Monday, March 20, 2006

I am ageing: Someone turn the clock back for Chotu


This is purely personal and selfish, and I need to pray as I am going to touch thirty in less than thousand days. I have grown up with cricket. While I started following the game when I was about seven years old, the passive following turned itself into breathing when I entered my teens. As I was never talented enough to play too well, and not confident enough to improve upon whatever little I could play, I instead used the natural gifts I had to watch the game with supreme passion, and to use my mind and imagination to translate the learnings generated into life, sports, and more specifically, improve the state of Indian cricket.

My cricketing coming-of-age was the Indian tour to Australia in 1991-92. India was going abroad after one-and-a-half years. In fact the 1990-91 season was a very thin one for India as Pakistan had just cancelled another tour. We went in with hope for a new start to a new decade - Sanjay Manjrekar was in the form of his life, and enjoyed a reputation very similar to Rahul Dravid today. I was a big fan of Majrekar, in fact still am, for his sheer honesty in admitting his performances and achievements (or rather the lack of it), and still in his ability to comment upon the games of others very candidly, shrewdly and mostly correctly.

The Indian team was blasted away in Australia, performing very poorly in both the tests and the ODIs. However, the difference was one, while we went in with Manjrekar as our best batsman, we returned with that slot occupied by Sachin Tendulkar, and this status quo was to be maintained for the entire decade. For the next five years, the Indian team demolished some extremely mediocre opposition (England, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe) at home, but struggled to put it across a relatively formidable West Indian team. We hardly toured abroad, but in whatever little touring we managed, struggled to compete, forget winning.

In such dour times, with India playing quite boring and uni-dimensional cricket, the one man who lit up the scenario was our chotu genius, with some exceptionally powerful and imaginative strokemaking, rarely seen being done by an Indian (remember our premier batsman for the last decade was a more correct Gavaskar). There were hiccups on the way, I remember Sachin had a rough Hero Cup in 1993, people remember him more for his last-over brilliant bowling at the death against South Africa in the semi-finals. The problem had been accentuated because 1992 onwards, Azhar started thinking that he was better off batting at No.4 instead of one-drop in the ODIs, and this pushed Sachin down to No.5. He struggled to get off the blocks, and definitely the low slot did not allow him to display his full wares. There were murmurs about his limited-overs form, while he continued playing punishing knocks in Test cricket against mediocre attacks.

In limited-overs cricket, the turnaround for Sachin came in the year when I appeared for my first major exams, the Class X boards. India were touring New Zealand to play four ODIs and a Test match, and in the second ODI, the regular opener Sidhu was down with a cringe in his neck. Sachin apparently volunteered to open the batting (this came a year too late according to me). On one fine Sunday morning, what we witnessed was absolute carnage. Indian chased down a comfortable target with great ease, but noone who witnessed it would ever forget the 82 runs Sachin got off 49 balls. He ensured that the opening slot would be his forever, and he continued to challenge the law of averages. For the following two years, for sheer destructive power and consistency in run & stroke-making, there was just no beating the genius. He had replaced Manjrekar from the vice-captain's slot too, and I firmly believe if Manjrekar had fulfilled his destiny like Dravid did later, we would possibly have had a great captain in him.

From 1994-96, the Indian team's performance revolved totally around the chotu master. I gave my Class XII board exams around the 1996 World Cup, and Sachin had possibly reached his peak by then. India was Sachin, and Sachin was India. As Sportstar put it, "If Sachin scores, we win; if he stays, we draw; if he gets out, we lose". Sir Don Bradman made his famous claim around the same time, by calling Sachin the batsman who resembled his own batting the most. Awesome honour to my mind!

There was a long wait for Sachin's first ODI century, but once he cracked it against his favourite opposition, the Aussies, in 1994, the centuries started flowing thick and fast, averaging one in every six innings. In the (in)famous semi-final we lost at Calcutta, on a super-treacherous track, he batted superbly and once he got out unfortunately stumped, we immediately collapsed. For me, his best knock in the tournament was in a league match against the Aussies in his hometown, Bombay. We were chasing around 260-odd, and McGrath bowled three maiden overs on the trot. In what was to be a harbinger of a famous duel for the rest of the decade, Sachin hit him for 21 runs in his fourth over, spoling his figures totally. Ultimately, we lost the chase when Sachin was out stumped off a wide ball for 90.

