Whither Tendulkar?

Sachin Tendulkar's recent failures to dominate average attacks are often exaggerated by the weight of his reputation: a slow, passive century from Tendulkar would still be a solid knock by someone else, it is said. There must be truth to it but the manner in which he crawled to a century today has left even that argument open to doubt. Today's was a solid, honest Test century - for a debutant, not for someone playing his 137th Test.

Coming in at 281 for 0, Tendulkar never looked like he was batting in a side pushing for a declaration on a flat wicket where their bowlers would need the maximum time to get 20 wickets. He ended up with an unbeaten 122 off 226 balls, his strike-rate faster than only Sourav Ganguly among Indian batsmen.

What does one expect of a No. 4 walking in at 281 for 0, when the team know they will have to bowl on a flat wicket in extremely tough conditions? Tendulkar has, not unfairly, been put in the same bracket as Ricky Ponting and Brian Lara over his career but surely neither would have scored at a strike-rate of 53.98 in a similar situation? A strike-rate that only increased after what appeared to be a clear message to hurry up, during the tea interval? As the table below shows, Tendulkar faced nearly half the total deliveries bowled while he was out in the middle but scored only 40% of the runs, which is hardly what you'd expect from the leading batsman in the team.

The contrast is stark when his contributions are compared to those of his partners: both Dravid and Karthik scored far more runs than Tendulkar, though Tendulkar faced more than half the deliveries during each stand. His approach when batting with Karthik was particularly perplexing; Tendulkar was already on 49 when Karthik came in, yet he scored at a niggardly 2.87 runs per over in that second-wicket stand, even as Karthik scored nearly two runs more per over.

Ganguly's arrival should have forced Tendulkar to take charge. Instead, he seemed more intent on ensuring that a 37th Test hundred didn't elude him - Tendulkar was on 83 when Ganguly came, and the get-your-century-at-any-cost attitude meant he used up 42 deliveries to go from 80 to 100. In fact, his second 50 runs took four balls more - 102 - than his first. (Karthik, on the other hand, scored his last 107 runs in 128 balls, while Dravid's second fifty took 68.) Only after getting to the hundred did Tendulkar step it up, getting his last 22 off 26 balls.

That Tendulkar was not really comfortable was evident yesterday too. He had ended the first day with nine from 31 balls: surely he wasn't playing for stumps for the last 13 overs of the day?

There is more to it than the numbers, though - and that's the worrying part. A show of intent was missed probably as much as the ability to take control of the game and demoralise the bowlers. It has become a cliché to say how painful it is to see Tendulkar scratch around for runs against bowlers who are good but not exceptional but, on today's evidence, it still stands true.

Mashrafe Mortaza kept coming at him with manful short-pitched stuff, because he saw Tendulkar was not comfortable handling it. Even yesterday, he had played at and narrowly escaped tickling the first delivery with the new ball. At times, he ducked too early; on occasions, he took his eye off the ball while swaying away. During the opening spell of the day, he kept Mortaza especially interested. Hook shots weren't even contemplated, it seemed. He scored 19 off 52 Mortaza deliveries. It could have been any other batsman.

Mohammad Rafique was not given any opportunity to disbelieve that Tendulkar has history against left-arm spinners. Twice, after Tendulkar had passed fifty, Rafique did him with classical stuff, not the stifling kind. At 52, he edged one past the non-existent slip for four. The next one Tendulkar, well set, did not have a clue about. He was 72 when one pitched on the middle stump and took his outside edge. Rafique was not even required to adopt the defensive approach of bowling over the wicket.

Tendulkar couldn't improvise and play a scoring shot when deceived by the slowness of the wicket. Not long ago, you'd describe him as a batsman who had two shots for every ball; here he was struggling to do anything more than nudge it to leg. Thirty-seven of his runs - including 19 singles and five twos - came behind square on the leg side. On the other hand, only 18 of his runs were scored in the covers, with just one four. It just doesn't seem possible that the team plan required Tendulkar to play anchor, after having racked up such a large total without losing a wicket and especially as Rahul Dravid also asserted himself on the game. If it was, it was a flawed one. That they got quick wickets towards the end of the day's play should not change things; it remains that the wicket was not doing anything while Tendulkar batted.

The wicket was slow, the weather conditions were tough, no more. But Dravid, Dinesh Karthik and Wasim Jaffer all accelerated in the latter parts of their innings. For Tendulkar, the acceleration came only after the century. It was all the more painful to see him make the conditions and bowling look more difficult than they probably were.

Worryingly for India, Tendulkar has been batting in this perplexing, defensive mode more often recently, and has done so for successive Test hundreds on this tour: the numbers were similar for his century in the previous match, at Chittagong - 75 balls for his first 50, 92 for his next; 62 runs in the arc from fine leg to midwicket, including 38 singles. Just like the pace of his hundred didn't matter at Chittagong, it might not make a difference here if the weather stays clear and Bangladesh continue to crumble. Against England later this summer, though, the runs he scores - and the rate he gets them at - could matter a whole lot more.

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