Sachin Tendulkar is still the most prized wicket for any team that plays India. His presence at the crease is reassuring for his own team, and worrying for the opposition, so it’s natural that he should be the first target of the psychological warfare started by Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi ahead of the World Cup semi-final in Mohali.
Tendulkar will not respond to such verbal provocation. That has been his policy, always.
But it’s interesting to see how, in targeting Tendulkar, Afridi is targeting the entire Indian outfit.
He has figured out that Tendulkar is not out of action, and is a driver of purposeful cricketing pursuits, even when he is not batting, bowling, or fielding.
In the quarter-finals against Australia, when India were struggling at 187 for 5, Tendulkar gave Suresh Raina a high-five as the left-hander picked up his helment and walked out to bat. Raina later said that that was the motivating factor in his partnership with Yuvraj Singh.
Singh, for his part, said he was thinking of a special person in the tough situation, and his father Yograj indicated it could be Tendulkar as he has played a key role in restoring Yuvraj’s self-belief.
The battle between India and Pakistan is one of nerves, so Afridi has also taken note of the calming influence Tendulkar was for his team in the run-chase against Australia.
The way he went about organising his innings would, in fact, be instructive for any team playing in a high-pressure environment.
He went out to bat knowing that if India lost two wickets early, they’d be in trouble chasing 260 on a slow wicket.
He had seen how the wicket had behaved in the first 50 overs. The ball wasn’t coming on to the bat, wasn’t bouncing much, and was turning quite a bit – remarkably so when himself tried his leg-spin. So it was important to play late and to not try and hit too hard; in the early part of the innings, especially, it was important to guide the ball around and into the gaps.
In the first over, faced by Virender Sehwag, Tendulkar registered more details in his head. Sehwag played one ball too early and got a leading edge, and poked at another one, inducing what looked like an outside edge which could not be conclusively established in the absence of hotspot technology.
On the very first ball Tendulkar faced, he showed he had the measure of the wicket. As Shaun Tait bowled short of a length, he steered it past backward point for four.
He then attempted a cut over the slips – again, in order to try and use the pace of the ball – and top-edged for a one-bounce four. There was extra-intensity from Tait in this over, resulting in two wides and some verbal aggression. Tendulkar took a single off the last ball and retained strike.
A batsman who has got two boundaries off one over, is middling the ball and has the crowd chanting his name all the time, will be excited to face the first ball of the next over, especially if it’s from Brett Lee. Lee’s pace can be tempting for a batsman if the adrenaline is pumping.
Ponting has set the field accordingly, and point, cover, and mid-off are all ready for the drive.
So what does Tendulkar do? He plays the first ball with extra-soft hands, a little to the left of mid-off, and takes off quickly for a single, taking both cover and mid-off by surprise.
Tendulkar kept rotating the strike consistently, knowing that Tait was being erratic, so boundary balls would be regular, and that Lee would be replaced soon. When Shane Watson replaced Tait in the 7th over, he got a boundary through the slips immediately, and when Mitchell Johnson came on for Lee in over number eight, he pulled the third ball, pitched short, effortlessly for four. Brisk run-making, with a minimum of fuss.
Soon after Sehwag’s dismissal, he drove Watson through extra-cover for four, and then played five dot balls in a Johnson over. In the next Johnson over came Tendulkar’s shot of the day. Taking the ball from outside-off, he hit it through mid-wicket for four, and steered the next ball to the fence.
Then, just as it looked that he was getting better and better, he tried to send one Lee delivery over the keeper and missed, and was lucky the second time because the ball fell short of third-man.
The lapse was soon corrected, though, and he got to his fifty with a beautiful flick. If he had not poked at a Tait delivery, he’d have got at least 70, as he’d have relished playing the Australian spinners, if not his 100th international hundred.
His delightful fifty helped India go about its chase systematically – precisely the kind of serene approach Afridi would not like to see.