Just ten days of cricket, and maybe less, are left for him and that’s it. It hasn’t sunk in and I doubt it ever will, either for himself or his adoring fans. The mere thought that one of the greatest cricketers the world has ever produced will never don the venerated Indian jersey, instills fear. The good bye was around the corner but still it induced a kind of numbness. He was a constant in the continuously revolving lives of billions, a name that proved to be an antidote during the worst times, providing unadulterated joy with relentless classic performances on the field.
His strokeplay made the game look ever so beautiful and was converted into an addiction. His audacity and ferocity captured the imaginations of billions. We became obsessed with his aggression and fearlessness that we used to witness day in, day out. But Tendulkar’s career was carefully crafted, flamboyance turned into calmness and maturity took center stage. As his approach altered with time, a sense of emptiness engulfed our insatiable minds. Questions such as ‘Where is the old Tendulkar we used to know?’ surfaced incessantly.
We started craving for the kind of strokeplay the ‘old Sachin’ possessed. Each and every six he hit henceforth felt like gold. One of the most delightful experiences of his strokeplay was watching him dance down the track and hammer the bowlers with utmost arrogance. Yet while the cover drives, straight drives, leg flicks and upper cuts still flew, the image of a vintage Tendulkar, in whites, charging down the track and clubbing the bowler into the orbit became an endangered species. Watching him struggle became more uncomfortable than facing Shoaib Akhtar on concrete with no helmet. In the last two years, fans have been left yearning for the vintage Tendulkar in Tests, after each innings, of failure or of promise.
One such period when the fans craved for the past Sachin the most was the 2003-04 season. After years of being consistently prolific in the Test arena, Tendulkar’s run-scoring trajectory inexorably moved downwards in 2003. He could garner just 153 runs in 9 innings at 17 with a highest score of 55. That’s when frustration started to creep in. It wasn’t the same Tendulkar that we were used to; we weren’t used to watching the great man fail. The struggle extended to 2004 after failures in the first three Tests of the Australian tour but then came the masterclass, an all-legside 241-run innings which brought about some relief. But still, the mind argued, “this wasn’t the Tendulkar of old?”
In the midst of this renaissance, however, disaster struck as Tendulkar suffered a mysterious tennis elbow which would keep him out of action for two and half months, forcing him to miss 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. The seriousness of the injury exacerbated the fear further. He made his comeback in third Test at Nagpur but looked rusty and subdued as he garnered just 10 runs from two innings. India lost the match by a huge margin of 342 runs and Australia clinched the four-match series 2-0.
The series moved on to the fourth and final match, a dead rubber in Mumbai at the Wankhede stadium which was hosting its first Test in two years. Play started late on day one due to unexpected rains. On a gloomy afternoon, India won the toss and elected to bat on a lively pitch. McGrath and Gillispie ran riot first up. After surviving a dropped chance inside first two overs, Sehwag was cleaned up through the gate by McGrath and Gambhir followed the very next ball, off Gillespie. The chants of Sachin….Sachin echoed the stadium even before Gambhir had left the crease after being given out LBW.
The local lad nearly gave the crowd a heart-attack when he pushed the ball to the off side and scampered through for a quick single, only to survive a run out as his bat got into the way of the throw. He tumbled onto the ground after reaching the crease and got up with an embarrassed smile knowing that a direct hit would have been curtains. The surface was providing ample movement and after a rain break, Tendulkar gave an another heart in the mouth moment surviving a close LBW shout trying to shoulder his arms to a McGrath delivery that jagged back in viciously. The pair of Tendulkar and Dravid somehow survived a testing period before bad light came to their rescue and play ended on day one.
With Tendulkar at the crease, there was a real buzz and a sense of excitement as the fans crammed into the stadium with bated breath on day two. I was one amongst them, having missed the first day due to exams, but the excitement was short lived as after just two overs, Tendulkar departed, caught behind with his feet stuck in inertia, pushing at a Gillespie delivery. It was a highly circumspect innings. A 35-ball struggle which saw just one aggressive shot. There was a real sense of disappointment inside the stadium and it just grew bigger as the home team was bundled out for a paltry 104. The pitch had turned into a minefield now and India made the most of it as they snapped up a strong Australian batting line-up for just 203, thanks to Kumble and Murali Kartik. The lead was 99, still a big one on this pitch.
Sehwag and Gambhir survived the toughest period up to stumps. By now, the excitement levels had gone one notch higher. As Mahesh Sethuraman puts it perfectly in one of his his articles – “The night before a Sachin innings is a conglomeration of all possible human emotions, yet the ecstasy of the impending masterpiece rose above everything else.” The same ecstasy was felt as fans again thronged Wankhede on day three. Soon, it was the same story as day one as Gambhir and Sehwag departed inside the first three overs of the day. Still, there was positivity flowing as Tendulkar walked out to the crease to rapturous applause. There was optimism because of the hope of a Tendulkar masterclass but deep inside, the nerves were jangling. The home boy joined VVS Laxman who was promoted to No.3 for the first time since the 2001 Kolkata Test.
The demons of the first innings started to surface again as Tendulkar didn’t open his account for the first nine balls. The good thing, though, was, the start wasn’t as fidgety as the first innings and he defended with assurance. Soon he released the pressure valve with a nudge to fine leg for a boundary off Gillespie. The very next ball, he played a risky stroke and guided a length ball outside off with a bit of outside edge between the slip and gully region for a streaky boundary but two balls later, minds were calmed as he punched one through backward point for a crunching boundary. The delivery wasn’t bad at all but it was a nicely manufactured shot. The next one was clipped through mid-wicket for a couple, 14 runs off the over including three boundaries and one could sense the urgency in Tendulkar’s batting and relief among the crowd.
In Gillespie’s next over, he leant forward and caressed a full ball on the up through extra cover and that’s when you could figure out that he wanted to dominate the best bowler of the series. It was a refreshing approach, the one we had seen him take when bowlers tried to intimidate him in his heyday. The confidence grew with each delivery and runs started to flow. The nerves had calmed down as Tendulkar and Laxman milked runs with ease even on this minefield. Laxman played some exquisite strokes and the fifty-stand was soon up. Nathan Hauritz, the debutant who bowled decently to pick up three wickets in the first innings, was introduced into the attack in the 21st over, but Sachin didn’t get the strike in that over.
The ball was spinning viciously and in his next over, Tendulkar was facing. The first ball he delivered was short, Tendulkar rocked back and pulled it with great power but it hit the short leg fielder and had the pace taken off it. The crowd ooed and aahed! The very next delivery, Tendulkar charged down the track, connected with a looping delivery and drove it for a boundary through extra cover. “He charged down the track,” was what the boy seated beside me answered when in disbelief, I asked him, ‘Did he just charge down the track?”. Seated on a rickety bench in North Stand, my mind blabbered “Bhai aaj mood me hai!” (Boy! He looks in the mood today). By the time I had recovered from the astonished state, Tendulkar had already waltzed down the track once again and lofted Hauritz into the orbit and then there was that typical nod of the head signifying that the old Master was back. By the time the ball hit the manual scoreboard over the wide long on stands, the hope was converted into delight and then transformed into satisfaction. I had jumped out of my seat, trying to track the trajectory of the ball in the heavens but all in vain as it had disappeared into the air. The crowd had gone into a frenzy, the entire Wankhede went berserk, there was a sudden surge of serotonin inside the brains and why not? A resurgent Tendulkar had just hit a six dancing down the track.
There was a sense of shock as the last time the Shardashram pupil hit one into the stands in Tests was two years ago way back in 2002 when he deposited Alex Tudor into one of the buildings adjacent to the Headingley ground. Since then, he had gone 16 matches and 28 innings without a maximum in Tests. The last time he had danced down the track and deposited one out of the park was in the fading light of the same Headingley ground when he danced down the track to Andrew Caddick and murdered him out of the park in a marauding innings of 193.
Watching him charge down the track at Wankhede brought immense satisfaction and happiness, the hope that one day the Old Sachin would be back was reincarnated. The fans had been craving for this moment for years, doubts had overshowded the mind as to whether we would witness the domineering Tendulkar approach that killed bowlers over the years but that six quelled a lot of fears and the billions were treated to some delightful strokeplay on a very difficult pitch. The very next ball he lofted Hauritz over mid on for a one bounce boundary, the nerves had been appeased and the crowd just enjoyed each and every run after that as he reached his half-century(from just 62 balls) with a typical charging couple off a leg flick to Kasprowicz.
Top-edging a slog sweep, he was finally dismissed by the debutant Hauritz, there was stunned silence in the ground, we had set ourselves up for a special century, but soon he walked off to a standing ovation, applause that instilled goose bumps. The 91-run stand was broken; Laxman had played a crucial knock too. Soon after the hosts suffered a collapse and the team from Down Under were set a target of 107. Chances of a win looked bleak but team India pulled off a coup and won the match by 13 runs to retain some pride in the series. The match was over in three days. The pitch was criticized and a complaint was registered. Due credit to the bowlers but the 91-run stand between Tendulkar and Laxman was the difference between the two sides.
As I left Wankhede and walked through the breeze of Marine Drive, I felt immense satisfaction as I had witnessed the old Tendulkar who had played a major role in achieving India a victory that day. He has played many a spectacular innings but that 55-run effort on one of the toughest tracks is the one which sits right up besides his numerous great knocks. I switched on the highlights of the day and marked the fact that Sanjay Manjrekar too was astonished at that six in the commentary box, he shouted “Now this is Tendulkar…that we’ve seen over the years and this is a big shot I have seen from the man after a long, long time!”
After the next four he continued “Can’t tell you the last time I ‘ve seen him play shots like these, in the air, it was a natural shot for him, he used to play it lot but of late it’s been missing from his armoury but today it’s been rediscovered.” Following that six, Mohammad Rafique, Michael Clarke, Justin Ontong, Brad Hogg, Daniel Vettori, Ajantha Mendis, Shakib Al Hasan, Muttiah Muralidharan, have all experienced those marathon feet dancing down the track and clobbering the red cherry out of the park.
The last time we witnessed Tendulkar dance down the track and hammer the bowler over the ropes in Tests was in January 2011 when he waltzed down to Paul Harris depositing the ball over the long off ropes during his sumptuous innings of 146 at Cape Town. He had reincarnated hope on that hot afternoon of 5th November in 2004, and come November 2013, after exactly 9 years, the mind and heart will be craving again, craving to witness the vintage Tendulkar dancing and hammering the West Indian bowlers into the stands. There is a hope that he will end on a high, and the mind is assured that he’ll not disappoint just as he didn’t at Wankhede back in 2004. Dear Sachin, let’s finish the way you started, for one last time.
Picture courtesy – Espncricinfo