September 1, 2002

The small enforcer

It is a strangely conflicted mixture of rigorous self-denial and cathartic violence that make up Tendulkar's craft

Batsmen aren't remembered only for their shots; you remember them for their mannerisms, their stance, their physical presence. I remember Sunil Gavaskar for the military snap with which he shouldered arms, both pads together, bat raised high. I can't recall him shaping to play and then withdrawing the bat: there was a clean, lucid certainty to everything he did, which made him the great classical batsman of our time. I remember him for the compact grace that informed his presence at the crease, from taking guard to settling into his stance.

Sachin Tendulkar is different. He's about as tall as Gavaskar; they're both Bombay batsmen, and compared to someone like Brian Lara, Tendulkar seems correct, even orthodox, but he and Gavaskar are chalk and cheese. Tendulkar can produce the most wonderful shots but you wouldn't call him a beautiful batsman. Graceful he is not, in any conventional reading of the term. His most repetitive tic at the crease has been described by the writer Ruchir Joshi as his "signature crotch yank as he adjusts his abdomen guard". He can look oddly clumsy for a great batsman: when the ball keeps low, Tendulkar will jack-knife into an exaggerated half-squat, like someone who has just discovered that he urgently needs to go. When he plays forward, he is correct but always in a slightly over-produced way: his defensive play just lacks the clockwork economy of Gavaskar's technique. In any case, with Tendulkar the ratio of bat to body makes it hard for him to look pretty: he's so small and the bat's so big that it looks more like an accomplice than an instrument. VVS Laxman, long and languid, pulls and hooks in his easy upright way; when Tendulkar pulls, he looks like a small enforcer with a big cosh.

Tendulkar has a claim to being the greatest batsman in the world because he is that rare thing: an original. Gavaskar at his best used to make the classical prescriptions come to life; Tendulkar's genius lies in the impossible shots he hits off perfectly good balls. Not impossible in the sense of outrageous and chancy: men like Sanath Jayasuriya own that corner of the market; no, impossible because he hits shots mortal cricketers wouldn't attempt, and because he makes those shots look safe, even plausible, when they are not.

I have in mind the range of off-drives he plays to balls pitched on a good length or short of a good length without much width on offer. He seems to stand up straight without doing much with his front foot. The bat comes down in a little arc and then stops well short of a follow-through. The scene ends with incredulous bowler staring at Tendulkar and cover fielder trotting off on peon duty, resigned to this game of fetch. Something similar happens with that attenuated straight-drive that shaves the stumps at the bowler's end on the way to the boundary. It's not the straightness of it (straight drives, after all, are meant to be hit straight!) but the lack of obvious effort or risk that makes the shot a bowler-killer. When Lara hits you straight, the bat describes such a flamboyant arc that it's like being lashed with a whip; Tendulkar's down-the-wicket shot is more like being heavily nudged by a barn door. When he hits that straight drive, his bat is at once shield and bludgeon, and as the ball speeds past the blameless bowler, Tendulkar must seem both irresistible force and immovable object.

And then there are those other shots: the upper-cuff over slips and gully, the inside-out shot driven through, or over, cover; the paddle-sweep hit so perpendicularly that it finishes as a reverse straight-drive completed on one knee; the pull off the front foot hit brutally over midwicket; the trajectory-defying flick that turns the ball on the off stump or outside, through midwicket - what these strokes have in common is that they are difficult and dangerous shots, methodically and safely played. That's why bowlers in their follow-through sometimes stare at Tendulkar as if he had grown another head: he makes unlikely shots look reasonable. It's this straight-bat magic that got Graeme Hick to turn out to captain his county, Worcestershire, against India in an unimportant tour match once: he said he just wanted to stand at slip and watch Tendulkar play.

Tendulkar has a claim to being the greatest batsman in the world because he is that rare thing: an original. Gavaskar at his best used to make the classical prescriptions come to life; Tendulkar's genius lies in the impossible shots he hits off perfectly good balls

Tendulkar's remarkable repertoire of shots, his style of play, grows out of a particular temperament and a peculiar talent. Tendulkar himself has often said that he is by nature an attacking batsman. This is true, but in itself it tells us little about what makes him special. Jayasuriya is an attacking batsman by instinct, as are Ricky Ponting and that cheerful murderer, Adam Gilchrist; and they're very different from Tendulkar. Gilchrist, on present form, is the best batsman in the world. With a batting average over 60 and a strike-rate that makes bowlers feel they're bowling in the highlights segment of the evening news, Gilchrist on form can make Tendulkar look low-key. The difference between the two isn't one of talent - indeed, if Gilchrist can bat like this and stay at 60-plus, he and not Tendulkar will be remembered as the great turn-of-the-century batsman. The difference is temperamental. Gilchrist bats in a wholly carefree way; coming in at six or seven in Test matches, he subjects all bowlers, in every situation, to his brand of assault and battery. Perhaps it has to do with the confidence of coming in low in the batting order of a great team; perhaps being a wicketkeeper-batsman with more than one string to his bow frees him from the fear of failure. Whatever it is, it makes his demeanour at the crease very different from Tendulkar's.

