There’s a lot to admire about Sachin Tendulkar: the grace of his batting; his longeveity; his fundamental decency as a human being despite being more scrutinised than perhaps any other sportsman in the world. And then there are all the runs. Yet almost as impressive as anything else is the way he has revived a career that, after the last World Cup, looked like its denouement would not befit such a great player.
Weeks away from his 38th birthday, there can be no doubt Tendulkar’s wicket is the most-cherished in world cricket. So it’s fashionable to say that his apparent ‘decline’ of the mid-2000s was grossly exaggerated, the product of media hyperbole. After all, there’s nothing like an ‘Endulkar’ headline to sell Indian newspapers.
But the truth is there was rather a lot to those headlines.
Over a period of three years from April 2004, Tendulkar averaged less than 29 from 21 Tests, if run-gorging on a Bangladeshi attack lacking any venom is discounted. In an era of flatter tracks, inferior bowlers and shorter boundaries, those are grim figures indeed.
In the same period in ODIs, culminating in the 2007 World Cup, Tendulkar averaged 30 in ODIs against Australia, England, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa. India were no longer sure where he should bat, explaining his demotion to four on the verge of the 2007 World Cup. The joy in his cricket appeared to have vanished. In that World Cup, his only two innings against Test-playing opposition were a torturous 26-ball seven against Bangladesh, and a third-ball duck in India’s must-win game against Sri Lanka.
Ian Chappell has since been derided for saying Tendulkar should consider retirement but he was far from alone. Tendulkar appeared the victim of injuries, chiefly to his shoulder, and cricket fatigue – which was hardly a surprise considering he’d been playing continuously at international level since 1989. His batting was declining in fluency; he was increasingly easy for bowling attacks to contain, as a notably diminishing strike-rate in both forms of the game reflected. His decline was not a fallacy.
The 2007 World Cup appears both Tendulkar’s nadir and the catalyst for his astonishing revival. Tendulkar could easily have retired then – he turned 34 just after the tournament, after all. Yet he decided not to and, perhaps, remembered why he played the game in the first place.
He has batted with more of a sense of freedom since his miserable three years. That is not to say he doesn’t bat with responsibility, but that he has rediscovered his relish for dominance. Between 2004 and 2007, Tendulkar thought of himself as the mature elder statesman, aiming to grind the opposition down. In the process he sought to eschew risk, notably cutting out the pull and hook. But the result was he became ordinary in a way he is not; it became possible to choke him. After making one off 21 balls in a Test defeat to England in 2006, an innings defined by timidity, Tendulkar was even booed off by a section of the crowd. He wasn’t being true to himself.
Shane Warne once confessed to having nightmares about Tendulkar repeatedly hitting him for six: that is what Tendulkar is capable of doing to even the world’s best bowlers. Australians have always inspired Tendulkar, perhaps because the way in which they attack forces him to respond in kind. It was on the 2007/08 tour there that Tendulkar made it apparent he could still make ruins of international attacks, as a strike rate of 65, perhaps even more than an average of 70, showed. On the fast Australian tracks, the pull and hook returned, along with the élan in his batting. Opposition bowlers once more feared he could destroy and embarrass them, instead of merely accumulating unobtrusively – to the degree that it is ever possible for Tendulkar to be unobtrusive, anyway.
Tendulkar’s form since has been nothing short of magisterial, as eight Test hundreds since the start of 2010 are testament to. In addition to the poise, elegance and range of his shots – expanded as Tendulkar has embraced the paddle sweep - his batting has been characterised by a remarkable ability to adjust his tempo depending on what circumstances dictate.
To see Dale Steyn bowling to Tendulkar during India’s recent Test tour to South Africa was to see Test cricket at its most captivating; it may not have been Harold Larwood to Sir Don Bradman in 1932/33, but it wasn’t that far off. Steyn justified his number one ranking with raw pace aided by swing and clever use of bouncers and yorkers. Yet Tendulkar was up to the not inconsiderable challenge, combining his aesthetic extra cover drives with upper cuts to bouncers, as well as a stoic acceptance some short balls would hit his body. Two centuries in the three Tests were the result.
In lauding Tendulkar’s turnaround, the role of the Indian management must not be forgotten either. They have displayed an admirable pragmatism regarding Tendulkar’s ODI appearances – to the extent he went 11 months avoiding the one-day merry-go-round after his record-breaking 200* against South Africa last year. The aim has been for Tendulkar to focus upon Tests and this World Cup. He has succeeded magnificently, and now has the chance to secure that denouement.