Sachin Tendulkar - rusty and beleaboured
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Rahul Bhattacharya in Mohali
Every previous evening of this Test match Sachin Tendulkar has emerged from the dressing-room after play and asked for soft half-volleys to be thrown at him. He has faced them for twenty minutes neither with fuss nor overt concern for the odd edge or mistimed one. But still the rust has not been scraped away.
Today he made what must almost certainly be his most laboured half-century yet. Without a doubt this has been his poorest series. Each of the top-order batsman from either side, save Stephen Fleming and Yuvraj Singh, have not only outscored him, but looked superior batsmen.
In its own way, it is fascinating to watch greatness struggle. When VVS Laxman and Tendulkar got together in the morning, it was akin to them opening the batting, with the new ball around the corner and bowlers still fresh. A convocation of eagles swooped and swerved theatrically about the square much in the manner that New Zealand preyed with every last breath of energy in their souls.
Four times in half an hour Tendulkar slashed at short and wide deliveries. He missed them all. On a good day, these would have been boundaries. On some another day, he might not have bothered with them, as even the brash Virender Sehwag did yesterday. Soon Tendulkar must have got reconciled to the disturbing fact that he is not in form. He went into a shell. But, as Daniel Vettori pointed out, "he knows when he's not playing well and then he plays within himself and makes runs. It's one of the things that makes him great." And so Tendulkar defended and defended and defended, trusting virtually only his favourite midwicket swirl as a stroke of attack. At times he would do a little unfamiliar jog towards square leg to get the circulation going. At others he'd look at his bat, wondering where the fluency is all gone.
It should be said that batting today at Mohali was the hardest it has been this Test. There has been an amount of uneven bounce, and often prodigious turn for the superb Vettori, who suggested that this would have been an exceptionally balanced match had this been a thirdand not a fourth-day pitch.
Tendulkar's grind might have become harder had VVS Laxman not batted so supremely well. At times it seems Laxman's bat has springs. There are a number of great timers in world cricket, but Laxman, like Michael Vaughan, does it with unnatural ease, whether in attack or in defence. Laxman's innings was much like his previous century at Kolkata against West Indies, where balls faced were as imperative as runs scored.
Despite the sordid rate of scoring, this was the first interesting day of the match because ball could hope to compete with bat. For all the flak handed to New Zealand's grassy pitches last year, one thing it could not be accused of is of promoting boring cricket. Things happened. Besides, India seem to have forgotten that had either Tendulkar or Sehwag batted an hour more in the second Test at Hamilton, the match might have been won, and the series squared. With defeat has come exaggeration. Just as bowlers become faster after retirement, so too those pitches have got grassier with time.
One selector today recalled how when Australia had come in 2000-01, there was a fair amount of co-ordination between the selectors, team management and groundsmen. Efforts were made to both factor in home strengths and provide entertainment. Now, the pitches committee is in full swing, and they are acting how committees usually do. They need to be made accountable. A sub-committee to look after them?