No Indian cricketer, not Tendulkar, not even the inimitable Kapil Dev, has survived cricketing glory in this country over a whole career without becoming careworn, and Tendulkar isn't a product of the Bombay school of batsmanship for nothing. However different they may be from each other, the great Bombay batsmen have distrusted extravagance or flourish. Like Gilchrist, Tendulkar will, most times, try to impose himself on the bowling; unlike him, he will discriminate between bowlers, change his game to suit the moment, come up with novelties like a grandmaster discovering a new wrinkle in an old gambit.

In the first Test of India's last [2001] tour to South Africa, Tendulkar hit one of the great hundreds of recent years. At the start of that innings, he hit Makhaya Ntini for 16 runs in an over, with three boundaries. One of these was tipped over slips simply because there was no third man. It seemed a zero percentage play given how many slips there were, but it became the trademark shot of that particular innings. They kept bowling short outside the off stump to him, and he kept cuffing the ball in the air down to third man for four. And he did this, as he does everything, in a calculated, methodical way, and in so doing he made a bizarre shot seem like business as usual. Right through this masterful knock, Tendulkar continuously showed intent, an aggression unalloyed by doggedness or care. It was a rare moment in his recent career where we were allowed to see genius expressing itself unburdened by responsibility.

Tendulkar padded-up is usually a mass of inhibitions. His face is carefully inexpressive, but through the visor you can see his eyeballs virtually disappearing into his skull, so massively concentrated is he through an innings. In the course of every long innings he plays, you can see the tension build and then find release in shot-making. The weight of responsibility, the fear of letting his side and his country down, will sometimes have him leaving every ball bowled an inch outside the off stump alone, as he did against Glenn McGrath in Australia [1999] before exploding into a flurry of shots once he was set. That innings was cruelly terminated by an umpire (this happens to Tendulkar a lot - not many umpires want to give genius the benefit of doubt) but most innings he plays are a bit like that one - his runs come in clusters, not in a steady stream; his innings are made up of explosive episodes.

Unlike Gavaskar, inevitability isn't the hallmark of a long innings by Tendulkar. A century by him is an odd mixture of calm and storm. His greatest innings, of course, specially his hundreds in one-day matches, are simply single, long, violent spasms. They have become rarer, those extended bursts of berserker brilliance, because he is too much the Bombay batsman to be recklessly prodigal. So sometimes you'll see him curb his shot-making, mainly in the interest of the team but also because he wants to prove to himself and to his audience that he can play with puritanical self-denial. The perfect example of a knock like this was his century in Chennai during the third Test against the Australians the last time they toured India. It was a dour, unlovely innings, all Bombay solidity, but it won India the match.

So much for temperament; what is Tendulkar's special talent? Every bowler who has ever sent down an over to him says the same thing when asked for a sound byte on what makes Tendulkar arguably the best batsman in the contemporary game. To a man, they say this: "He picks up the length of the ball earlier than any one in the modern game, so he has more time than his peers to make the shot." There is such unanimity on this that it must be true. Till a year-and-a-half ago, Tendulkar used the time that his eye bought him in the cause of aggression. He would get into position early for that perpendicular paddle-sweep, skip down the wicket for the lofted drive over straight mid-on, or advance while making room to drive a spinner inside-out over extra cover. His batting average soared, and it took the combined efforts of McGrath, Australian umpiring, and some wretched luck (the miraculous catch that Ponting took at the Wankhede Stadium off Tendulkar's pull after it ricocheted off short leg's back is a prime example) to bring him down to earth.

Even so, his career Test average had risen to 58 and was threatening to touch 60 when Nasser Hussain came to town. Hussain had a plan for Tendulkar, a plan of great simplicity. The way to keep Tendulkar from scoring runs was to bowl wide of him. Karl Marx memorably said that everything in history happened twice: first as tragedy and the second time as farce. Well, in this replay of leg theory, a boy born in Madras played Douglas Jardine, a left-arm spinner stood in for Harold Larwood, and Tendulkar, against his will, was cast as Don Bradman. Amazingly, the ploy sort of worked: it frustrated Tendulkar to the extent of getting him stumped for the first time in his Test career. And the reason it worked was this: Tendulkar tried to wait the bowlers out as Gavaskar might have done, but this game of patience and attrition didn't come naturally to him. At the same time, being a Bombay batsman and not being Gilchrist, he hated the thought of being forced into unorthodoxy and extravagance. It was the same story in the first Test of the current tour [2002] to England, when run-saving sweeper fielders and cynically wide bowling goaded him into error. In between these two contests with England was a run of single-digit scores during the tour of the West Indies. No permanent damage was done, as the fine 92 in the Trent Bridge Test showed, but his dismissal in the nineties will have dimmed his aura a watt or two.

Right now, Tendulkar is a great batsman who doesn't scare the opposition. It's as if the fact that he sees the ball so early has begun to work against him: he has almost too much time to play the ball and he uses it to think and fret instead of using it to attack the bowling. There is a tense pre-meditation to his play these days, which is different from the calculated aggression we used to see earlier. Viv Richards said after Tendulkar's failures on the tour of the Caribbean that Tendulkar didn't seem to be enjoying his cricket. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps the master should learn from his protégé: perhaps Tendulkar could take a leaf out of Virender Sehwag's carefree book. He could stop being Atlas and just go with the flow.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the September 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine