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Sachin in chains?

February 18, 2004

To change and to change for the better are two different things' -- German proverb.

Watching Sachin Tendulkar bat these days makes one realise the wisdom of that statement.

In the glory years gone by, when Tendulkar walked out to bat, opposition skippers would busy themselves setting defensive fields, bowlers would approach the wicket in trepidation, knowing that from the first ball the batsman would attack.

Sachin TendulkarCut to the present.

The fielders draw in closer, the captains urge their bowlers to bowl their aggressive best. Tendulkar looks tentative and decides, as he has of late, to take his time at the crease and get set. 

Teams are now content to let him make the first move.

Reputations matter in sport; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It is clear that the 'master blaster' no longer intimidates. He will continue to score runs regardless of his chosen approach, but it was his manner of scoring runs that made all the difference. His sole purpose at the crease was to play shots; not graft; not stay at the wicket but play strokes of divine quality. The other tasks were left to lesser batsmen.

Tendulkar's first great one-day knock was at Eden Park, Auckland, against New Zealand, in 1993-94. He scored 82 off a mere 49 balls in his first innings as opener. Until that knock was played, it existed only in schoolboy dreams.

Even before that knock his genius was acknowledged. Then his unbridled aggression made people take note of him in a completely different light.

Since then, he has played many wonderful knocks: 142 against the Aussies at Sharjah, where he singlehandedly won the match for India; 169 against South Africa at Cape Town in the company of Mohammad Azharuddin; 136 against Pakistan in Chennai. The 98 against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup showed he had not lost his touch completely.

These knocks were special because of the way he dominated bowlers and had teams at his mercy. People always expected him to go out and do his stuff without much ado. Like all great players he raised the bar to a level few thought was possible.

And just when the world salivated at the prospect of seeing Virender Sehwag and Tendulkar bat together, the little master changes his game completely. The dasher in him no longer exists.

One wonders if 16 tiring years of international cricket has contributed to this change.

Consider his 241 in the Sydney Test against Australia. He struggled for 613 minutes as he tried to survive, looking so unlike himself that, to the untrained eye, a lesser batsman might well have been batting in his stead.

True, one needs to add new aspects to his game. But why change something that has been so spectacularly successful? Why abandon the very aspects of your game that brought you success? Change is not mandatory; neither is survival. If you live by the sword; you die by it too!

An anecdote from Rahul Dravid's early days as a cricketer. Azharuddin, then India captain, advised Dravid: 'You will get a lot of bad balls during your knock and you will dispatch them all to the boundary. There have to be bad balls and I have no doubt that you will hit them all for four, but it is only when you hit shots off good balls that you will come of age as a batsman. That differentiates a good batsman from a great one.'

Tendulkar has that ability. Shane Warne used to have nightmares about him charging down the pitch and smacking him for six. Wasim Akram failed to figure out the ideal place to bowl at him. So why does he have to change?

Tendulkar will set batting records that will stand the test of time. His place in history is assured even if he retires tomorrow. But these days he is but a pale shadow of his true self.

I hope to see the Tendulkar of old soon, destroying attacks, smacking sixes and matching Sehwag stroke for stroke. Given the strength of India's middle order, he should be given full license to go out and make the opposition salute his genius.

Will he oblige?

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