Sachin Tendulkar s struggle: It s not about the body; it s about the breaks

There are bandages all over the body, but don t count him out. Champions have a way answering prophets of doom, and the forthcoming series against England could just be the time for Sachin Tendulkar to provide a fitting reply to his trenchant critics Getty Images

From a moment of unadulterated joy to one of dreadful horror, the pendulum of emotions swung faster than the arrival and departure of Shahid Afridi at the crease.

Just the previous delivery, Sachin Tendulkar had pounded Doug Bracewell into pulp with a murderous straight drive; the very next ball he played across the line and heard his timber rattle. There was a sinking sense of disappointment. For the second time in a row, Tendulkar had his stumps pegged down in the series earlier this year.

The disappointment metamorphosed into anguish in the second innings of the final Test against New Zealand in Bangalore. He had started off cautiously. And just when it looked as if he was showing signs of getting into vintage Sachin Tendulkar mode before lunch, with a couple of thumping punches through the covers off Tim Southee, disaster struck. He found his middle stump spread-eagled as he tried to flick a vicious inswinger off the same bowler.

Oh no! Not again!

Then one saw something unusual. Exasperated with himself, Tendulkar tried to smash his bat onto the stumps in unconcealed anguish not quite, but almost. The public venting of inner feelings one hasn’t ever seen from the decorous sportsman in over two decades of exemplary career.

It wasn’t the ageing factor that did him in; it was the rustiness. He looked a tad scratchy. And that is not surprising given the fact that he had returned to international cricket after a three-month gap.

If one has been a keen Tendulkar follower, he would notice that there is a familiar pattern to such comebacks. He tends to be tentative and scratchy when returning from the mini breaks. But with progressive time spent in the middle, he settles into his prolific run-getting flow.

A comprehensive analysis of his performance after long breaks (two months or more):

1999 saw his first major break when his chronic back injury flared up during Pakistan’s tour to India. In March-April, the injury forced him out of the tri-series featuring Pakistan and Sri Lanka at home and the one featuring Pakistan and England at Sharjah. After a near three-month gap, he returned to international cricket in May to take part in the World Cup. His scores in the next nine innings (all One-Day Internationals) read: 28, 140 not out, 2, 22, 0, 45, 16, 14, 37.

He slowly got into the groove and hammered a century against Sri Lanka at Colombo. The much-needed time in the middle proved to be crucial as he amassed 435 runs from three matches at 108.75 including his first Test double century against the Kiwis. Then followed the sublime 186 not out in the ODI series.

In 2000, India had a four-month break from June to October. Tendulkar returned to action in the ICC knockout tournament in Kenya where he made 25, 38, 39 in his first three innings before scoring 69 against New Zealand and 101 against the Lankans at Sharjah.

The following Test series against Zimbabwe saw him plunder 362 runs from two matches at 181. This included a double century.

In 2003, Tendulkar again went through a barren gap of six and half months. This time he had Tests upfront after the break. He managed 8, 7, 55, one in four innings of the two-Test home series against the Kiwis. But in his next five ODIs, he scored two centuries and two half-centuries.

In 2004, tennis elbow injury kept him out of action for two and half months, forcing him to miss the side for the Videocon Cup limited-overs series in Holland, the ODI series against England, the ICC Champions Trophy and the first two Test matches against Australia at home. He returned for the last two Tests against Australia and could manage just 8, 2, 5 and 55 from four innings.

In 2005, the tennis elbow struggle continued which meant a five-month lay-off. The comeback was decent, but not good enough with scores of 93, 67, 2, 11, 19 not out in the ODIs. The struggle continued a bit longer this time, probably due to the seriousness of the injury until he reached the landmark 35th century, to surpass Sunil Gavaskar‘s record, against Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla.

In 2006 he underwent a shoulder operation which kept him out for five months. After the operation, Tendulkar spent six weeks in England for rehabilitation and played a series of practice and charity games. The impact of match practice was clearly seen as he was the highest run-scorer (222 runs from four matches at 74) in the DLF Cup Tri-nations Tournament in Malaysia involving Australia and the West Indies in his comeback stint.

In 2008, a groin injury kept him out for four months and the trend continued as his comeback scores read 27, 12, 5, 31, 6, 14 in the three-match Test series against Sri Lanka. After that he shone in the next series against Australia with 396 runs from four matches at 56.57.

