Over the 24 years of his career, Sachin Tendulkar’s art of batsmanship had undergone several evolutions depending on the team, experience and wear and tear of his own body. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the different phases of his career now that he has announced his retirement and how his saga of brilliance continued through each in them.
On a mellow afternoon in Karachi, the 16-year-old with a cherubic face covered by a white helmet stood in front of one of the canniest leg-spinners of all time. The match was unofficial, already far beyond the reach of India. More established men had ventured to the middle in succession of brave efforts and had bitten the dust. The kid had been held back till everything was well and truly lost.
What transpired has become a legend etched in letters of gold. The force of genius had erupted that day, gushing forth from the slight boyish frame in an audacious aura of ability. Sachin Tendulkar had got India close with an eighteen-ball blitzkrieg of 53. The great Abdul Qadir had been lofted for four sixes and a four in an over — each of the grand hits made with a mercurial swiftness of feet, sure sense of timing and immense belief in self that would be the story of the next several years before his retirement.
The flashing dominance of the early years
Much of the early Tendulkar was a saga of redefining the boundaries of faith and imagination. Indian cricket had never seen anything like this. Here was the first batsman who could make runs — securely, fast and consistently — on any sort of wicket, against any attack and on his own terms. He had all the strokes in the book, and then a few more in the appendices specially written by him. And none of them were held back even against the most formidable bowlers in the most hostile of situations.
As he found his feet in international arena, he turned Indian cricket on its head and will continue to do so even after his retirement. From 1992-93, the side started out on a winning spree at home hitherto unknown in the nation’s cricketing history. The cause was largely Tendulkar along with three spinners on turning tracks. The team now had a batsman who could amass huge scores, frequently and at a rate that did not lull games into lifeless stalemates.
During these years, Tendulkar dominated attacks. He tore into the best of bowlers and left them in shreds. On home soil, it was his bat which led the way and the rest of the team followed. And abroad he used his willow like the rapier of the valiant knight who fought alone, surrounded by foes on all sides. From Perth in 1991-92 to Melbourne in 1999-2000, it was the same story. Tendulkar stood alone against hostile foreign attacks in their backyard, the blade flashing in heroic splendour, but without the reinforcement required to win stiff battles. All the while there was only one way he knew to play. Taking the attack to the opposition with strokes that went beyond the ken and ability of lesser mortals. Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly had arrived in 1996, VVS Laxman came into his own for the first time in Sydney 1999-2000. But, the middle order did not become the celebrated force until after 2000. Be it the desert storm at Sharjah or the lone hand of the heart-breaking 136 against Pakistan at Chennai, Tendulkar largely waged battles alone.
Indian cricket experienced a watershed moment in the famous Kolkata Test of 2001. In the first Test, Tendulkar had been his belligerent self, launching a scintillating attack on the Australian bowlers in the course of two fantastic half-centuries. He was on the verge of bringing India back into the game in the second innings when a miraculous catch ended his stay and the rest of the batting collapsed. In the following Test, however, Tendulkar failed twice and yet India achieved a magical win. The heroes were Laxman and Dravid, and this marked the start of a gradual change in Tendulkar’s batting style.
In the next Test, India clinched the series with a narrow two wicket win and Tendulkar led the way with another century. However, he had discovered allies — others in the team who could win the matches for India as well. Soon, Dravid and Laxman proved themselves on fast, bouncy wickets as well, and Virender Sehwag’s youthful reflexes overcame gaping holes in his technique. Even in the battlegrounds away from home, Tendulkar had found able fellow men.
It was as if the virtuoso had finally been provided a platform to build his masterpieces at leisure. The scores remained as regular and large as ever, but the method underwent evolution. The destroyer became the accumulator. He did plunder his runs when necessary, as in Bloemfontein in 2002. But, the preference was to build his innings with secure bricks of patience. His body was already feeling the strain of bearing the team and the hopes of millions on his shoulders for too long. The lower back often produced pangs of complaint. So, the technique was modified. The swivels followed by the breath-taking pulls were restrained. The pace of the ball was used with the wisdom of years, and the upper cut over the slips became a frequent ploy against short balls. The spinners were milked through the fine art of paddle sweeps and the flamboyant lifts over the infield were unfurled with restraint.
Tennis elbow and second coming
Next, came the phase when even the most ardent Tendulkar fan went through a prolonged period of anxiety. The most famous elbow in history rebelled against the strain of the years. Recovery took time and left a downward trace on the scorecards. Experts were vocal in their demands of his retirement. If he had retired at that point of time, he would still have remained one of the greatest ever to play the game. But, he continued. His genius not only found a way, under tremendous pressure it emerged with the glitter of the rarest diamond.
From late 2007 to the World Cup 2011, he batted as if in a trance. This was the Tendulkar who had reached beyond the pinnacle of his powers and had been touched by divine grace. He was unhurried, sublime and impregnable. Against the most lethal bowling attacks, at home or abroad, he batted in a manner that depicted mastery of the most esoteric level. The hand-eye coordination of his youth may have frayed down over the years, but the many splendored treasures of experience sparkled as innings after innings accumulated like glowing pearls on a string of success. When he circled the ground atop Virat Kohli’s shoulders after the win in the World Cup final at the Wankhede, he was sitting literally at the top of the world — as the master of all he surveyed the green oval. Many expected him to announce his retirement after this but he continued.
The last year and a half has brought a dampened end to a sensational career. The magical willow suddenly ceased to conjure up those immortal gems. But, Tendulkar’s last year is just a tiny bit of rust at the tapering end of a saga of flashing brilliance. It is neither just nor sensible to dwell on the last tiny discordant note in the celestial symphony that was his career.
Tendulkar reached the top of the ICC batting rankings in 1994. From 1998 to 2002 he remained at the top virtually unchallenged. And he climbed up yet again in 2010. Very few batsmen have stamped their class and supremacy on world cricket across such a huge period of time.
|Sachin Tendulkar across phases of career in Tests||T||Runs||Ave||100s||50s|
|1989-90 to 1991-92||Initial phase||16||956||41.57||3||4|
|1992-93 to 1996||Dominance – single handed||25||1955||65.16||7||10|
|1996-97 to 2000-01||Dominance – aided||41||3809||58.60||15||12|
|2001 to 2004-05||Accumulator||41||3414||57.86||9||15|
|2005-06 to 2006-07||Tennis elbow||12||534||29.67||1||2|
|2007 to 2010-11||Second coming||42||4024||63.87||16||16|
|2011 to 2012-13||Last struggle||21||1145||31.80||0||8|
|Sachin Tendulkar across phases of career in ODIs||ODIs||Runs||Ave||SR||100s||50s|
|1989-90 to 1991-92||Initial phase||39||1177||35.67||78.10||0||11|
|1992-93 to 1996||Dominance – singlehanded||88||3212||41.18||83.45||9||16|
|1996-97 to 2000-01||Dominance – aided||141||5790||45.23||90.81||19||24|
|2001 to 2004-05||Accumulator||80||3463||50.93||84.42||10||18|
|2005-06 to 2006-07||Tennis elbow||36||1205||40.17||81.25||3||8|
|2007 to 2010-11||Second coming||69||3264||51.00||89.11||13||34|
|2011 to 2012-13||Last struggle||10||315||31.50||81.39||1||1|
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix