While Sachin Tendulkar has been a run-machine for most part of two decades, the Indian legend has never been known as a test batsman that can snatch away a contest from the hands of opponents. It takes him more than a session to settle in, and while he is no Sehwag, he has been responsible for many Home series wins and draws over the years in conditions that help Indian teams feed off crowd support. Many will remember his annihilation of Warne in 1998 as his most aggressive innings (preceded by an even more memorable first-class double hundred for Mumbai against Australia), and one that defined his relative domination of the Aussies. His Cape Town effort back in India’s 1-1 draw against South Africa back in 2011 is counted by many as his toughest innings- a one man army against the brutal pace, skill and swing of the best bowler in the world in alien conditions. And rightly so, too.
Yet, it is no surprise that Sachin Tendulkar’s most significant test innings came in a high-scoring draw. That sounds a bit unfair. It came back against Australia- then the best team in the world at the peak of its dominance, led by Steve Waugh.
It may not have gone down in the history books as a significant double-century because it was thwarted by Waugh’s final act, but the fact is that India came within inches of a historic test series win Down Under. A win could very well have changed everything about world cricket after that. Tendulkar himself may have considered early retirement, after completing what could have easily been Team India’s greatest achievement in their cricketing history. But as we know, the series ended 1-1 despite Sachin’s innings- that came after 11 innings of off-side induced failures prior to that.
The reason it was so significant is because it demonstrated, more on an individual basis, what a hard-working, disciplined athlete can do when he puts his mind to something, and wants something really desperately. Sachin Tendulkar did not want to fail again, and he wanted to make a difference to a series that was all about Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman until then. He went on to score 241 runs- impressive as a sheer statistic- but the manner in which he scored them astounded the cricketing world. Out of 33 boundaries, 29 of them came on the leg side. He did not play a single cover-drive, a drive on the rise, and left everything partially outside off stump. He trusted his leg-side play enough to put VVS Laxman to shame. For its sheer audacity and skill needed to wait for a ball directed at middle-stump or his pads every over for 10 hours of batsmanship- Tendulkar’s innings surpassed anything that he had ever achieved till then. Against bad form, against the run of play, and against his own instincts, he cut out his bread-and-butter shots that had gotten him much glory. And for that, even managing to put India in a commanding position against an invincible team, even the Australians had to applaud him. That was 9 years ago.
He had a clear plan back then, however ridiculous it sounded. It was the kind of plan that sounded great on paper as a strategy, but to actually get down to business and execute it at the highest level of test cricket was a different matter altogether. In 2004, though, Tendulkar possessed the skill and eyes to pull off such a plan. 9 years later, here in 2013, as Australia’s tour of India begins- where, bizarrely, despite India losing 4-0 a year ago, they are still favorites in home conditions- Sachin Tendulkar isn’t half the player he used to be. While his Irani Cup innings may have aroused many dormant carnal desires of sleeping die-hard Sachin fans, it came against a bowling attack that he has never faced on the international stage. It is also precisely the reason why he is held in high regard by the Aussies- because they are aware that he is the only batsman that has not had to score runs against varying levels of weak Indian attacks over the years. Muralitharan has half his wickets against lesser teams at home, and Ponting has made merry against the Indians in every test series except ‘that’ 2001 series. Even Kallis has scored heavily against the Indian ‘attack’, and Lara was the only contemporary batsman that never really took a shine to Indian bowlers- though, one suspects that he was disinterested when not challenged enough.
When he walks out to bat at Chennai tomorrow, many will be aware that the 4th test in Delhi could be his last test match. India next play a series against South Africa at the end of the year- and even Tendulkar will admit that it will be asking too much if he is expected to travel there, out of match practice after retiring from ODIs, and then face the Dale Steyn symphony orchestra. Having a plan may not be enough this time. Cutting out lose shots is always a viable option, because his strong shots are the ones letting him down. His 76 against England at Delhi was, at its most basic level, perhaps an innings that took so much out of him to prove that he still belonged- that most fans watching him forgot that India were fighting to rescue a home series against a weaker team. He wasn’t enjoying his batting too much, and trying too hard to roll back the years.
It is, therefore, time to accept that this test series is nothing but a swansong- and the result could cease to matter when he announces his retirement from all forms of international cricket midway through the series. People might even forget that this is Australia’s weakest touring team to India in 3 decades.
‘It is just what he needs to get back into form’, they say- instead of ‘this is our chance to spin them out of our country’.
But then, Sach has always been life.