2010 was the only year where he made an astounding comeback after a long break. Tendulkar had a five-month lay-off after suffering a finger injury during the latter stages of the IPL. He came back with scores of eight, 84, 203, 41, 54, 98, 38, 214, 53 in his next nine innings against the formidable opponents in Sri Lanka and Australia in Tests.

In 2011, he skipped the West Indies tour which amounted to a three-month break. He immediately returned for the series against England and had scores of 34, 12, 16, 56, one, 40, 23, 91.

After the end of Asia Cup in Bangladesh, the Indian Premier League followed. Then there was a three-month break before India played New Zealand – almost a 5-month international break. This brings us somewhere near to a firm conclusion that the biggest problem for Tendulkar is the breaks. He is rusty and scratchy to start off with and that’s what happened in the New Zealand series.

The customary retirement clamour surfaced again. Echoes of “Tendulkar is ageing and should hang his boots now” rang throughout the social media world. But what’s the exact meaning of ageing? This question is as bewildering as understanding Shoaib Malik‘s role in the Pakistan starting eleven. More so because the same Tendulkar who was apparently “ageing” even two years back went on to break all sorts of records – a double century in ODIs, 1562 runs from 15 Tests (Highest run-getter in Tests in 2010), including two sublime centuries in South Africa against the best pace bowling attack in the world.

He is still one of the fittest fielders around in the Indian team and one of the best runners between wickets. It’s not all about ageing; the fact that Tendulkar has been susceptible to the inswinging deliveries is a well-known fact ,which in turn increases the risk of leg before wicket and bowled. So why all of a sudden is there such a fuss about Tendulkar getting castled? It has happened to him before in 2002 on the England tour where his wicket was knocked over thrice in succession. Since then he has amassed 7375 runs in Tests at an average of 53.05.

Tendulkar has been a fighter all his life. And he is unlikely to be fazed by the odds and the criticism he his facing. How can one forget his unbeaten 241 in Steve Waugh’s farewell Test at Sydney in 2004! He was not in the best of form and he had to face a searing examination after being peppered with deliveries on and around off. He carved out a cerebral innings with precise shot selection.

“I would put this innings right at the top of my hundreds. I had a plan and I am happy I could execute it well. I am happy that I was able to maintain the discipline throughout the innings. Things had gone wrong a couple of times with my shot selection, and I knew I had to cut out a few strokes.” he said after that epic innings.

Rahul Dravid once wrote, “The hallmark of a great player is how you perform in different situations, and also how you perform when you’re not playing at your best like Sachin’s double hundred in Australia when he was going through a lean trot. He just decided to eschew certain shots and piled up a big score. I’ve never seen any batsman play in one way right through his career.”

In a similar instance on India’s tour of England in 2007, Tendulkar’s determination denied Ryan Sidebottom, who was bowling the spell of his life with breathtaking pace, seam and swing on the third morning of the Nottingham Test. Tendulkar was tested in the corridor of uncertainty, but he batted to a plan and emerged triumphant. He made 91 in that innings before being wrongly adjudged lbw by umpire Simon Taufel. A collapse looked inevitable judging by the venom with which Sidebottom was bowling. But Tendulkar stood firm.

The last time Tendulkar was castled three times in a row, he went on to score 193 and 54 on the England tour in 2002. It’s the struggle that makes the sport look more competitive and beautiful. And Tendulkar symbolises the beauty of struggle perfectly.

Come November when the English team visits India for a four-Test series, there is a high chance that we won’t witness Tendulkar’s sublime flicks to start off with; the full deliveries could be driven cautiously to the ‘V’ region or defensively patted driven straight back to the bowler. But with passage of sessions, the straight drives will start finding the fence and the cover drives will pierce the gaps. And it won’t be much long before we see those majestic flicks which marked the beginning of end of Shoaib Akhtar firing at 90 kmph at Centurion in the World Cup 2003.

The Champions League T20 and the Ranji Trophy game against Railways will give him the much-needed time to spend on field. One can well expect Sachin Tendulkar to come out all guns blazing against the Englishmen. And yet again disprove the prophets of doom.

(The writer is an avid sports fan and analyst. The above article has been written with inputs from @cornerd and @pavilionopinion and first appeared on Jigar Mehta tweets @jigsactin)