A ride with Sachin
Sachin, this is your 15th year in the game. For many that's an entire career. How much do you think cricket has changed in your lifetime?
Definitely, the game has changed. I would say one-day cricket has changed more than Tests. When I started playing in 1989, 260 used to be a winning score, now it is just an average score. When we played in Pakistan this year, the first four innings in the ODIs had scores of above 300; it was amazing. There were near-300 scores in the last two matches too.
Players know that you have to set a big target, and that has probably changed the way Test cricket is played because the same approach has spread.
The idea of opening the innings has changed. Matthew Hayden, Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle, Herschelle Gibbs, they all defy convention.
Yes, you can say it is a different sort of batting technique. Earlier you saw off the new ball and then let bowlers watch you for the rest of the day. But now batsmen are prepared to take more risks and they feel that if you can unsettle the bowler in the second over, then why not?
Do you think the days of the defensive opener are behind us?
I wouldn't say so. There's Mark Richardson who is an old-fashioned opener, who likes to leave everything outside the off stump. And there's Aakash Chopra who is a very sound and solid opener. And then you have Sehwag, Hayden, Gibbs, the guys who play big shots from ball one.
Would you say that this has something do with the depletion of fast bowling stock? For the best part of your career, you played some great quick bowlers. Wasim Akram Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Glenn McGrath at his peak. Now, most of them are gone.
McGrath and Pollock are still around and there's Gillespie. Pollock and McGrath may have lost a bit of pace but they are still great with the new ball. And there are some good bowlers who could go on to become great. Harmison bowls at 90mph, Flintoff bowls consistently at 86, 87, and England have Jones also. Australia have Lee and Kasprowicz, there are Shoaib and Sami in Pakistan, we have Zaheer, Nehra and Irfan. In six or seven years, you'll be calling these guys great. Maybe not all of them, but three out of 10.
But would you agree that compared to the first 10 years of your career, the last five have been dominated by batsmen and that the conditions have been somewhat favourable to batting? Pitches have flattened out. Even in Australia, the ball doesn't fly off as it used to.
Perth was quick this time too. But we didn't play a Test there. The other pitches were not too quick.
Even in England, you mainly get good batting wickets.
Lord's and The Oval, yes. But Headingley did quite a bit and Nottingham too wasn't a easy pitch.
In general would it be fair to say that batting has become slightly easier?
I wouldn't say so. There is another way of looking at it. On helpful tracks you get more scoring opportunities because captains set attacking fields. On flat surfaces, the bowling sides try to dry up the runs, so it's a different kind of challenge. When we played Australia here, I remember Steve Waugh posting a deep point in Chennai when I had scored only two runs. Colin Miller was bowling to a seven-two field. [Nasser] Hussain did that too. Hoggard was bowling two feet outside the off stump to a seven-two field and then Flintoff and Giles bowled to similar fields on the leg side. On flat surfaces, bowlers have to find a way of making it difficult for you.
Watching cricket these days it obvious how the dynamics have changed. Bowling sides are often trying to choke batsmen out rather than bowling them out.
Another reason for that is batsmen are willing to play more strokes, forcing defensive fields. If you leave balls outside the off stump all day, the captain will say, why do I need a fielder in the deep?
But as a batsman, scoring runs in conditions helpful to bowlers must give you greater satisfaction.
Any batsman would like to score runs when there is more help for bowlers. It is satisfying to score runs on seaming tracks, quick tracks and turning tracks. A great spinner can be unplayable on a turner.
That 136 against Pakistan at Chennai was on a turner.
Yes, and Saqlain bowled really well throughout that series.
And that century at Perth on your first tour to Australia was special.
Yeah. It was the last Test and the ball really zipped through. An innings like that is surely satisfying.
You don't get too many pitches like that anymore.
The Headingley wicket in 2002 was quite juicy.
On the second day too?
Yes. I would say it was a dangerous pitch. The bounce was inconsistent throughout. I remember getting hit a couple of times in the ribs on the first evening and I came out wearing a chest-guard, which I normally don't wear, and an elbow guard. And then I got hit on my elbow by a ball that kicked up from a good length giving me no time to react. Hussain got hit on the elbow too.
There were suggestions after India's tour of New Zealand in 2002-03, where the pitches were quite difficult, that the defensive techniques of batsmen these days might not be as sound.
I will say one thing: the pitches on that tour were something I have never experienced before. Even while batting in the third innings, they hadn't dried out; the spikes were going in comfortably. The bowlers just had to land it on a decent length and then the pitch did the rest. Even the net wickets were terrible. Parthiv Patel was a handful on them; I remember facing him and I really had to apply myself. In the end it was down to who won the toss.
Coming to you personally, everyone says that your batting has changed.
When you play for a long time, it is natural. Changes are going to take place and you always try and make changes to become a better player. The basic idea is to cut down on the risky shots and try and be as consistent as possible
But does all this talk about your game affect you? You normally keep your feelings to yourself, but during the Asia Cup you came out quite strongly against people who were saying you had stopped enjoying your batting.
I thought too much was being said about it and unfortunately guys who have played cricket themselves were making too many rude statements. Someone who has played should definitely understand that there are things like team meetings and team plans. It's not all about what my natural game is, but about executing a team plan. I should be doing what the team wants me to and not what someone sitting 85 yards away in the commentators' box feels. You can't be talking about what the country should be doing and then focus on an individual. There is no question that it is a team game, and it is the responsibility of all 11 individuals to execute a team plan on any given day.
There is a school of thought that you can take even more liberties with your batting, that India has a fairly good batting line-up today, a much better one than say five years ago.
I really don't know how to put it across, because I can never make everyone happy. If I play a big shot and get out, some people will say what's the need to do that when there are so many strokeplayers around, can't he just try to play 50 overs? I feel I should play the way I think I should play and not according to how XYZ feels. There might be a day when we need 100 runs in the first 15, and I will bat differently.
Do you feel it's a no-win situation for you: no matter how you play you will still end up disappointing some people?
It's very easy to say that you should go out and play your natural game, but sometimes you end up taking plenty of risks, and if you get out to doing that, people start talking one way. And when you try to do what the team has planned, they think differently. So it is difficult for any player to keep outsiders happy. We have to think about what the team has planned. As long as I know I am doing the right thing, I don't need to worry about what people are saying.
People keep saying, `Ah he is not playing the same number of shots as before,' but if you look at the strike-rate, you'll see I'm scoring at the same pace, just scoring in a different way. As you spend more and more time in the team, your role changes. It cannot be what it was 15 years ago or seven years ago. I don't think there is any player in the world who has played in the same gear throughout his career.
One thing can be said about you. The geometry of your game has changed perceptibly.
If I kept playing the same way throughout my career, it would mean the opposition have not been using their brains. The opposition works on your game and comes up with certain plans. The bowlers think, okay this is how he likes to play and these are the shots he plays, and I will block these shots and make him play somewhere else. Or give him a run and bowl more at the other guy. If they decide to bowl to you on off stump with seven fielders on the off side it is not necessary to still play flamboyant cover drives. So sometimes you shuffle across and play on the leg. You have to adapt, you have to do what is necessary. I hope people get sharp enough to understand that there were times when bowlers attacked you and you counter-attacked. Cricket is often about not doing what your opponents want you to do. You have to be smart.
But your game has noticeably become more leg-oriented, even in one-day cricket where fielders are more evenly distributed.
Sometimes it's intentional sometimes it's not. Let's say that the body and mind are not going to be working in the same direction all the time. Sometime your body doesn't move in the same direction as your mind. You want to go there but you just can't because it's a body, not a machine. Sometimes you know you should leave that ball but you just can't. That innings in Sydney I played like that [predominantly on the leg side] intentionally. But there may have been other occasions when I have not done it intentionally - it just happened.
You used to play a lot straighter, towards mid-off and mid-on.
As I was saying earlier, the opposition studies you too. If you see now, the field placements are different. I don't want to hit where there are fielders, I want to play somewhere I can score runs, so I have to look for different shots
There were three strokes which used to be your trademark shots in one-day cricket. The pull to balls just short of a good length, for which it was impossible to set a field in the early overs, the lofted drive over the bowler's head, and the cover-drive on the up that you played standing on your toes. We don't see much of those shots these days.
That may be because my role is being played by someone else. When Sehwag is going bang bang, there is no need for me to do all that. The plan is that out of the top three batters someone should try to stay till the end. That's the team plan and I am going with that.
You brought out a few of those shots during the World Cup. That pulled six off Andrew Caddick had your stamp all over it.
Throughout that tournament I was batting at a faster rate than Sehwag. I was prepared to take more risks at that time and I was the one who was playing the role of unsettling the bowlers. Ultimately, it's not about what I do or what Sehwag does, what matters is that the team puts up a good total.
For years you played a dominating game. Now you're playing a game of conservation because you see that as your role. But do you sometimes miss the Sachin of old, the thrill of cutting loose, seeing the fear in the eye of the bowler?
Not really. It's not that I have intentionally cramped my style of play. I have never said no, I will not play any shots. Yes, there are times you bat to the needs of situation. Also, it is a part of growing. You don't do at the age of 35 what you did at 16. The thinking changes.
There are days I go all out. In many matches in the World Cup I batted like that. Or in that match in Hyderabad against New Zealand [in 2003, when Tendulkar and Sehwag put on 182 runs in 30 overs] I remember telling Veeru, "Aaj toh tera role mein khel raha hoon, aur mera role tu kar raha hai." [Today I'm playing your role, and you're playing mine.]
And then in that World Cup match against Pakistan, you launched into Shoaib.
Let me tell you something. It wasn't pre-planned. In fact the plan was to bat out the first 10 overs without losing a wicket. We just wanted to play out the new ball. But as it happened a few balls came our way and we connected. So we said, it's working well, let's go for it. You've got to be prepared to change your plans and you should be able to do that.
I particularly remember the assault against Glenn McGrath in the ICC Knockout at Nairobi.
That was planned. The ball was seaming around and after I played the first over I said to myself, if you don't do anything he is going to bowl all his eight, nine overs at the same spot and it will be no good for us. You have to try to do something to unsettle him. I went after him and it worked. I got a quick 40-odd.
There's another thing that has perhaps changed with age. The old Tendulkar was always keen to establish his supremacy, particularly when it came to big-reputation bowlers. The way you asserted yourself against Shane Warne in 1998 is legendary. But the Tendulkar of today takes a measured approach, he doesn't mind grafting.
I have always tried to bat according to the situation. In Australia I got out a couple times trying to play big shots. Then I said, who am I trying to prove wrong? I had to contribute towards the team cause, so I said I'm going change my game. Eventually what do you want? You want India to score 600, so it doesn't matter how I play if we can put 600-plus on the board.
It has perhaps come to a stage where bowlers have little to lose in bowling at you, whereas it's a no-win situation for you. If a new bowler comes up and gets hammered for four fours, it will create no ripple, but you remain the wicket to take. In the Asia Cup there was an award for your wicket.
Yes, I read that, and obviously I didn't want to get out. But you can't let these things clutter your mind while batting; you can't change the way you bat because of things like this. The worst thing about facing a bowler from teams like these is that you don't know what he does, how he swings it or what angles he bowls. But if you start thinking about these things it will affect your batting. The best way to bat is to shut everything out. It's not easy, but it's the ideal situation.
That's called being in the zone, isn't it?
Probably six out of 10 times we can manage to do that. Sometimes you think, oh the bowler will do this and I have to do that. Other times you go in with a blank mind; you get into that zone where you are not thinking of anything else. All you can see is the ball and nothing else. You see the ball you play and then it really doesn't matter if there are people moving around in front of the screen or whatever. Otherwise, even a small hanky disturbs you.
When did this happen for you last?
In Sydney, in Rawalpndi.
Didn't you go in to Sydney Test with a pre-determined mindset?
Yes, it was different kind of a zone. In my mind, I was pretty sure what I wanted to do, so I literally programmed my body. I created a shell around myself and said, I'm not going to go out of this shell. I am not going to go into fourth gear, I am going to drive in third gear all the time whether I'm batting on 170 or 17.
