'There has to be a format where the bowlers are able to challenge batters'
Sachin Tendulkar talks about how ODIs are skewed in favour of batsmen, and looks back to his landmark Sharjah innings against Australia 22 years ago
It's not the time to be fussing over birthdays and celebrations, and Sachin Tendulkar doesn't have his 47th on his mind. The days he has kept track of instead are the number he has spent indoors in his home in Mumbai, without meeting a single outsider. Count them from March 15 onwards. And let's not forget that, regardless of whether social-distancing norms are in place or not, it's not like he can step outside for a change of scene and shop for groceries. What Tendulkar misses is the happy whirl of meeting old friends, playing golf or badminton, and otherwise being busy.
This is, though, a chance to think about the future, to reflect on what could be, and think about what the new normal might be when cricket does return. Though players have generally tried to adapt to this "forced off-season" by trying to stay fit at home, it may take a while for them to return to their previous levels of on-field sharpness, no matter how much fitness work they have done during the lockdowns. But Tendulkar says, "I personally don't feel the game is going to change as such." What he cannot get his head around is the idea of closed-door contests.
"That would be odd. Because you get so much energy from the spectators also. If India is to win a crucial game, you want people to be around you to celebrate - to amplify that. But no one inside the stadium? It's not going to make anyone feel special. It is going to be a weird feeling, and I don't know how players will react."
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International games, at least, Tendulkar says, need their living, breathing audiences.
"Can you imagine Roger Federer and [Rafael] Nadal playing on the centre court of Wimbledon with nobody there? It's going to be such a strange thing to watch. Not just cricket, any sport needs to have that energy."
In contrast to the still vast global appetite for him, Tendulkar himself post-retirement is not an obsessive watcher of live cricket. It has been seven years since his emotional Wankhede farewell, and in that time cricket appears to have been enormously transformed, with the advent and explosion of T20 leagues and fundamental changes in elements of the sport itself.
Since these are days of nostalgia and whimsical imaginings, what kind of batsman would a millennial or Gen Z Tendulkar have been? Not much different, he thinks: "I would have continued to be myself in today's cricket, I don't think I would have changed anything." What, no 360-degree shot-making or Dilscoops or switch hits?
He has seen his younger self on a few YouTube videos and imagines he would not have needed to use those tools. "I don't see there would have been any need to do something out-of-the-box different. Because if I had continued doing [what I did] the same way, the boundary line is only 70 yards [away]," he laughs. "So if you are going to back yourself to clear [it], then you work on consistency more than anything else, depending on the surfaces. There are surfaces that compel you to play differently, I would have been flexible in my mind, my thought process. I think that flexibility has to be there."
What both longevity in the game and the new rules of modern cricket demand is the willingness to keep innovating. "Like how bowlers have developed the slower-ball bouncer, the knuckleball and the wide yorker - they have developed various things. So have the batters. In time to come, maybe eight-ten years down the line, we will be looking at a totally different game - the batswing could be different, the stance could be different. Or the loading up. A lot of elements which we are not thinking of today because it's not demanded by the game today. But in time to come, it may change."
He remembers watching Andy Flower reverse-sweeping his way to the top of the Test aggregates on the 1999-2000 India tour and saying that Flower was about "eight-ten years ahead of the rest of the lot". Twenty years on, Tendulkar is right and Flower has come to be seen as having been an innovator back then. When he is asked about the most visible changes in the game since his retirement, Tendulkar points to two issues. One is the absence of a mechanism to correct umpiring bloopers using the DRS. "Those types of things, when the bowlers didn't get the wicket even though the batsman was out, or the batsmen were given out when they were not, it costs us games. Those type of things win or lose matches and series. Today that doesn't happen - a bad decision can be completely negated and you still have a chance."
The other he has touched upon before - the ODI rule changes in the early 2010s, where a total of four fielders were allowed outside the ring in the non-powerplay overs, and the use of two new balls in ODIs.
"If you have to look at one-day cricket then [with] the two new balls, if the pitches are not helpful, it makes bowlers' life really difficult. Two new balls have virtually diminished reverse swing, I have not seen lot of reverse swing. [There is] occasional reverse swing here and there." The use of a single ball, he says, "guaranteed little bit of reverse swing with the discoloured ball and the softer ball". With two new balls, the ball stays hard, "travels faster, and so I think bowlers have been challenged more".
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The five fielders in the ring has been an additional challenge. Tendulkar illustrates, offering a standard field for an offspinner: "You would normally have a long-off, long-on, deep midwicket and deep square-leg, and you have to have a deep point inside the ring. Because of T20, batters are prepared to back themselves, because they've worked on those shots, reverse sweeps and all sorts of things." Earlier, if you pierced the infield ring, he goes on to say, "you got a single for that, with the extra fielder back on the boundary line and you lost strike. If the strike was not rotated, then you [as a non-striker] lost possibly three balls an over. And when you were batting well, the bowler would want to bowl at the non-striker and not you."
It must be remembered that Tendulkar was the first batsman to make an ODI 200, ten years ago, before the new rules came into play, when he was two months short of 37. In the decade since, only five other batsmen have gone past 200, Rohit Sharma thrice.
Talking about the new rules, which he sees as palpably unfair to bowlers, gets Tendulkar's cricket self buzzing again. The on-strike, in-form batsman today is supplied with a bounty. The ball past the infield ring is a four. "If I was batting well," Tendulkar says, "I would hit a boundary and I would face the ball again. You are getting three runs extra, plus you are retaining strike and I would love to do that."
It is this reminder of his appetite for run-scoring that brings the twin hundreds in Sharjah in 1998 to mind. Those innings were played around this time 22 years ago, and are part of the collective memory of a generation of Indian cricket fans: the Desert Storm innings (143) that took India into the tournament final and the match-winning 134 in the final two days later on Tendulkar's 25th birthday. His partner in the 143 was VVS Laxman, who scored 23 in a 104-run partnership and remembers talking to Tendulkar in between overs. "But I know he wasn't listening to me," Laxman said.
Tendulkar has himself recalled being "obsessed" that night about keeping strike. "When you are batting well, you want to face every ball. I wanted to win that game, I didn't want to just achieve our run rate, I wanted to beat Australia and get into the final, so I was playing for the victory."
What was it like being in the zone that night? "Sometimes, I don't know… you look at the bowler and whatever you're thinking, the bowler exactly bowls that," he says. "It was a little bit of that. I knew more or less what they were bowling and I was ready to play that shot. Sometimes that happens, I wouldn't say every ball, but whenever one is planning to play a big shot, you say okay, if the ball lands in this area I am going to hit. And exactly that is where the next ball has landed and I have gone for that shot. You have those days where whatever you are thinking, that is what exactly happens."
Over the course of a conversation, especially one of this kind, during a time when cricket itself stands suspended, it is easy to lapse into the past and search for new paths around familiar stories. But the game will go on, cricket will resume, and new stars will be born. Is there anyone in the new crop of gung-ho swashbucklers around the world in whom Tendulkar sees a glimpse of his younger self?
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It is, of course, a headline-seeking question but Tendulkar, always a batsman of turbo-charged intensity and skill, has remained a man of controlled verbal expression. "Since we are talking about promising youngers, there are a number and the names would be Prithvi [Shaw], Shubman [Gill] and [Sanju] Samson. They all are different players. Just like how when we were playing, Rahul [Dravid] was different to me, I was different to Sourav [Ganguly], and Laxman was different from all of us. Similarly these guys are different but have a promising future. They have their own styles."
Because we are where we are, with cricket stalled, the board chiefs all meeting to talk about the future, and Tendulkar turning 47, maybe this is the best time to talk about what the game could include looking ahead. Something larger than tinkering with powerplays, surely. Tendulkar would personally like the debate about Test cricket to be focused not on quantity (four days not five) but on improving the quality of the contest and keeping spectators engaged.
Get home boards to move away from the extremes of dead or unplayable wickets and commit one way or the other - seam or spin. Right in the playing conditions, if need be. It may sound radical and impossible to achieve, but Sachin Tendulkar, cricketer, cricket fan, has a parting observation: "We have two formats in which the bowlers are constantly challenged, have restrictions in their field settings, so there has to be a format where the bowlers are able to challenge batters."
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo