Tendulkar feels force of gravity at last

It has been the strangest of times in India. The capital has endured its coldest winter in more than 70 years. Delhi-ites have awoken unbelievingly to find frost on their cars. Some have considered the veneer to be snow and constructed full-stop-sized snowballs.

Yet the weather has not caused the deepest chill across the nation, nor the greatest consternation. That was provoked by the national icon, Sachin Tendulkar, whose batting in the Tests against Pakistan suggested he had frostbite in his hands.

When the England tourists arrive in Bombay tomorrow, they will find a nation contemplating that the Little Master may, at the premature age of 32, have become a servant to time. For the first time since he came to public consciousness by sharing a 664-run stand with his future Test colleague Vinod Kambli at school, non-believers are coming out of the caves.

Since then, he has been the most spoken-about, analysed cricketer on earth. Every element of his life has been scrutinised by his followers. But the one thing that has never been questioned is his ability. Until now.

Judgement came quickly to this circular story. It all began in Karachi in 1989, when the prodigy played his first Test despite not being old enough to drive. He was hit on the helmet that day, as he was on 1 February in the old port city as India succumbed tamely to their fiercest rivals.

The blow, delivered by Shoaib Akhtar, has been interpreted as a decisive, Hastings moment, when one side's leading figure suffered a missile to the head. Yet it was the manner of his dismissal which was most disturbing. An inswinger from Moham-med Asif collected off-stump and left Tendulkar symbolically down in the dirt on his knees.

Not everyone helped him get up. "Sachin is undecided about whether to attack or defend. That he was playing half-cock when he was bowled in both innings proves this," says the former India captain and coach Ajit Wadekar. "He is no longer the star performer of the team and this has taken away from Sachin his self-importance and brought upon him a pressure that only a player in his position undergoes."

Treacherous headlines such as "Endulkar" have appeared. A more uplifting "Endurekar" was spotted after his 39th one-day century in Peshawar on Monday. But even on the North-West Frontier there were strange signs that this was not the same Sachin. He used to be the one playing all the shots as everyone else fitted round. Now the reverse applied. When he was given out lbw he gestured uncharacteristically to his glove.

The dichotomy is that against England Tendulkar must knuckle down and graft, which was never part of the design. The differences seem imperceptible until you get to his average of 20.10 in the past six Test innings.

He is not old, but they have not been normal years as he continues to transport a burden only Atlas understands. He is neither a totem for Indian cricket nor even its sport, but of life itself in the largest democracy. The exemplar of world-class India, if he fails, many of the billion think they have too. So there is a national crisis of confidence.

"Tendulkar carries a weight of collective expectation to the crease that few can comprehend," Greg Chappell, the India coach, says. "Bradman would not have had the weight of expectation every time he went out to bat. You can't just look at his statistical record because that's not even close to summing up what he is and what he has done.

"He has been the great hope of this country for 16 or 17 years. Because India, as a team, have not been as successful as other teams over the years, the expectations of the nation have tended to shift on to the shoulders of an individual. You try carrying the expectations of a billion people every time you go out."

Sunil Gavaskar knows the feeling as his predecessor. What he does not understand is the swift rush to bury. "It's particularly sad in our country to see the eagerness to pull down a player who has been a great servant of the game and who has given so much joy and pride to Indians all over the world," he says.

There has been no breast-beating or florid self-justification from Tendulkar. That is not his style. He is waiting for the temperature to change. A pleasant early summer is forecast for Delhi, but how much Indians enjoy the elements will largely be down to one little man.

CAREERING DOWNHILL?

After making his Test debut at 16 in 1989 he has scored 10,386 runs in 129 Tests at an average of 56.14, with 35 hundreds.

In 17 Tests since April 2004 he has scored 927 at 40.30, a decent record, but that includes 284 runs in two Tests against Bangladesh. Take those out and he has 643 runs at 29.22, with one century.

Before that, he was prolific in consecutive Tests against Australia and Pakistan, scoring 495 runs without being dismissed.

But in the previous calendar year, he had made 253 runs at a paltry 19.46 - with no hundreds.

He has been troubled by an elbow injury since July 2004, and was out for six months until last October.

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