India’s enthralling victory in the final CB Series is a fitting end to a summer in which they have battled fiercely with Australia, matching them from the second Test onwards. Controversially opting against selecting any of Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman for this series, India’s triumph was one of youthful vigour, testament to their aptitude for the fight and their mental resilience. At the centre of it all, however, was Sachin Tendulkar.
There is so much to admire about Tendulkar, forced to handle fame when just a boy yet a man who has retained humility and decency whilst playing international cricket for 18 years at a phenomenal level. In so much as it is possible, the pressures of batting for a billion do not appear to have greatly affected him. Yet what is too eagerly overlooked is the manner in which the master has reinvigorated himself so spectacularly after what was a form slump that appeared terminal.
That is not overstating it. Over three years from April 2004, Tendulkar’s returns in Tests declined alarmingly, although his diminishing returns were hid by some gorging on Bangladesh. The figures say it all: a paltry average of 28 over 22 Tests against the major nations. His one-day international figures were much better but, even so, there was a danger that Tendulkar would damage memories of his resplendent strokeplay with these years of rather undignified struggle.
The nadir was reached with a dire World Cup: a painful 26-ball seven against Bangladesh contributed to India needing a win against Sri Lanka just to qualify for the Super Eights. As he came out to bat, with his side teetering at 43/2, Cricinfo asked: “Is this going to be the defining moment?” Three balls later, we knew the answer: bowled for nought, his sad trudge back to the Pavillion seemed to betray a man who could no longer live up to his reputation. Brilliant innings of yore were an increasingly distant memory.
Yet somehow, Tendulkar found a way to turn it around, beginning with a pair of 90s against South Africa in a low-key ODI series in Ireland. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, Tendulkar began to rediscover the panache that characterised his brilliance of the 1990s. In the Tests in England, he patently appeared a great player wrestling against the advancing years; he played some vital knocks, though his strike-rate of 43 was indicative of strokeplay less dashing than had once been the case. The following ODIs marked further steps on the road to recovery; Tendulkar seemed free of burden – until he reached the 90s, when the weight of expectation would descend once more upon him.
Against Pakistan, he was superb – but the qualifier was he was playing against a modest attack in docile conditions. Could he do it against the best once more, and in Australia at that? Oh yes he could. Tendulkar seemed a man more at ease with his ability than for some time; his movement was as quick as in his youth; and the joie de vivre was back. His batting encompassed the élan of his youth and the nous that comes with being 34, as he masterfully adapted his game depending on the circumstances. The results were phenomenal: two scores of over 150, a series average of 70 and, tellingly, a strike-rate as high as 65. Australia will be aware of the onerous task facing them on their return tour in the autumn.
The majesty of Tendulkar's batting is there for all to see. His two innings in the finals – 117* to lead India to a comfortable run-chase, and 91 when India were batting first in the second game – were paced to perfection. He batted with a wonderful fusion of freedom and responsibility, and Australia had no answer. A year ago many believed the contrary – and with good reason – but Tendulkar's looks set to remain in international cricket for some time yet. He has rediscovered the joy he found batting in his youth. This, allied with his copious experience, mean that, once more, Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket is the most prized in the game – and don’t Australia know it.