Monday, March 25, 2013

On Being Tendulkar In 2013

As I've watched India play Australia at Chennai, Hyderabad, Mohali and Delhi, I've been struck by Sachin Tendulkar's play. Between this series and the England series we have seen a mortal Tendulkar, below his all-time-great best, the balance that marked his precise stroke production only sporadically achieved, the run output, modest. In 13 Tests since January 2012, Tendulkar averages 26, and has reached a half century only thrice. His batting average just dropped below 54 for the first time in 1999. The cause, at that time was Shoaib Akhtar, who bowled him with the perfect reverse swinging yorker first ball in the first innings, and then ran into him at the non-strikers end causing him to be run out in the second.

The pundits have been out in force. They have turned on God, as people tend to do when the going gets tough. On Test Match Sofa, he is simply referred to as "the Messiah". A few forced changes to India's batting order have not included moving Tendulkar from his favorite number 4 position. Ramakant Achrekar saw in him a number 4 batsman, and so have all his teams first class teams since. But in 2013, "God" became "he who shall not be moved". Tendulkar has been seen to be above price - beyond the selectors reach, beyond debate as a member of India's Test XI.

Like most seemingly impervious, immovable objects, Tendulkar is the object against which people can only give an account of themselves. It has become cool to make fun of his struggles with the bat, even cool to demonstrate an utter lack of sentiment - him not making runs is like any 27 year old not making for period of time. This is the crowd that says he ought to be dropped. Like lazy commentators in the US who equate every new presidency, and every new presidential candidacy to one that has passed before, these people peddle well worm cliches about it being better to be asked "why and not why not". These are people who see, in Tendulkar's continued presence in India's Test XI, everything that is wrong about Indian institutions and the Indian attitude to seniority and authority. Contrary evidence such as Tendulkar awesome form in the first class games that he played in the 2012-13 season (3 centuries in 4 games for Mumbai) is set aside as being irrelevant, if it is considered at all.

But the public has not. Every where he plays, Tendulkar gets standing ovations when he walks in to bat, and standing ovations when he leaves. The public has cheered the fall of India's second wicket only because he is next in. He got great ovations in England and in Australia. Beyond the twittering of the cricketing chattering classes, Tendulkar remains a huge draw. Furthermore, he remains widely respected by teammates, opponents and fans all over the world. This was not always so. There was a time in a previous form slump when Tendulkar was booed off the field at the Wankhede stadium - the very same Wankhede Stadium where he made a century on first class debut at age 15 in 1988. These days, people don't care how many he makes. The simple fact that he's there, that he fields, that he runs a quick three, or plays a cunning paddle sweep from time to time, is enough.

As far as his batting goes, the last few months have, in my view, brought the singular disadvantage of being a very short man - Tendulkar has, for long periods during his career, been the shortest cricketer on the international circuit - to the surface. It is no surprise that short men rarely make for specialist Test batsmen. Against the rising ball, and against the turning ball, height and reach provide a batsman with necessary advantages which are not available to short men. Rough spots on a good length are more potent because they are outside the reach of a forward defensive, steep bounce off a slightly fuller length (with more scope for late movement) cannot be nipped in the bud. For 20 years, Tendulkar has made light of this disadvantage. If batting is basically about getting to the pitch of the ball, then shorter men have a harder time of it than taller ones. As his reflexes have slowed just a little, these things have begun to matter.

Tendulkar's failures is unlike any other batsman's failures. He must know better than anybody else that he's struggling and the ways in which he is struggling. He must know it, because he could not possibly have become that batsman he became without being absolutely honest with himself over the years. Unlike other more instinctive players (I'm thinking of Lara or Sehwag), Tendulkar has always been a very studious player. How can a man who can change his trigger movement depending on the bowler in a single innings, and depending on the pitch in a single series, not know that he's struggling? How can the man who put a basic stroke away in order to get back amongst the runs at Sydney all those years ago, not know that he's struggling? How can the man who, in 2012 was gracious enough to acknowledge that a former India batsman had made a good diagnosis of a technical problem that had crept into his stance, be in denial of the fact that he's struggling?

What I find interesting and confounding at the same time, is that given the elementary quality of the arguments made by self-styled meritocrats who, if they had their way, would have the selectors select according to a formula of scores and little else, and the unquestioning adoration of the fans at the ground all around the world, it is inconceivable that Tendulkar doesn't know what's going on - with his batting, with the question marks around his place in the side, and to a lesser extent with questions about his legacy.

The legacy question deserves some attention. If Tendulkar cared about his legacy, he would have retired after the 2011 World Cup. Why would he have chosen to play two difficult tours - to England and the Australia, especially since he had just had a massive world cup, and brilliant tour to South Africa? Had he retired at that time, he would have done so with 14692 Test runs at 56.94 to his name, with 51 Test hundreds. Since then he had made 8 half centuries and no centuries. He would have retired with 18111 ODI runs at 45.16 with 48 ODI centuries. Since then , he has made 1 century and 1 half century.

