Cricket World Cup: Tendulkar is the knight

The Batsman: Sachin Tendulkar of India; A nation's obsession with pure gold makes it no surprise that they should worship a priceless cricketer.
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The Independent Online
A FEW days before India set off for the seventh Cricket World Cup a medallion of pure gold was launched at a small, distinguished ceremony in Bombay. It was 24 carat, weighed a quarter of an ounce and valued at 4,500 rupees (pounds 65). On one side it featured a cricket ball seam and on the other a depiction in profile of the great batsman, Sachin Tendulkar, with the slogan, "Support India 99".

Thus, in a single ploy had the two banks behind the production of the commemorative disc, one Indian, the other French, embraced the obsessions of a sub-continent: gold, cricket and Tendulkar, and not necessarily in that order. Indians have always been fascinated by gold, they are besotted with cricket and they have come to worship Tendulkar.

All their hopes for winning the World Cup for the second time are pinned on him. He is variously called the Little Master or Smashin' Sachin, but throughout his country he is nothing short of a god. He is the most famous person alive in India. His deeds on the field mean that he can go nowhere without being followed or mobbed, or both, but he has regularly rebutted the suggestion that he cannot lead a normal life. "That is a normal life," he says. "It has been like that since I was 16."

Tendulkar is escorted not only by hundreds, more often thousands, of followers desperate to pay homage but also by enormous anticipation every time he takes the field. "When he goes out to bat," it was reported in India Today late last year, "people switch on their TV sets and switch off their lives." Somehow he has come to accept this too.

His reaction to it all has been one of quiet acceptance: "I realise people expect me to do well all the time," he says. "That is to be expected because everybody follows cricket in India. So I try to do the best I can, but I don't think of it too much in the sense that I don't let it weigh on me much or let it bother me. If that happens it would affect my peformance. What is important is that I try to live up to my expectations."

His expectations and those of the population are probably now running in tandem considering what happened in 1998. He is joint favourite at 10-1 to be this World Cup's leading run scorer (Brian Lara and Mark Waugh are on the same price) but a repeat of the form he exhibited throughout last year would leave everybody else relatively strokeless.

Between January and December he scored nine one-day hundreds and seven fifties in 34 innings. In eight Test innings he made three hundreds. Three of his one-day centuries came in the space of 17 days in three matches and two tournaments against Australia. One of them moved Mike Kasprowicz to say after going for 55 in nine overs: "Don't bowl him bad balls. He hits the good ones for four." Shane Warne was despatched for 60 in 10 overs on Tendulkar's 25th birthday and admitted that he would have nightmares after watching the batsman run down the pitch and hit him straight back over his head for six.

It was a phenomenal year - in the middle of which, incidentally, he also came to Lord's and struck a ferociously majestic century in the memorial match marking W G Grace's birth in July - and there is no reason to believe he cannot sustain the momentum throughout the World Cup. True, he had a quiet time in India's one-day series in New Zealand in January with a top score of 45 in four innings, and such is his normal mastery that there was an immediate clamour back home demanding to know what had happened.

But in Febuary he responded with two more Test hundreds against Pakistan before back spasms forced him to withdraw from two subsequent one-day series. He claims now to be fully restored and since arriving in England he has looked replete with a typically steely confidence.

Tendulkar is a gentle, courteous if understandably aloof fellow but you do not manage to dismember the best bowlers in the world by being a soft touch. He now has 40 international hundreds in all, 21 of them in one- dayers, 19 in Tests. It is, almost preposterously, as he was 26 only on the day he landed in England for this World Cup, nearly 10 years since he entered the international arena. Tendulkar had been a schoolboy cricketer of unprecedented achievement (he once put on more than 600 with Vinod Kambli, the partnership ending only when his school coach told them they should declare) and was destined to be a superlative cricketer.

He played in the Second Test of a series against Pakistan in November 1989 and watched all but helplessly as Wasim Akram whistled it past his 16-year-old head. Tendulkar made 15, but remembers: "Akram was bowling very fast. I think he bowled four bouncers in a row. It was very difficult and I thought I wasn't going to play Test cricket again."

In the next match he scored his maiden half-century and, although he then bagged a duck on his limited-over international debut, he impinged himself on English cricket consciousness the next summer. At Lord's in the First Test he held on to a breathtaking knee-high, one-handed catch running 30 yards from wide long-off to hold Allan Lamb's straight drive. At Old Trafford that August he arrived. For almost six hours he held a rampant England (England sometimes were rampant in those days) at bay to earn India a draw and at 17 years and 112 days became the second-youngest Test century-maker.

There may, just, be two blots on his escutcheon. The first is perhaps that he did not make it automatically as India's captain. He can tend to become prickly when this is mentioned in his rare interviews, saying that his personal form eventually revived. But he was perceived also to expect too much, too quickly of his bowlers.

It is probable that the selectors will have no option but to give him another go, if only because of the awe in which he is held by his colleagues, an esteem not far below that of the throngs who mass outside the Tendulkar household. Ajay Jadeja said of his 143 against Australia last year: "I can't dream of an innings like that. He exists where we can't."

Rahul Dravid, no mean, technically-gifted batsman himself, says: "Playing in the same team as Sachin is an honour. His balance of mind, shrewd judgement, mobility, and above all, his technical brilliance, make him my all-time hero." Beat that for a testimonial from a workmate.

The second failing is that he has made only one double-hundred. Surely he should have gone on as the genuinely great ones do? He does not need the support of others to realise that he needs to address this. "I have tried hard but it simply has not happened. Maybe I haven't been long enough at the crease, maybe my concentration isn't there after a stage. I should try to achieve this."

Tendulkar is famously swift on his feet, bottom-handed, eager to get on the front foot and a user of a heavy bat. Once, his bat weighed 3lb 2oz and although it is these days slightly lighter it still seems extremely heavy for a man, no matter his stockiness, of just 5ft 5in in height. "I've always used a heavy bat, it doesn't tire me," is his response.

He deals with bowlers by the elementary expedient of remembering where they are prone to pitch it and refusing to let them dictate terms. There is a story from his first match as an opening batsman in one-day internationals in New Zealand five years ago. He was pressed into service only because Navjot Sidhu woke up with a neck strain and his partner, Jadeja, thought he had lost the plot when he played forward to five successive balls from Gavin Larsen which were short of a length, scoring from none. "Wait until the end of the over," Tendulkar said. The last ball was shorter still and the little master hit it for six off the back foot. "I wanted him to bowl that length, that is why I played five balls off the front foot," he told Jadeja by way of a quick master class.

Tendulkar claims to be able to remember all his Test dismissals, 95 of them, if not his 184 one-day exoduses. "I can tell you the bowler, mode of dismissal from the first Test innings onwards."

If he is self-motivated as a batsman he plays always with the team in mind. He puts his team-mates above all. And if he is a pretty self-contained individual he has immense respect for other cricketers - Jonty Rhodes and Lara being his favourites - and declares it.

Over the next few weeks Tendulkar will grace the World Cup as he illuminated the last one. The quality of the bowling and weather- affected pitches may reduce his scoring, but they will not prevent it. And if he plays as well as he can India might just win the thing.

In case anybody still doubts his greatness it is always worth repeating the words of Sir Don Bradman, the best batsman of all. Maybe the comparison should not be too surprising because when The Don was a lad he honed his skill by hitting a golf ball against the wall with a stump, Tendulkar practised his back lift by striking a cricket ball in a sock attached to a line.

The Don said: "I saw him playing on television and was struck by his technique, so I asked my wife to come and look at him. Now I have never seen myself play but I felt that this player is playing much the same as I used to play, and she looked at him and said, 'yes, there is a similarity between the two, high compactness, tenchnique, stroke produc- tion, it all seemed to gel'."

Sachin Tendulkar is worth a medallion all right, but never mind a quarter of an ounce. They could have minted Fort Knox.

THE TEAM: THE BIRTHDAY BOYS XI

Mark Waugh (Aus) 34 on 2 June

Shahriar Hossain (Bangladesh) 23 on 1 June

Mahela Jayawardene (SL) 22 on 27 May

Maurice Odumbe (Kenya) 30 on 15 June

Steve Waugh (Aus) 34 on 2 June

Chris Cairns (NZ) 29 on 13 June

Wasim Akram (Pak) 33 on 3 June

Robert Croft (Eng) 29 on 25 May

Ian Austin (Eng) 33 on 30 May

Shoaib Akhtar (Pak) 24 on 13 June

Merv Dillon (WI) 25 on 5 June

WELL I DECLARE

IF India reach Super Six stage and Mohammad Azharuddin plays in all matches he will have been captain in more World Cup ties than any other player. Azha has led India 15 times so far (1992 and 1996), the same number as compatriot Kapil Dev (1983, 1987) but fewer than Allan Border (16 - 1987, 1992), Clive Lloyd (17 - 1975, 1979, 1983) and Imran Khan (22 - 1983, 1987, 1992).

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