with the clock ticking, and I think he lives for such challenges. This is a game he knows inside out, and he will surely find a way back from this little setback.

Everyone has focused so much on the dismissals that few are asking the pertinent question: where does 39-year-old Tendulkar fit into Indian cricket's plans?

I have already made my view clear on this and I stand by it. With Laxman and Rahul Dravid gone, Tendulkar, with all his vulnerabilities as a 40-year-old, will still provide value to this Indian batting line-up when it goes to South Africa in November 2013. I know this is a huge punt I am suggesting, but you can put it down again to a cricketer's instincts.

There is an important reason why I think Tendulkar is still relevant in Indian Test cricket: it's because of the fierce competitor within him. No one I have seen hates failure more than Tendulkar does, or can make the sacrifices necessary to overcome it.

Even as I write this, I can visualise Tendulkar at home with his family. His mind will be fixed on the next full-length delivery that he will receive in his next Test innings. I can see that image now, of Tendulkar's foot coming well down that Ahmedabad pitch and sending that full, straight delivery sizzling off the turf for four.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here