There was time in 1996-97 when India had lost 40 consecutive ODIs on the trot when Sachin failed. He was also burdened with the captaincy at the same time, and we were mainly touring abroad. His batting apparently started suffering, though he was still good enough to hit a vintage 169 at CapeTown. He and Azhar had a splendid partnership, but while people remember that, for me the memory is of Sachin later buckling down to take India past the follow-on mark. It is a different issue that he failed in the second innings, and India collapsed to lose the match. Possibly a hint of things to come - of how his good-to-great performances were always coupled with team losses.

1996 saw the debut of two more accomplished batsman, Ganguly and Dravid, followed later in the year by Laxman who had to wait for the new century to hit his straps. However, Sachin still remained our dominant batsman. His batting was supposedly burdened by captaincy, yet Sachin managed to get 1000 Test runs in the calendar year 1997 (if my memory serves me right, that is the only time he has managed that in the Test arena). This when the then best batsman of the world, Aravinda DeSilva, was in the best form of his life and yet hit only 300 runs more in the same year. Sachin's best year in international cricket was definitely 1998, when he lost the captaincy first time and enjoyed possibly his greatest batting success in a series-dominating performance against Mark Taylor's Aussies.

Sanath Jayasuriya had replaced Sachin Tendulkar as the world's most destructive opener in limited-overs cricket in the 1996 World Cup. A year and a half later, Jayasuriya exposed another shortcoming of Sachin, of an inability to score against spin bowling leaving him when delivered from round-the-wicket angle. Sachin famously went back to the drawing boards, roughing up the area outside his legstump and asked a long-time India discard, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, to pitch the ball in the particular area. He practised hitting against the spin, and the results were spectacular when Shane Warne tried doing the same in the first test at Chennai.

A year later at Chennai only, he played what for me is definitely his best innings ever - 136 against Pakistan. People remember the facts very well, but I would just like to point out two things. Rahul Dravid was supposed to be a technician, yet he was all at sea against Wasim Akram before getting bowled by a beauty. On the other hand, Sachin played him with aplomb, handling all the tricks thrown in by Akram. More importantly, around the same time, Brian Lara also played the innings-of-his-life against the Aussies at Bridgetown, taking his team to victory. The difference between victory and defeat for West Indies was one dropped catch - Healy put down Lara when nine runs but only one wicket was needed. However, in Chennai, when a badly cramping Sachin tried to hit out Saqlain to finish off his team's victory, Akram held on to a good high catch, when India needed 16 runs more but with four wickets in hand. If this is not karma, nothing else is. One dropped catch ensured that Lara is known as a man playing match-winning knocks, while Sachin simply accumulates runs for the bank.

In the new century, the bride was joined by her maids. Sachin had a relatively moderate 1999 World Cup. Still, he got the captaincy back, and while his consistency continued, he converted himself from a smasher into an accumulator. There were others who stepped up the gas, Laxman against the Aussies, Ganguly in the ODI game (though that started around 1999 only), Sehwag as a destructive opener. Most important was the sheer re-discovery of Rahul Dravid (my idol deserves another post), and 2002 onwards, he has been our Most Valuable Player for sure.

Sachin had a tough time again and resigned from the captaincy in 2000, and Saurav Ganguly and John Wright went about building the New Team India. I also got my first job by then, in May-2001. By now, Sachin was no longer the dominant and solitary force of 90s, though he continued playing vintage knocks - two fifties against the rampant Aussies in the first test at Mumbai (it took a splendid catch by Ponting and possibly the best knock I-will-ever-get-to-witness by Laxman to take the spotlight away from them), a brilliant 150 against South Africa on a very bouncy track, a very good counter-attacking hundred against the Windies at Eden Gardens (his first at the venue), and finally a superb World Cup, where we got to witness the Sachin of old after a long, long time.

The murmurs about most of the above knocks was one - Sachin rarely transformed his success into a victory for the team. He got a 4 in the World Cup Finals (the same figure which Gavaskar got in his farewell ODI in the Reliance Cup), after he was the top-scorer for the tournament. On the other hand, Brian Lara was playing some classics while his team kept getting socked, yet no could fault him for the sheer gap between Lara's and his teammate's performance was too wide to bridge. However, it was difficult to deny that especially in test matches, Sachin Tendular was struggling to get his team into positions of strength, forget victory. It is difficult to put it statistically but Peter Roebuck got it right by saying that while Sachin has shown up his weight of runs, he has not left the imprint of his will on the game. Beautifully put to my mind.

He turned thirty after the World Cup, and I was neck deep into work by then. The turning point for Sachin was to be the Australia trip of 2003-04. In fact, I can even pin-point the exact moment for him. He had got a 31 in the second innings of the second Test at Adelaide, a victory remembered more for Rahul Dravid's pyrotechnics with the bat. Yet, Sachin played a crucial contributing role, coming in when Dravid looked shaky, and played confidently enough for the effect to rub off on Dravid. The key moment came in the second innings of the next match at Melbourne. Leading upto that innings, Sachin had scores of 0,1,31,0 on the tour - thanks to a mix of bad luck, bad judgement and bad decision. India was struggling to save the match, and Sachin came out early on the fourth day with his team in trouble. He played beautifully for a well-made 44, but was out playing a extravagant cover-drive to Brad Williams.

For the next year-and-a-half, we did not witness any more flowing cover drives from Sachin's bat. While the dismissal inflicted by Williams later got accentuated by a tennis elbow needing surgery, the most productive shot for Sachin against pacers became a flick through the mid-wicket. The stroke was very effective, but hardly did justice to the man's potential. He got out playing across the line also very frequently.

In the 2004 Asia Cup, there was a league match against the Pakistanis. It was a very similar situation to his heroics at Sharjah in 1998, where he had the safer option of opting for a loss but gaining a bonus point and qualifying for the Finals, or going in for a full-fledged victory. In Sharjah, he had launched a legendary counter-attack, attempting to take India to a victory rather than an entry into the Finals through the back-door. Now in 2004, he instead went for the loser option, never looked like being able to get there, and ultimately got out making a hash of things.

In the last decade, Sachin has suffered from some severe injuries. He suffered from back spasms in 1999, which were attributed to a host of factors. He had played the 2003 World Cup with an injured finger and a heavy dose of pain-killers. Later, his elbow became the most famous outside tennis, and he even missed the Super Series because of that. When the entire Rest of World team performed so disastrously, it became an interesting point to speculate how he might have done.

Anyway, Sachin made his comeback in the Challenger Trophy of 2005, and looked like nothing had changed. He got out for low scores in all the matches. What changed the complexion and the expectations were the first two-ODIs he played against Sril Lanka subsequent to injury. He played with an assurance and abandon not seen since the World Cup, charging and sweeping Vass, and trying to attack Murali. Although his highest score for the rest of the series did not cross 39, his ODI comeback was deemed succesful.

In the subsequent Test matches, he finally got to his 35th Test century, breaking Gavaskar's record and ending a long wait. While he did not do much for the rest of the series, 2006 promised a lot. He was fully fit, open to playing strokes, even the cover-drive, and one keenly aniticipated the Pakistani series. His first chance came in the second Test at Faisalabd on a flatbed, and he fell to a snorter from Shoaib who troubled him in his stint at the wicket. He walked, and later it was discovered he was technically not out, though am not sure whether he would have been aware of that. This made Moin Khan comment that this is the beginning of the end for Sachin Tendulkar, as in the Ashes, even Michael Kasprowicz had waited for the umpire's decision for the technicality, though I also think Kaprowicz was just trying his luck then.

The next and final match of the series was at Karachi, a venue where the 16-year old boy wonder had made his Test debut. And if there was an occassion to turn over a new leaf - playing aggressively, getting runs when it mattered - it was here. In spite of getting hit by Shoaib on his helmet, Sachin looked good in the first innings, before getting bowled off his pads trying to play a super-strange shot, straight driving to a bowl angling in. In the second innings, he looked even better, handling Shoaib who had troubled him throughout the series with great authority. Yet, he was bowled again, this time to a bowl which did not rise as much as aniticipated, a problem which his pre-dominant backfoot movement has accentuated throughout his career.

Times of India cried 'Endulkar!' on its front page. As a response, he got a hundred in the first ODI, but not before he was again bowled off a no-ball on 20. Somehow, Sachin has never been a big hundred man like Lara. In fact, he rarely has a big series too, and the proof is that he has never ever crossed 500 runs for a particular Test series. His forte has been in churning out hundreds regularly. In fact, till 2002, there was hardly a Test series where he had not got a century at least. He also has got meaningless 100s and 200s, against teams like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, against whom initially he was accused of playing lightly (something which sits right on Sehwag currently). In fact, his record-equalling 34th century came against Bangladesh for what is his highest test score, after he was dropped twice or thrice in the forties. He had undertaken this tour with his elbow injury not yet fully healed, and this had jeopardised his participation in the subsequent Pakistan series for sometime. Again raising the suspicion whether he is simply looking for easy runs, though noone dared say so openly.

After so many false starts, yesterday - first innings of third test against England - was the time for redemption. Homeground, not-so-bad batting conditions, team in trouble - ideal platform for a master to get to his hundred, shutting up all critics, and dousing the worst apprehension of diehard supporters like me. The responsibility was further accentuated as India were playing with only five batsmen, and when they just had to protect their lead in the series. Instead, he played 20 balls for one run, could not place well-hit shots, tried scampering for singles, and finally got out playing a stupid poke at a wide one. The crowd booed him, and I reserve judgement on their behaviour.

I am worried, seriously worried. Like Lara, he has been struggling for consistency, who however manages to hit some inventive big scores while his team loses, in spite of being four years older to Sachin. Gavaskar - whose predictions have come true more ofther than not - says Sachin will get to 50 Test centuries and 15000 Test runs. Earlier, Gavaskar had famously predicted Pakistan winning the 1992 World Cup, at a time when they had 1 point in the league phase of the tournament. He had also once put his money on Warne being the key difference in the 1999 World Cup semi-final classic between Australia and South Africa, and Warne turned out to be the man-of-the-match.

As things stand now, Sachin - statistically and literally - is fighting for his survival, not for realization of his potential. He is about to turn 33, an age when Gooch, Dravid, Lara, Steve Waugh, and maybe even Ricky Ponting would be in their prime, but with lesser years on the road. I do not entirely agree to the fact that batsmen reach their peak at 30 - the most crushing batsmen have delivered their best performances between 25-28 years, be it Bradman, Richards, Gavaskar, or even Lara. We have possibly seen the best of Sachin. The trick is for him to now re-invent himself to be remembered down the ages for at least three good test innings, and not to be forced to exit, what with so many younger players breathing down his neck. He is no longer considered the world's best batsman by a distance, though still good enough to keep most of the domestic performers out.

The solutions - who am I to say? I do not think we can drop him right now (though not too many will disagree if that happens), but he needs to get two things back which have sort of eluded him - dominance and consistency. Dominance can be the primary factor, as hopefully that might translate into consistency to some extent (he obviously cannot play too many balls without getting single-figure runs). There have been similar cases, Brian Lara went through a horrendous patch from 1995-97, when his focus went completely haywire. Inzy also has come back super-strong after being dropped in 2003.

I am looking forward to a new milestone in my career. I will pray from the bottom of my heart if the chotu genius can ensure that I too can re-discover the joy of my youth to look forward to a new beginning for myself.




7 comments:

satya said...

Was that an obituary? Ok, you got this ahead of me. Yesterday, 21st March, I mentioned to someone that Tendulkar is over, he should be dropped. No, it was not the 'wild' opinion that I throw about.

In your rather comprehensive and nice essay, you have missed (or maybe not) what I think was in my opinion Sachin playing for the team and against all odds despite the Indian team being in a tangential mode.

I refer to the Sharaja series in well 1998 when I was in the bloom of my first love in second year college. Sachin played two back to back match hundreds against the Australians with no, NO help whatsoever from the Indian team. Sachin was captain then and half or four crucial players were involved in the match fixing scandal, Jadeja, Azhar,Mongia and Nikhil Chopra(ok he was not crucial). These two matches were the best I have ever seen in my life. The first match was important to qualify for the finals and we did so in great style due to Sachin despite the sand storm and virtually no support from his team mates. Even though we lost the match we made it to the finals. The next was of course the finals against against the Australians. I think we wont the finals again, Sachin got a hundred.

My larger point. Sachin would have made a far better one than Ganguly. The reasons for his failure lie in match fixing,foreign tours and hasty assessement. Sachin you see was the famous god son in India, when nothing was working, Sachin used to deliver (once i had proposed, not in the Parliament of course, that Sachin be made Prime Minister). Due to this special place in the hearts and minds of this disgustingly parochial and self serving country, Sachin's performance as captain was under greater scrutiny not for his success or failure but rather for the fact that it did not 'affect' his batting. Media commentaries of the time took a very patronizing look at his bad captaincy record and concluded that it affected his batting, and there fore that clamour of not making Sachin the captain. This was wrong as your point of a 1000 runs in 1997 calender year shows. I could be wrong in this but I think he had about thousand runs in a calender year more than once, we are talking one day matches, right.

