‘Either you die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ Sachin Tendulkar’s 76 at Eden Gardens in the third test between India and England, his first score above 30 in 10 innings, is a knock that will be remembered for various reasons.
For 156 balls, Tendulkar lowered himself to the level of a test freshman trying to get a feel of the dustbowls in the subcontinent. It was never going to be pretty after so many failures, and his determination to score runs was evident for the world to see. He grinded, prodded, defended, scratched and pushed- and showed the kind of application any hard-working youngster would be proud of.
After every over, you’d see him take a deep breath. I survived, this is not too bad. I’m doing well, I just need the bat to come down faster. You’d see him talking to himself internally, wiping off beads from his forehead. Maybe if I put my front foot forward just a millisecond later, the feel of the ball hitting the bat would give me more confidence. I need it to be perfect, that way. Let me try that. You’d see him waging an absolute battle while facing Panesar- survival before runs. You’d see him breathing harder with Anderson running in, his eyes bulging out when the ball was delivered- at the peak of his powers of concentration.
Now, over the years, Sachin Tendulkar has been known for many things. His dedication, discipline, child-like enthusiasm, his love for the game, his application, hard hours, fitness, and complete knowledge of his all-around game. His concentration at the crease rivals that of Dravid- ball by ball. But, over a period of time, when those balls add up to make up an innings of substance and endurance, Sachin Tendulkar has fallen short. He is more prone to making that single mistake, as compared to a Cook, Kallis or Chanderpaul- despite adopting a similar defensive mindset over the last few years of his career. As solid and textbook perfect as his forward defensive stroke is, the probability of a ball going through this defense is much higher if all these 4 players were made to play the same strokes for 6 balls at a time. This is not because he is not a great defensive player, but because he has the ability to attack. He is one of the great counter-attackers in the game, with plenty of shot options for each ball, and resorting to defense is just another option for him that goes against his natural instinct. Hence, despite attaining perfection with these strokes, it looks a lot more labored and takes a lot more out of him than, say, a square cut would. A Ponting or a Sehwag makes many more mistakes earlier on in an innings (with some glaring flaws) but their tendency to score heavy in whatever situation makes those mistakes a part and parcel of their strengths. And their strength is runs- and backing their instincts, however foolish they may look while going for an upper cut of a pull later on. The runs come at a faster rate, their concentration focused on finding gaps and not fighting their own demons. It is also precisely why Ponting knew his career was over the moment he tried to defend a full ball back from Kallis, and tripped over his own feet at Adelaide, his stumps shattered in the process. It looked funny, but it was tragic for a great batsman who couldn’t make the simplest choice: front foot or back foot?
Tendulkar is still capable of making those choices even before the ball is bowled. He reads the lengths of the ball better than anybody else, even at 39, but his failure lies in his execution. Despite reading the line and length, his bat doesn’t come down the way he wants it to. Whether it’s age of slowing reflexes, it doesn’t matter, because if he plays the ball the right way- the energy expended while he does that reduces a duration of his innings by 10 miutes. And that is arguably worse than Ponting’s lack of basic judgment.
His 76 isn’t a sign of him rising once again, or discarding notions about retirement. If anything, it strengthened the debate- he’s never been a 300 player, and often gets exhausted by the time he crosses 150- indicating that endurance isn’t really his greatest feature. But the way he gets to that 150 is all he has, and at Kolkata, the way he got to that 76 was painful for many to watch. He showed plenty of grit and guts, as you’d expect from him, but is the struggle worth it? If he is to score another 50 soon, it will feel like a monumental 150+ score, and we’d once again clap and admire his courage.
But my question is: Why would the most prolific player of all time need courage to cross 50? His dismissals lately are not due to his own mistakes anymore, but due to the bowler’s ability to outthink him and beat him off the pitch.
A flashy, reckless 60-odd can go against the interests of the team- is what he tells himself time and again. So often, that he has forgotten how to let the bat waft outside off-stump, or even play those gorgeous flicks of bowlers he once owned. A rut, if there was ever one, is what Tendulkar has put himself into- and this time, there is no World Cup around the corner.
Another similar 76 could very well signal the end of the greatest cricket career of all time. Not to the world, but to himself.