AT TRENT BRIDGE on Tuesday, the outfield was filled during the lunch interval with squadrons of children playing Kwik cricket - blue plastic stumps, white balls and all. Half an hour earlier, the world's greatest batsman had completed an innings of 91 runs, which served as rare but irrefutable proof that the one-day game - "hit-and-giggle cricket", in Ted Dexter's famous epithet - can encompass the proportions and nuances of the classical style.
The conjunction of these two events drew my thoughts away from India's warm-up match against Nottinghamshire and back to the first time I saw Sachin Tendulkar. It was six years ago in Bombay, when the 19-year-old prodigy put the England attack to the sword as India completed a three- Test whitewash of the tourists and I went in search of the roots of the young man's genius. Where I ended up was on the city's maidans, those large areas of open parkland where, each morning and evening, before and after school, hundreds of children gather to be coached in the correct protocols and techniques of cricket.
No blue plastic stumps there. And no biscuit-tin lids and pebbles, such as children use to play cricket in the streets of Bombay's slums, either. Here at Shivaji Park in Dadar there were real wooden stumps, and white flannels, and proper pads and gloves, and decent bats and balls. That's how Sachin Tendulkar started out, as an 11-year-old at the knee of old Ramakant Achrekar, a man with only one first-class match to his playing account but with a lifetime credit of countless children enriched by an affectionate but firm and formal education in the game.
Tendulkar's father, a university professor and a noted poet in the Marathi language of central India, sent Sachin to stay with an uncle, who lived near Shivaji Park. "Sachin loved to play," Achrekar told me that week in 1993. "He never wanted to miss a match. Soon he was playing 10, 11 matches a month." At 13 he made his debut for the Cricket Club of India at the historic Brabourne Stadium, a Cunard liner among cricket grounds. He made his first-class debut at 15, and entered the Test arena a year later.
As India trounced Gooch's England by an innings and 15 runs in the Wankhede Stadium, Achrekar's alumni outdid themselves. Three of his Bombay boys were at the forefront of the victory. Tendulkar stroked his way to a princely 78 before falling lbw to Phil Tufnell. The 24-year-old Pravin Amre took the bowling for 57. And the comparatively unheralded Vinod Kambli, at 21, dominated the match with an innings of 224 full of fearless exuberance and flashing swordplay. The award of the man of the match trophy to Graeme Hick, who had finally scored his first century in a Test match, seemed like nothing more than a gesture of consolation. In real life, Ramakant Achrekar - who had taken Kambli under his wing at nine and Amre at 10 - was the only possible candidate.
Neither Kambli nor Amre is in the Indian World Cup squad, the former (with whom Tendulkar once compiled an opening stand of 600 during their schooldays) having been dropped after the recent Sharjah tournament. But you can see Achrekar's handiwork every time Tendulkar settles himself at the crease. The compact stance, the easy gestures, the fluency with which the bat travels through its arc, all speak of fine coaching. But they speak even more clearly of a natural talent and a wonderful temperament, the sort of qualities than cannot be coached into existence where they do not already exist.
For all Brian Lara's amazing records and unpredictable brilliance, for all Mark Waugh's solidity and tenacity, Tendulkar is the one who sets the standard for his era. No sporting giant of the sepia-tinted past has ever paid a more eloquent and touching tribute to his successor than that of Sir Donald Bradman to Tendulkar last August, when the great Australian not only invited the young Indian to his 90th birthday celebrations but also showed his guests a specially made film juxtaposing footage of the two men, more than half a century apart, playing the same shots with a strikingly similar attitude and technique.
Not many of us were around to see the Don. But no one with the slightest interest in cricket should miss the chance to see Tendulkar in action this summer. At Trent Bridge this week his innings was full of frictionless drives a few inches wide of extra cover's right hand, effortless flicks behind square leg, and delicate cuts that were late enough to catch a Virgin train. Until he got himself out, probably with an eye on giving his team-mates a chance to warm up for today's opening match against South Africa at Hove, he had done nothing that would have seemed out of place in the context of a five-day Test match.
His record in one-day internationals is remarkable: in 211 matches he has scored 21 centuries and 43 half-centuries, for an average of 42.39 (his Test batting average is 54.49). In the 1996 World Cup he compiled scores of 127 against Kenya, 70 against West Indies, 90 against Australia, and 137 and 65 in the two defeats at the hands of Sri Lanka, the eventual champions. Only twice, against Zimbabwe and Pakistan, did he fail to make a half-century.
At the beginning of the year, however, his participation in the 1999 tournament looked in doubt. In January, during the inaugural Asian Test Championship between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, he suffered severe back pains which made it difficult for him to bend down and pick up a piece of paper. While scoring a century against Pakistan, his back went into spasms which forced him to wear a spinal support belt.
A scan cleared him of bone injuries, and a London specialist, Dr Ken Kennedy, diagnosed an uneven loading on one side of his back, creating a strain on the weaker side when he takes a ball pitched on or outside the off-stump and plays it over mid-wicket. A regime of stretching exercises was prescribed, along with as much rest as is possible for one of the world's most valuable cricketers. "The human body can only take a certain amount of stress," the doctor told India's Outlook magazine. "After a stressful series you need to go sailing or indulge in some hobby rather than go into another hectic round of activity."
Dr Kennedy is among those who believe that the use of a heavy 3lb 2oz bat by a man only 5ft 5in tall tends to aggravate the problem, but Tendulkar refuses to countenance a switch to a lighter implement. He gave two recent one-day series a miss, however, and will be hoping that his problem is in the past.
India's squad are quartered in Leicester, where their exiled compatriots turned out in force to see their first warm-up match at Grace Road. Rain terminated the game at lunch, but the 300 or so fans -a fair proportion of them young girls - who clustered round the pavilion at least got a sight of their hero, who is currently being kept away not just from reporters but from autograph-hunters, too. He was out in the first over, rapped on the pads by the local seamer Jamie Ormond, but not before a smooth cover drive to the boundary, and a glimpse of that curly head through the dressing room window, had made the journey worthwhile.
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