A few days before the World Cup began, Sachin Tendulkar asked an interviewer, at a function to release a CD of his father Ramesh Tendulkar’s poems in Mumbai, if he had any questions for him on the tournament.
“None,” the interviewer said, as they stepped on to the dais, where the interview was to be conducted before a large gathering.
“Good. I want to stay low-key,” Sachin told him.
Even when the spotlight was on the Indian team’s practice sessions in Bangalore ahead of their first big game against England, Tendulkar stayed quiet while the other Indian batsmen hit the ball hard in the nets. He just took a few inconspicuous knocks, and the only time he was noticed was when he casually clouted a couple of balls into the stands, left-handed.
And then he went out and played an innings that can only be described as a classic.
The innings was pure cricket education. It was a demonstration of how batting is all about four Ps – planning, patience, pacing one’s innings and forging partnerships – and of how controlled onslaught can bring benefits that far outweigh those of uncontrolled aggression, even in this era of T20 cricket.
Tendulkar met the very first ball he faced, in the first over of the Indian innings, in the middle of his broad bat – the same, favourite, bat with which he’s got 15 hundreds. That was a relief for Indian fans, because his partner Virender Sehwag had edged the first ball, and given another half-chance on the third.
Tendulkar had come out with a plan. He was going to bat for as long as possible, while the others batted around him. He allowed Sehwag to dominate, content to take singles, respect the good balls and put away the bad ones (one ball bowled on the pads early on – you never bowl to Tendulkar there – and despatched to the boundary was a case in point).
He was unhurried and steady in the first ten overs or so, a lesson for all batsmen who overly obsess over their runs-per-ball ratio, because he knew he could organise his innings in such way that the ratio could be more than corrected later.
The ball was holding on in the initial overs, so he waited for it rather than reaching for it. After Sehwag left, he focused on building a partnership with Gautam Gambhir and helped Gambhir keep his calm. In one over, Gambhir, having played four dot balls, looked impatient; Tendulkar walked up to him and told him it was fine, he needed to stay at the wicket, the runs would come. The left-hander played out the other two balls too, and went on to get a fine 50.
A straight hit that almost took the bowler Graeme Swann’s hand, and the umpire’s head, was the first sign of deadly intent sent out by Tendulkar.
Then he changed his bat and switched gears – from quiet to destructive.
He picked his bowlers, and Paul Collingwood and Swann were favourites..
The first six off Collingwood over mid-off was pure polish, the top hand and the front elbow in total, stylish control; the second, over mid-wicket, was rugged power, the bottom hand reasserting its dominance.
That six, and the three hits against Swann that went into the stands, had about them the quality of authority bordering on dismissiveness. It was as if somebody had told Tendulkar of Swann’s reputation as the world’s leading spinner today, and he had decided he’d acknowledge it in his own way.
He got to his 50 with one of these sixes, and then into the 70s in no time at all, having executed two lovely strokes, a punch through the covers and a cut through cover-point, along the way. It was now the pacers who were getting the treatment, and they continued to be at the receiving end till well after he had neatly glanced a ball to the fine-leg boundary to get his 47th hundred in one-day cricket and 98th in international cricket.
Tendulkar had got to his 50 in 66 balls; in the next 49 balls he faced, he got 70. I must mention, here, that a television commentator, in the initial phase of the Indian innings, pointed more than twice to Tendulkar’s runs-per-ball ratio in not the most positive way, though not openly disapprovingly; once Sachin had reached his 100, the same commentator spoke eloquently of how he had actually meticulously built his innings. It is odd how people who have themselves played international cricket take so much time to figure out how an innings is being built.
By the time Tendulkar got out in the 39th over, he had established complete dominance over the England attack, forged three critical partnerships (the third one with Yuvraj) and laid a solid foundation for India to build upon.
India not only did not build upon it adequately but made a mess of things when England batted, trying their best, as it were, to cancel out Tendulkar’s classic. But other teams in the World Cup would have taken as much note of Tendulkar’s approach and intent, as of India’s poor fielding, catching, bowling and leadership.
Other teams will also ask themselves the question: what happens to India on a day he does not fire? The Indian team could ask itself this question too. And not merely in terms of batting. Tendulkar’s cricketing instincts still seem to be much sharper than those of his team-mates. When Andrew Strauss nicked one to MS Dhoni in the second half of the England innings, the bowler and the keeper heard and sensed nothing. Tendulkar, at mid-wicket, was the only one who went up in appeal. Strauss stayed, and fought his way to a thrilling tie.
(Vaibhav Purandare is the author of Sachin Tendulkar: A Definitive Biography, published in India and the UK. As a schoolboy, in 1987-88, he watched helplessly as Tendulkar and his partner-in-amassing-runs, Vinod Kambli, got a world record 664-run partnership against his school, St Xavier's, Mumbai. He is currently senior associate editor, Hindustan Times, Mumbai)