Sachin despite being who he was had his faults. Considering his stature in world cricket and his demi god status in India, he choose to keep silent of the match fixing scandal. Also his record of winning matches for the country fares very poorly against the likes of Dravid and Steven Waugh, but it would be important to keep in mind that looking for real answers thrown up by statistical data is pretty much nonsense.

Third, Sachin was never the progressive leader off the field. Of course these are expectations I am forcing onto him but given the fact that he came from that bunch of Marathi Brahmin batsman who effectively ran Indian cricket till the Kannada guys took over and the fact that he was from the powerful marathi middle class background which was the bed rock of Indian cricket, he could have used his stardom to better effects than merely making money in commercials.

But Sachin, given his shy nature and well maybe middle class insecurities choose to not even contemplate such a role for himself beyond cricket. Was it deliberate or plain ignorance? Does someone see humility in this? Maybe I am just raising questions?

Here the comparison with Amitabh Bachchan is very apt. Both men coming from rather secure backgrounds of extremely progressive educated families did nothing to be remembered or lead beyond their areas of expertise.
Bachchan in my opinion is a regressive bastard with social and political ambitions and a false image of a good guy. In person, I think Bachchan is a maniac, intolerant and extremely fedual. i do not hold such opinions for Sachin, for his behaviour off the field has been impeccable, so I give him the benefit of doubt(I know Sachin gives a shit to my opinion but hell am doing the writing here,not him!).

These last few off the turf points that I raise are important if seen in contrast to public figures in sports or films in the United States of America and their positive contribution to the nation in general. Muhammed Ali is a beautiful example.

svety said...

The game of cricket has never interested me much but the passions associated it with it are so difficult to ignore.

To refer to ur piece as a blog or an article would be to deny it the space it so ably defends. Even though I don't watch much cricket and understand even less of it, i know one thing, your chotu is what got millions like me hooked onto the game years back.

Don't know numbers, don't even know records but do know the fact that in the case that u want to start a conversation, break the ice with a guy, chotu's is the name to take. A natural gender leveller if ever there was one.

Am a natural optimist too. The fact that I do not have facts and figures escalates that optimism. Always. Am still waiting for Ganguly to make a comeback in the World Cup and, die hard passionate fans of this sport have already written Tendulkar off.

What kind of passion gets swayed by
historical numbers? Fuck man, believe in the "belief" this man has invented and then reinvented in millions over and over again. Stop fucking counting and start believing.

I guess I would sound naive to many and an intruder to the more faithful.Don't know if emoticons work in the blogging space - otherwise u would have seen my relevant finger going up. The faithful count for nought if the faith wavers.

I completely agree with you when u say that dominance is critical.
But, so is our faith in him and his creed. We've done it with lambu bhai (our very own amitjee), lets not make chotu gothru the same pangs.

Ramdhari Singh Dinkar (for the uninitiated, one of the greatest stalwarts of Hindi literature)wrote a beautiful book called "Urvashi" for which he was awarded the jnanpith award in 1972.

Its one of my favourites because of one singular line - "urvashi apne samay ka surya hoon".

There are various interpretations to this one line, the most popular being that this was Arjun's scream upon being rendered defenceless by urvashi's beauty and his weakness for it. In his mind, he also fought this battle with his alter ego, the suryaputra, Karna; who in this case was the perfect disciplinarian.

What a gut hitting, heart wrenching emotion to be so loved and always evaluated.

Make no mistake, this is the way it happens. Love brings with it adulation and feet of clay. However, it would be a tragedy to punish the other for one's own weakness.

Lets not give tendulakr reason to say "urvashi apne samay ka surya hoon'. Lets give him "time" itself.

satya said...

Svety,

Ganguly and back, hahahaha. No smiley's for me too.

One POA, plan of action could be to throw Tendulkar out and get Ganguly in but as a non-playing captain!

I think that sounds the best to me.

svety said...

hey satya,

hes the one who looks good with his shirt off.

u can't fault a girl for hoping to get some eye candy on the field.

and kickass attitude too.

howz that for a smiley.....

Abhigyan said...

check out this link, where Sambit Bal puts a more dispassionate view of the same:
http://content-usa.cricinfo.com/indveng/content/current/story/241392.html

satya said...

I am sorry I refuse to comment on Ganguly with his shirt off.

Now if girls ran Indian cricket, Ravi Shastri would have been the greatest.

Cant the girls make do with Kaif, Yuvraj, Dhoni, Pathan, Munaf Patel, Dravid?

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