Does watching Sehwag bat remind you of yourself?
Yes, it does. I used to think like that. In fact I used to be worse. But with time you change.
Does it also have anything to do with the body slowing down?
As you grow older, obviously the body is going to change physically and your thinking obviously changes. You have to keep fighting that. The body will slow down, the question is about how much time it takes and how you adjust to the change.
Have you started the feeling the changes?
I have pushed myself all the time. At least at this moment, my body feels all right.
Ramkant Achrekar, your first coach, recently said that you should seriously consider using a lighter bat.
I don't think I can play with a really light bat. I have tried using one before and it just doesn't help my bat swing. But that said, I am using a relatively lighter bat now. It's about 2.11 pounds now, down from 3.2. I have been using it for the last two years. I can't start using an extremely light bat. If it has to happen, it will happen gradually.
How does it feel to undergo so much public scrutiny? Everything you do or say is analysed, commented upon. Do you feel a sense of siege?
You get used to it. But that could be one of the reasons why I keep my guard. I don't open out easily. That's my nature anyway. I still don't think I am comfortable with the limelight. You know, I still feel embarrassed with television cameras around me. I am used to it now, but I am not a hundred per cent comfortable. I am still shy by nature, and I would rather walk quietly to my room and just sit and relax.
After being India's most celebrated public figure for so long, there is still so little that is known about you. The flip side of it is that people say you don't take a stand on issues.
I have taken stands before, but often whatever I say gets misinterpreted and meanings are attached to it. I don't want to go into specifics now, but I felt this is going to happen, so why get into it?
But your voice carries such a lot of weight. By speaking out, you could make a difference.
If you know that whatever you say will become a controversy, why get into it unnecessarily? And I feel, okay, there are people who are managing those issues and my job, at least for the time being, is to play cricket, so let me focus on that.
Recently you expressed your disappointment over missing out on a double-century and it became a big controversy.
What happened in Pakistan was that the moment I entered the press conference, the first question was asked: are you surprised and disappointed? I said, yes, I am disappointed. I'd have been lying if I had said no. I am entitled to feel disappointed. I was 194 not out and it was the second day. But that didn't mean I was going to carry the disappointment into the game. What happened happened, and I put it behind me. Where is the controversy when Rahul we I both had a chat and cleared the whole misunderstanding. The whole drama was created by the press; there was nothing going on between the players.
You're just 31, but you've already made 20,000 international runs and 65 hundreds. There is almost non-stop cricket these days with so many one-day tournaments. How do you keep yourself mentally fresh? Does your mind ever feel jaded?
I want to keep playing with the same attitude like I have always done. I am not going to think about how many years I have got left, but just go out and enjoy it. You can't think of how many more runs you are going to get.
Is something like a second-best ever career average a goal?
I don't even know what the second-best average is. I don't think if I average 64 people are going to call me a great player and if I average 57 people will call me lesser player. You are not focusing on these things. Whatever years are left to me, I am going to push myself harder because the time I have is never going to come back again. There is plenty of time to do other things. If anything. I want us to win a World Cup. That will be a real icing on the cake.
Would you like another shot at the captaincy?
I gave it up. I am not thinking about that.
Javagal Srinath recently wrote something about your captaincy. He said you could bowl legspin, swing the ball, and of course bat like Tendulkar, and you expected the same standards from everyone.
All I expected was 100 per cent effort. I said, I will not say anything to you if you fail. But if you fail to give 100 per cent, I'll see to it that you are made to realise that. If after giving 100 per cent, you fail five times in a row, that's fine. But if you have not tried, if you have taken things lightly, then I am not the guy you should come to. I didn't expect any thing more than that. I didn't ask anyone to bowl like Malcolm Marshall or bat like Vivian Richards. Every individual has his own talent and limitations and is expected to perform accordingly. Hundred per cent commitment is not too much to expect, is it?
If you were to do the job again, is there anything you would do differently?
