Weight of Test caps suddenly bearing down on Tendulkar

He has scored more international centuries and has played in more matches than anybody in the history of the game. He began playing for his country when he was a podgy 16-year-old and for the same number of years since has unleashed an astonishing range of strokes allied to breathtaking reflexes that made him a national icon.

When he was batting, people flocked to the ground, when he was out they flocked home again in their tens of thousands. In neither direction has the turnstile been manufactured that could cope.

For many devotees he was the whole game. Sir Donald Bradman, the nonpareil of all batsmen, rushed to his wife one day and said that this fellow reminded him of him.

In mid-afternoon yesterday the words forming on the lips of others were along the lines of: "Yes, but apart from that what did Sachin Tendulkar ever do for Indian cricket?" And if the words are on the lips, the writing is on the wall.

For the moment, it may be the faintest graffito but that does not make it indiscernible. First, the figures. Tendulkar has now gone 10 innings without getting beyond 26, by four innings the longest run of his career without a half-century. In recent seasons there had been other, smaller, fallow sequences such as 1, 0, 1, 37, 0 in late 2003.

True this preceded 241no, 60no and 194no but further evidence followed that he might not be what he was with 26 runs in six Test innings. The latest arid patch began after the 109 he made against Sri Lanka late last year. Yesterday he was undeniably twitchy, betraying uncertain movements that belied his Indian record of 135 appearances. Maybe the weight of caps was suddenly bearing down. After staying around for 31 uncomfortable minutes he nibbled at one from James Anderson.

Second, the anecdotal evidence. At Nagpur in the first Test of the series, India surprised England on the last afternoon by suddenly deciding to chase an improbable target. To put this into effect they sent in two hitters above Tendulkar - Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Yet, Tendulkar is "Smashin' Sachin", the "Master Blaster", a man with 39 one-day centuries, 17 more than anybody else, with a strike rate of 85 and an average of 44, phenomenal figures over 362 matches. He showed that he might not have exactly been overjoyed to be batting at No 6 by blasting 28 from 19 balls, fashioning some shots made in heaven.

Before this cameo of fireworks there had been something else. When Tendulkar entered the arena, the ground which would once have exploded in a cacophony of delighted expectation actually went quieter. This was because the new hero of the masses, Dhoni, was already at the crease.

Last year, Tendulkar was afflicted by a severe case of tennis elbow that kept him out for six months. It had been troubling him for some time and although he has recovered after treatment and rest, the spark of genius has not been rekindled. In his absence, Dhoni arrived.

He is unquestionably suffering by comparison with his captain and contemporary, Rahul Dravid, the man who is called "The Wall", and who seems to add new bricks with every innings.

Perhaps it will all come right, perhaps it is only in Test cricket that Tendulkar's decline is evident, perhaps he can still inflict horrible punishment in one-day cricket, perhaps he can yet recover in this match. But in discussing this particular cricketer, that number of maybes amounts to more than a hill of beans.

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