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The selectors sprang a surprise in Mumbai on Monday by announcing that Sachin Tendulkar would skip the better part of this month's triangular series in Sri Lanka. A hitherto undisclosed foot injury he sustained in the Coca-Cola Cup final on Saturday leaves the Indian team in the piquant situation of having to cope without their best player, sole credible matchwinner and inspirational figure for his colleagues. Perhaps the rest of the players have even forgotten what it feels like to be denied Tendulkar's reassuring presence since it's the first such occurence in 50 ODIs.
In his 12-year-old international career, Tendulkar has missed a fair share of games. After making his debut against Pakistan in Gujranwala in December 1989, Tendulkar flitted in and out of the side briefly, losing out on four ODIs in all. But starting from the Australasia Cup in Sharjah in April 1990, he made 185 straight appearances until May 1998, which remains the ODI record for most matches played in succession. The sequence was broken with the first encounter of the Coca-Cola Cup triangular in India, also involving minnows Bangladesh and Kenya, and since then he's spent a total of 27 games on the sidelines.
That includes four matches of the Sahara Cup in 1998 which synchronised with the Commonwealth Games. India made a gigantic cockup by scattering their first XI into different parties. In the event, both teams were soundly thrashed. Tendulkar was jetsetted almost halfway across the world from Kuala Lumpur to Toronto for the last game but his 77 could not prevent India crashing to a 1-4 defeat. Tendulkar also bypassed four full competitions either side of the 1999 World Cup due to a chronic back injury that first erupted during his magnificent 136 in the doomed run chase against Pakistan at Chennai.
India won only one of those tournaments, the DMC Cup against West Indies in Toronto under Sourav Ganguly, and were a beaten finalist in the other three. Going purely by figures, Tendulkar's loss hasn't made a marked difference to India's success rate: of these 27 games, India have won 13 and lost 14. But psychologically it raises the pressure on each of the other batsmen which can make them do strange things sometimes. Like during the World Cup clash against Zimbabwe at Grace Road, when they contrived to make a hash of the run chase after the little fella had to fly home in the wake of his father's death.
Now isn't that precisely the spirit of the rotation policy: to rest a player in order to test the calibre of his replacement as well as of his colleagues who have often been pampered by his presence? I think rotation should not be attempted when it so obviously affects the winningness of the team. Especially now when the victory habit is still so elusive for the Indians because the longer the drought prolongs, the more it saps player morale and the more difficult it becomes to raise it again.
But now that Tendulkar's absence is forced upon by injury, the team - while having to live with the consequences - can still squeeze some advantage from the situation. Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman all will be keenly watched for any symptoms of putting their hands up and showing the fervour to take the load upon themselves. Amay Khurasia, Tendulkar's nominated replacement, has been resurrected from oblivion after being in the World Cup squad just two years ago and goes on trial as Ganguly's opening partner. One only hopes he doesn't meet the same fate as Gagan Khoda who filled in for Tendulkar in the Coca-Cola Cup in 1998. Khoda played two games, doing rather well with scores of 26 and 89, but has never been considered since.