Perhaps we see this all wrong. Perhaps the public, who are unquestioning in their adoration of this man and his art, get something that we don't. That batting averages and centuries don't matter as much as going out and trying to play does. That batting is its own reward, just as watching a great player at the cricket ground is its own reward, regardless of how many he makes.

Take the Delhi Test for example. We heard after the match from Ravichandran Ashwin that he didn't know which ball was going to turn a lot, and which ball wasn't, because the "rough" created by the bowler's footmarks was not necessarily any worse than the pitch itself. Batting on this pitch tended to be a lottery. Even the three batsmen who looked most comfortable on this pitch - Cheteshwar Pujara and to a lesser extent Murali Vijay and Virat Kohli, were eventually beaten by misbehavior off the pitch - in each case when the ball was delivered straight. By the time Tendulkar got to the wicket after India's second wicket fell, batting was already hard - the ball was old enough to grip the surface, and Nathan Lyon had figured out that coming around the wicket allowed him to attack the stumps far more than bowling over the wicket. It is a measure of the conditions that Tendulkar chose to sweep Lyon from the stumps early in his innings. The calculation he seemed to have made was that sooner or later, something was going to misbehave beyond his capacity to deal with it, and that he was better off trying to attack the spinner. It was the right approach.

It is ironic that people complained that Tendulkar would not budge from his batting position at number 4. This, despite the fact that the same people would agree (and have agreed in my experience), that batting becomes harder against the older ball, once the bowler has figured out what the pitch is going, especially on wickets that afford grip and turn. Yet, Tendulkar's desire to stay at number 4, is seen as a self-centered, self-entitled move, not the act of a senior player choosing to keep the difficult job for himself, letting the younger batsmen (Kohli, Pujara) batting higher up the order where starting is easier. That he failed is another matter. That he tried is not even considered within the realm of possibility.

And there in lies the paucity in the thinking of the self-styled meritocrats. To them, the problem is self evident - Tendulkar isn't the player he used to be, so he must quit or be dropped, and if he isn't, it must be because someone somewhere lacks guts, or doesn't care enough. This despite the fact, yes, fact, that only Kohli and Pujara (and now Vijay) among our specialist batsmen have done better than Tendulkar since 2012. Gambhir and Sehwag did about as well. Once the problem is self-evident, the possible answers must also be self-evident (we have known this going back to Plato's Meno).

The reason I think this problem has been posed wrongly, is because there are too many things that would have to be true, which can't possibly be true, in order for this to be the actual problem. If it were simply a case of a player near the conventional end point of an international career being in bad form, and yet being apparently oblivious to the obvious solution - retirement, then a person of Tendulkar's accomplishment would have got it easily, as would all the others around him.

The worst of the lot are those commentators who won't actually question Tendulkar's place in the side, but will grumble that no one else will do so. They assume the classical passive-aggressive stance of the second rate media critic and go on and on about the "question that may not be asked" or the "player who may not be questioned".

Tendulkar has lived in the same world that we have over the last 20 years. He has, however, lived an impossible life in it. In a revealing column late last year, Greg Chappell reported something Tendulkar once said to him back in 2005 when he was going through a period of bad form. From what little Chappell says, it is clear that one of the issues on Tendulkar's mind was the question of ageing - why did batting become harder as one got older? That was 7 years ago. Tendulkar is older and wiser now, and must have made some measure of peace with age. But he also said something else to Chappell that rings true, given the ridiculous notions of privacy, personal space, fame and celebrity that hold sway in India. In response to Chappell's observation about how busy he is with people coming and going, Tendulkar said simply “Greg, you have more friends in India than I have.”

In this respect, Tendulkar is different from Gavaskar. Gavaskar was perhaps the smarter manager of his own legacy, and played the world as well as he played the ball. He had decided to retire in 1986, but as he later told the story, continued for the 1986-87 season after Imran Khan said to him that they ought to play against each other one last time. On a minefield at Bangalore, Gavaskar had his dream final act. Despite the conventional view that Gavaskar quit while people were asking "why" and not "why not", he did play one series more than he wanted to play. Gavaskar has also written about how fielding had begun to seem like a chore for him as he approached the mid-nineteen eighties. With Tendulkar, there are no such indications. He's still a better fielder and a better runner between wickets at age 39 than a recent former left handed Indian captain was at any time during his captaincy. He can still easily keep up with Pujara or Kohli when the quick run is on. Unlike Gavaskar, who even as a player regularly wrote a column (unlike a lot of players, he is supposed to have written it himself) in the newspaper and had a life beyond cricket lined up for himself, Tendulkar has given no indication of what he might do once he quits. He has never written a newspaper column, his press conference tend to be extremely boring and to the point, and he is unlikely to appear in a commentary box like Dravid or VVS Laxman have.

We have, despite having known the batsman for 23 years, no clue about the man. Beyond his interest in food  (restaurants) and cars, what do we know about him? I have admittedly not had any interest in the man beyond his cricket, but I read the newspapers as much as the next person, and I couldn't tell you what he thinks about anything beyond his batting.

Why, in a nutshell, does Tendulkar continue to play for India, despite knowing that he's not at his best, knowing that he hasn't been making runs, and knowing that given his position, there is nothing to be gained from playing much longer? Dileep Premachandran has written that the lack of runs is perhaps because Tendulkar has nothing left to achieve. Why then, does he continue to play?

I will not spend too much time over why the selectors let him play. Selection as a job, is probably the closest one to God in contemporary India (or anywhere for that matter). Even judges in court have to follow evidence and legal argument. Selectors are paid to follow their instincts - to take risks. Some of the greatest selections in recent years have been of players who didn't have great first class records. Michael Clarke for one was picked ahead of a lot of very successful batsmen in Australian first class cricket. Yuvraj Singh was as well, and he ended up Man of the Series in the World Cup that India won. Selectors are also therefore extremely easy to criticize, and there are plenty of people who do it, all the while thinking that they are engaging in some profound logical argument. It is not clear at all that the selectors have not spoken to Tendulkar about his future (just as it isn't clear that they didn't speak to VVS, Dravid, Sehwag etc.). It is assumed by critics that they haven't done so, even though none of these critics could be bothered to actually find out (or deal honestly with the consequences of the fact that they can't find out).

Perhaps a high quality biographer will get at this question one day. I would like Tendulkar to retire, mainly because while it is fascinating to watch a great player struggle, especially since he has to know he's struggling and knows what its like to not struggle, its still painful to see ordinary bowlers troubling him. But whatever he decides, it will matter very little as far as his legacy goes. Whatever is decided for him by the selectors, it will matter very little as well.

I will suggest this though. If you love cricket, watching Tendulkar bat at age 40 is a rare opportunity, one that is unlikely to come again.

7 comments:

  1. I guess we have only our own short memories to blame for many have forgotten what a truly remarkable batsman he is. I watched the 80 runs he made in Chepauk and he was near flawless there. We could'nt get tickets for the better stands and had to make do for the gallery and looking at his footwork, what was astonishing was his front foot stride. It just seemed to cover more gound than any other player (esp compared to Sehwag & Vijay who had just gotten out). His speed and precision in footwork makes up for that height disadvantage. Yet he also does it so smoothly, the only comparision in sport is to Federer, I guess.
    Reading Hussey's interview on Cricinfo, he talks about the anguish & stress of international cricket. Just think, it must be 100 times greater for Sachin.

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  2. I have one ques - Do you think it was correct of the selectors to drop Gambhir and Sehwag due to the form they were in?

    I ask this, because you state that these do did equally good/bad as SRT since 2012. So, if you justify leaving out those two, why do you wish he to watch him bat at 40(or wish he retires) rather than clearly stating that like those two, he deserves to be dropped?

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  3. Great analysis. I see your arguments on Sachin knowing nothing else other than simply expressing himself on the cricket field and not really thinking beyond it. It is a tough one indeed knowing when to go. Could you also elaborate on what your own thoughts are on his retirement- since it wasn't very clear in the post.

    IMO his time is up. The great player he is - he will always get you the 50 odd under pressure once in while given his vast experience & talent but you've got to ask yourself - at the international level is that enough? His test performances over the past two years have been disappointing to say the least - both in terms of stats and in the manner he bats giving away momentum to the opposition. Hang up the boots Sachin and thanks for the memories!

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  4. Have you considered the possibility that Tendulkar is playing because he wants to hold his batting records? Kallis has a good chance to overtake him in Test runs if he plays his cards right. Cook can give Tendulkar's Test century record a run. Can't that play on his mind? I think it does. After all, he went on a meaningless ODI tournament in Bangladesh just to get to the fabricated, mix-and-match, x+y=z'esque, composite record of "hundred hundreds." (He had not been playing ODI regularly for a while then.) He went on a media blitz to celebrate this achievement, ignoring India lost that match. It was argued with some degree of truth that his century effort might have cost India the match. A player's desire to play for himself often helps the team. Is it true in Tendulkar's case anymore?

    It is pointless and somewhat dishonest to say that there are not good players to replace him and therefore he should keep playing till he is 65. The point is not whether or not he had a good first class record in 2012-2013. It is this: there could be some 20-something player who is not even considered because dropping Tendulkar is not a possibility, and that 20-something player's career is being hampered. If Tendulkar retires, the selectors might start considering a few other replacements and one of them could be a good long-term Test bet.

    Tendulkar knows he can't be dropped. The selectors know they can't seriously consider dropping him. Hero worship is nothing new to Indians. But it has costs. The public's obsession with Rajinikanth, for example, set back Tamil cinema by a few decades.

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