Joining the ranks of the mortals

The unimaginable happened on Sunday. Sachin Tendulkar joined the ranks of mortals in the eyes of Indian cricket fans. After pottering around for 33 minutes for a solitary run, he lamely poked a widish ball from James Anderson to the wicketkeeper to plunge India to 28 for 3 and began his walk back to the dressing-room. The normal consequence of the Tendulkar dismissal at an Indian ground is a hushed, funereal silence. That was never going to be case this time because of the presence of a large and voluble posse of English fans. But when Tendulkar was about halfway to the dressing-room, the booing started, most noticeably and vociferously from the Garware Pavillion, which is just above the dressing-room, and which is populated exclusively by the invitees of the Mumbai Cricket Association. And soon it spread to the other parts of the ground.

Of course it was disgraceful and sickening, as it always is when any sportsperson is booed. But crowd behaviour in Mumbai has been appalling for the last few years. Rahul Bhattacharya recently wrote about the racist abuse hurled at West Indian cricketers in 2002, and Sourav Ganguly has been regularly hooted by a crowd once known for its cricket knowledge and fairness. But Tendulkar? Who would have thought it would ever come to this?

Tendulkar will perhaps take his first brush with crowd ill-treatment in his stride; just as quietly and gracefully he has dealt with hysterical adulation, he will accept it as the price of fame and celebrity. For years Tendulkar has carried the burden of irrational expectations of a cricket-mad nation, and even though the insolence of his home crowd may rankle, he is unlikely to let it linger. But he cannot possibly ignore the chain of events that led to this massive erosion of goodwill. Tendulkar's recent struggles with the bat have been too palpable and too prolonged.

Loss of form and bad patches are an inevitable part of an international cricketer's career. For anyone who has played for as long as Tendulkar has, to not have the odd rough patch would be abnormal. Brian Lara, the other genius with whom Tendulkar has shared the spotlight over the last 15 years, has had many more. But like all international sportmen, Tendulkar has to bear the scrutiny and question marks arising out of failure. A sequence of 16, 23, 19, 14, 23, 26, 16, 28*, 4 and 1 doesn't look pretty.

Greater allowances must be made for great players because they can wipe away the lost time with bursts of brilliance that are beyond the realms of lesser players. The remarkable feature in Tendulkar's scoring graph in the last three years has been the big hundreds: 176 against West Indies at Kolkata in 2002-03, 241 against Australia at Sydney in 2003-04, 194 against Pakistan at Multan in 2003-04, 248 not out against Bangladesh at Dhaka in 2002-05. But the scores in between also tell a story: 8, 51, 9, 32, 8, 7, 55, 1, 37, 0, and 44 between 176 and 241; 2,8,1,8, 2, 5, 55, 3, 20 and 32 not out between 194 not out and 248 not out point to a lack of consistency that used to be Tendulkar's hallmark.

Lara is the man who is always more likely to achieve the impossible, but throughout his career, he has remained fragile, a man of moods, and given to wild swings of fortune. In the first ten years of his career, Tendulkar was the keeper of India's flame; sparkling, confident, and dominating; but solid, bankable, always there. Two things have happened to Tendulkar's batting in recent years: the consistency is missing, and a bit of sparkle is gone. Are these inter-related?

It will be presumptuous to second guess Tendulkar. No one can claim to know his game and the state of his body and mind better than him. But a conjecture can be ventured from watching him bat. These days, Tendulkar betrays an anxiety for runs, and an anxiety towards getting out. On Sunday, he was so eager to get off the mark that he frequently charged for non-existent singles. He defended solidly, as he always does, but his only shot of real authority was a punch down the ground off Flintoff that was cut off at mid-off. But did scoring only one run in 21 balls play a part in his dismissal?

The stroke that got him out bore no conviction. The ball was so wide, that he could have easily left it alone. But it also presented a scoring opportunity. At his confident best, Tendulkar would have perhaps square driven to the left of cover, or punched between cover and extra-cover. All he managed was a limp edge. From the outside, it seemed an uncertain stroke brought out by an unsure mind.

Tendulkar gives little away by his general body language. But there is a clear sign when he strides forward to punch a fast bowler past him, or through the covers. He is good enough to play the angles, and work the ball around the gaps on the leg side. But at his best, he is a dominating batsman, looking to drive on the up, and cut and pull. And every now and then, even through his recent rough patches, there have been enough sparks to suggest that all his skills are intact.

His return to one-day cricket after the elbow injury was spectacular. He hit fast bowlers over the top and charged down to Muttiah Muralitharan with the enthusiasm of old. In Lahore against Pakistan he played perhaps the most skillful innings of the series on a seaming pitch, perfectly blending a sound defensive technique with outstanding strokes. And in the final innings of the Test series, roused to a contest by Shoaib Akhtar's pace, he took him on, pulling, cutting and driving breathtakingly, before being done in by a ball that snuck below his bat.

There isn't much about batting that Tendulkar does not know. But if he is looking for advice he doesn't need to look beyond the dressing-room. No one speaks about the power of of the mind more eloquently and more persuasively than Greg Chappell. Just before the third day's play began, he was talking to David Gower on television. Batsmen tend to bat the way they think, he suggested. A cue perhaps?