The day I gave in my resignation, I have never thought of it after that. I felt we were not all heading in the right direction and it was affecting me as person. I couldn't switch off at all. Even 10 days after a match, I would still be thinking about why this happened and why that happened, and it started affecting me as a person. Not as a player as some people pointed out because I scored over 1000 runs in both forms of the game that last year. Also, I felt there was lack of support from every direction.
From within the team too?
No, not the team, but from outside. I felt that if everyone had spent their energy in the right direction, we could have moved ahead.
You were particularly unhappy with the selectors.
Yes. I was not happy with the selectors at all. It just didn't work out. They had different ideas, I had different ideas. The only thing is, I had to go in there and play with their ideas.
One of those ideas was to getting VVS Laxman to open.
Exactly. I mean, it all happened literally in the middle of a meeting. Till then he had been a middle-order batsman, and suddenly he was an opener.
But why didn't you speak up against it? Why didn't you stand up and say, I will take none of this?
I always felt that, you know, everyone will change and they will make the effort to do something for Indian cricket. Captaining India was obviously a great honour for me but it wasn't the ultimate thing for me. The ultimate thing was to play cricket for India and at that time, when I was removed from captaincy, I said in my statement that you can stop me from leading India, but no one can stop me from playing cricket. Playing cricket is the ultimate thing in my life. I want to play for India.
You were quite hurt when you were removed from captaincy.
Obviously. I felt that if you made somebody captain then he should be given a fair run, with the kind of support required. Things have changed a lot since then.
So you captained the team at the wrong time, in a wrong atmosphere?
Well, I don't have any regrets now. So long as I know that I tried my best, it really doesn't matter. You know, I would not sit back after 20 years and think that I didn't try my best. The guys who had different ideas, they would definitely think that they didn't do their best. I am pretty sure that I did whatever I thought was best for Indian cricket.
The team have gone in the right direction since then, under Sourav Ganguly.
I am a firm believer that it's not about captaincy, but about how the team plays, how the individuals perform. If you are going to score 700 runs in Australia, you are going to be on top, but if you score only 220, obviously it will be a different story.
But there's something different about this team.
Simply, there are plenty of match-winners in this team. There are enough players who can win a match single-handedly.
Rahul Dravid is one player who has really come on as a wonderful match-winner, in Test cricket particularly. What's the biggest change you have noticed in his batting?
I think he has become more positive. I remember having discussions with him and I used to tell him, your concentration level is going to last for a certain number of hours and within those hours you should be batting on 100-plus and not on 70 or 60. When you know that you are settled, then you should shift into the next gear, and then again maybe if someone is bowling well you can come down a little. I think he has been doing that quite well and he has been playing more shots.
I also think that wicketkeeping has helped. When you're keeping you are watching the ball all the time, and you are watching the game from where the action is taking place. I feel that angle helps.
You used to field in the slips but not anymore.
I had a lot of finger injuries and still have plenty of problems and struggle with my fingers. I have very small hands and my fingers have never been strong. That's why I moved away from the slips.
Coming to the series that everyone is talking about, what's it about Australia that brings out the best in you? You've got seven hundreds against them.
It is just a coincidence. I try to do my best against all teams. I have always enjoyed being there, it's a fabulous place to play cricket.
Your first series there was special. It made the world sit up and take notice. Did you find playing cricket in Australia any different?
I was perhaps too young to realise all that. I felt I should just go and do what I could and not really worry about what they are trying to do. I remember that all I was keen about was hitting boundaries. That tour certainly made a huge difference to my career. Perth was considered one of the most difficult tracks to bat on and scoring a hundred there gave me a lot of self-belief.
This will perhaps be the biggest season for India in recent times. Australia, South Africa and then Pakistan.
It's huge for us. The last series against Australia at home was mind-blowing. The best I have played in. Both the Test series and the one-day series were decided in the last halfhour.
Do you think if India manage to beat Australia and South Africa, they can claim to be the No. 2 team in the world?
That will be a great step forward. But I think we still need to go and win some series abroad. Only then can we be counted as one of the top teams in the world.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo. This interview was first published in the October 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine