September 8, 2012

The joy of Sachin

For what Sachin Tendulkar has given me over the years, I remain deeply, profoundly, grateful. Those calling for his retirement should be too

As Sachin Tendulkar walked back to the pavilion after being bowled for a low score in the first innings of the second Test against New Zealand, I heard a man in the row behind me say: "Time to think of retirement." This was a heartlessly cruel remark, especially in Bangalore, where India's greatest batsman has played some magical innings over the past 20 years.

There was worse to come. In the second innings, when Sachin failed again, the murmurings became louder. More people in the pavilion began voicing thoughts unthinkable a year ago, when, after India's World Cup victory, there was a widespread demand for the Bharat Ratna to be immediately conferred on Sachin.

The Indian cricket fan is notoriously fickle. No doubt the middle-aged men in the pavilion of the Chinnaswamy Stadium calling for Tendulkar's retirement earlier this week had been the most vigorous advocates of his being awarded India's highest civilian honour a year ago.

I am proud to say that I stood apart from the herd then, and I shall stand apart from it now. The Bharat Ratna should be reserved for great scientists, statesmen, scholars, social workers, and - at a pinch - classical musicians. As mere entertainers, cricketers can't and don't qualify. On the other hand, when this remarkable batsman is experiencing a lean time at the crease, it behoves us to not call for his retirement but to recall his better days.

In the early 1990s I lived in Delhi. I first saw Sachin in a match at the Ferozeshah Kotla, soon after his debut tour of Pakistan. He did not bat in that game but I remember, most vividly, his alarm and nervousness when hordes of fans rushed towards him as he went out to field, clutching at his sleeve, his cap, his foot, his arm, as is their wont. Three years later, by now an established Test star, he played for India against Zimbabwe at the Kotla, where he was involved in a long stand with his childhood friend and schoolmate Vinod Kambli.

Zimbabwe had one top-class spinner, John Traicos, who, although then over 40 years of age, had a fine high action, immaculate control, and subtle changes of flight. While Kambli came down the wicket and drove Traicos hard and high, Tendulkar stayed in the crease and deftly worked him past slip and behind square leg. When he had reached about 60 he mistimed a cover drive off the other spinner, a journeyman named Ujesh Ranchod, and was superbly caught at cover by Traicos, diving full-length in front of him. Kambli went on to score a double-century.

Soon after this Test, I moved back to Bangalore. The first time I saw Tendulkar play in my home town was in a match against Sri Lanka. Muttiah Muralitharan was then new to Test cricket, and the master took apart the novice, treating him much as he had done the veteran Traicos, with a series of cuts and sweeps. When the second new ball was taken, Tendulkar hit the fast bowler Pramodya Wickramasinghe for a series of cracking boundaries through the off side. He had got to 96, when, trying to cut that other journeyman spinner Don Anurasiri, he lost his off stump.

Four years later I returned from the west coast of the United States just in time to watch a Test against Australia. In the first two matches of the series, the Indian batsmen had comprehensively dominated Shane Warne. Navjot Sidhu, Tendulkar and Azharuddin all made merry at his expense, albeit by contrasting methods - Sidhu by lofting him straight, Sachin by sweeping and pulling him, Azhar by guiding him past point and flicking him through midwicket.

By the time of the third and last Test of the series, Warne was wholly demoralised. India batted first in Bangalore. This day, too, Sachin was in complete command, hitting a series of searing straight drives off Michael Kasprowicz while picking the spinners for twos and threes. He went on to make what at the time was his highest Test score, 177.

Fast forward five or six years, to another India-Australia match at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, a one-day game this time. I was sitting in the galleries, where the mood and spirit of the crowd is at its most revealing. The visitors, batting first, scored in excess of 300. India lost a couple of wickets, but so long as the great man was in, the game was not hopelessly lost.

The Indian cricket fan is notoriously fickle. No doubt the middle-aged men in the pavilion of the Chinnaswamy Stadium calling for Tendulkar's retirement earlier this week had been the most vigorous advocates of his being awarded India's highest civilian honour a year ago

Sachin played a series of magically inventive shots, inside-out over cover, paddle sweeps behind the keeper, sublime late cuts, testing the anticipation and athleticism of some of the world's finest fielders. With every four he hit, the men (and boys) around me would raise their eyes to the heavens, and intone: "Sachin! Sachin!" They were privileged to have seen the divine in the flesh, performing acts of heroism and devilry more innovative than our gods had thought of, and against more devilishly asuric enemies too. It was a truly fabulous innings, made more remarkable by the timid showing of the batsmen at the other end. Sachin got to 89 off about 80 balls before he tried one late cut too many and was bowled.

Shortly after this innings he was afflicted by tennis elbow. This affected his mobility and his shot-making, so much so that in a column I wrote that the genius had become a grafter. Rest and expert treatment, however, cured him completely. In 2010 I saw him hit a magnificent double hundred in a Test against Australia at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, where he unveiled his full range of strokes - cuts, pulls, cover drives, leg glides, and sixes into the stands.

Six months later I saw Sachin score another sublime hundred in Bangalore, in an early match of the 2011 World Cup. Once more, what stood out was his mastery of spin and pace. He demolished England's best bowlers, James Anderson and Graeme Swann, the former through flicks and glides and the latter through drives over and into the straight field. His innings was superbly paced, being matched in this respect by Andrew Strauss, who scored an equally fine hundred in England's chase, which ended in a rare tie.

I watched my first Ranji Trophy match in 1968, my first Test match four years later. In these four and a half decades of cricket watching, live, at the ground, no batsman has given me as much pure, continual pleasure over such a long period as Tendulkar. Not even GR Viswanath, the hero of my youth, the first Test cricketer I shook hands with, the jewel of my home town and my home state, and whom (unlike Sachin) I also often saw make runs (and with what exquisite grace and subtlety) in First Division cricket (for the State Bank of India) and the Ranji Trophy (for Karnataka) as well as for India.

For what Sachin Tendulkar has given me over the years, I remain deeply, profoundly, grateful - and so should those foolish and fickle-minded cynics in the pavilion of the Chinnaswamy Stadium.

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books

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