On his 40th birthday, I saw Sachin Tendulkar play down the wrong line to a flighted off-break from the Trinidadian off spinner Sunil Narine and get bowled. He faced six balls over 5 overs. The ball that got him was flighted well above his eye line and the great man found himself reaching for it, off balance. He was beaten in the flight and the fact that blocking with a dead bat was not a realistic option in the 20 over match did not help.
When I began maintaining this weblog in 2006, Sachin Tendulkar was in a form slump. His first serious down turn since his debut in 1989. In 20 Tests leading up to March 2006 (dating back to the start of 2004) Tendulkar averaged a flattering 61 over 1466 Test runs. 301 of those runs came in the first of those 20 Tests on a good batsman's pitch at Sydney. A further 194 came in the 2nd of those 20 Tests in Multan at the end of March, 2004. After Multan, it would be another 27 Tests before Tendulkar made a Test hundred away from home against opposition not named Bangladesh. Apart from his 35th Test hundred at the Kotla against Muralitharan and Sri Lanka in 2005, he didn't make a Test hundred at all for nearly 4 years. Over 27 Tests, he averaged 32. I began to write this blog bang in the middle of this form slump.
India were touring Pakistan, a tour marked by two featherbeds at Faisalabad and Lahore, followed by a pitch with some life in it at Karachi. Pakistan won at Karachi despite conceding a hat-trick to Irfan Pathan in the first over of that Test Match. Tendulkar had been out to Shoaib Akthar at Faisalabad caught down the leg side off a short ball. It set off murmurs about his ability against the short ball. Some observers concluded that Tendulkar was no longer a great player of the short ball.
Things turned around.
In 32 Tests since that Sydney Test at the beginning of 2008, Tendulkar made 3000 runs and reached a century 11 times in 56 innings. Since the 2011 World Cup, it has been hard going. 21 Tests have brought him 1145 runs at 31. He has arguably played better against good teams since 2011 than he did in his previous slump of comparable length between 2004 and 2008. He's reached a half century 8 times and 80, 4 times. He hasn't made a century.
These days it is a different story. An email acquaintance who has published books, columns and blog posts wrote to me after the Delhi Test against Australia saying "I'd like to know what is going on in Tendulkar's head now. Gee, he looked ordinary in Delhi." A lot of people, including me, would give a lot to understand what is going on in his head right now. Why does he continue to play? He must know that he isn't playing well. He has achieved nearly everything there is to achieve. The only things missing from his list are Test series wins in Australia and South Africa. He has won the World Cup, the Champions Trophy, Test series in Pakistan and New Zealand (India have twice won in West Indies without him), and Test series against every single Test playing nation in India. He has been part of India's first ever Test win in South Africa and part of Indian teams that returned from Australia and South Africa with parity. He has won one day multi-national tournaments in England and Australia. What else is left?
More than any other person in contemporary India, Tendulkar has embodied perfection. As a complete batsman, he has played successfully against all opposition in all conditions - he has dominated some teams, played others to a stalemate. Moreover, up until now, it has never been about him. It has always been about the team and about winning. If that involved making the unpopular choice of playing out a quiet hour before lunch in order to wear the opposition out, he has tried it. If that involved bowling leg breaks for a session, he has tried it. If that involved slogging in search of quick runs, he has tried it. If it involved taking on a bowler, he has tried it. Despite being, in a lot of ways, a throwback to an earlier era in which batsmen constructed innings conservatively and used the promise of landmarks to drive themselves, Tendulkar has never appeared anachronistic at any time in his career, until now. Even at Melbourne in the boxing day Test of 2011, he was able to make a tricky pitch look benign for a magical session, tragically cut short by a searing Siddle spell at the fag end of the day.
In the past couple of years, Tendulkar's bad days have been worse than they used to be. At his best, even when he wasn't reading the bowling well, even when he was struggling with his timing, bowlers would have to work hard to get him out. His technical ability allied with his ability to read his own game and conditions helped him keep good bowling out for entire spells often to the exasperation of some of his more impatient fans who seemed to think that he had a "natural attacking game". What Tendulkar has lost in the past year or so is this old ability to keep good bowling out. He seems to be reading the line and length just that little bit later, and as a result, he's off balance more often than he used to be. It is fascinating to see, for it is revealing Tendulkar's mastery to us in a way that watching him at his best never did.
For his sake, and his sake alone, I hope that he finds his touch at least one final time. We do not deserve this by any means, nor should it happen because I want to see it. I think it should happen, even if it does for two or three hours. Two to three hours of the flawless judgment and footwork in which he goes from finding his feet early in the innings to mastering the bowling and the conditions, to toying with the bowling - making the bowler do his bidding, playing the perfectly balanced on drive from off stump and then, with mid-on just a little bit wider, hammering a straight drive past the man's left hand. Delaying that square cut just that extra moment to beat cover point, creating the optical illusion that the ball moved very slowly off the pitch to accomodate his adjustment. Meeting a whole range of lengths off the front foot, simply because he wants to send the bowler a message, and then message transmitted, sending the next one flying between mid on and mid wicket, or cover, the forward defense replaced by a small exertion of the bottom hand. Of having not one, but two or three shots to every ball and picking the best one as a matter of course.
It must be miserable watching one's skills fray. It must take a special obsession (or some odd compulsion, which I doubt is the case) to keep putting oneself out there game after game in such circumstances.
If I had one birthday present to give Tendulkar at age 40, it would be to put whatever little goodwill I possess so that he may be near his best game just one more time. For Tendulkar at his best is an exquisite sight. It is unlikely to come in the T20 game, for the mark his batsmanship was never hasty coercion, but durable inevitability.
Just once more. Experience tells us that such wishes rarely come true. But for Tendulkar's sake, I hope mine does.