24th May: Mumbai Indians v R. Royals, 14:30 GMT
24th-28th May: 2nd Test, Headingley
In a recent Ian Chappell column that caught one’s eye, he argued that Ricky Ponting the best batsman in the world of the current lot. Now with all due respect to both of them, one is not sure if the eighty thousand-odd packed into the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium at Hyderabad for the 5th ODI versus Australia on Thursday night, or for that matter, the millions glued to their television sets across the world gave two hoots to what Mr. Chappell thinks. Why? Simply because only an Indian (and thus a cricket fan) knows what it could possibly mean to be Sachin Tendulkar.
This match was the epitome of what sort of a legacy the great man will leave behind when some day decides to hang his boots. Seeing him bat tentatively when approaching the 17000-run mark, you could only possibly wonder; how does a man who has scored 16999 runs struggle for one more? Because he loves and respects the game more than anything and has worked hard for every single run! It was the same when he scored his first, and is the same now with his umpteenth, and that is the reason why the end is still a bit far away.
Even so, a career that has spanned twenty years has often been criticized for possibly its one and only fault. That he hasn’t helped India across the finish line too often. Critics, they say, remember greatness by its faults. He has gone about setting some of them right in the last couple of years; the century in the CB series final, the ton in the Chennai Test against England and more recently the ton in the Sri Lanka tri-series final.
And so Sachin seemed to be just doing that at Hyderabad. Whilst scoring his 175, he also took his fans down memory lane. The stops on that same lane were indeed some of his other gems, played more than a decade ago. Remember Sharjah 1998? Remember Chennai 1999? Two innings which define the best image that any cricket lover has of the maestro; one gave nightmares to arguably the greatest spinner the world has ever seen. The third brought tears to the eyes of those watching as Pakistan romped home by the closest of margins fathomable.
So, which re-run was it going to be? Will Sachin take the team home or will he, get out close to the target and the rest of the pack will just falter under pressure, as always? Turns out his critics are the ones celebrating as India fell short by a mere three runs. Subsequently, knives and daggers ought to be out already claiming he is no match winner. The question they need to answer is: when did cricket become a one-man game?
For about forty-five overs of the Indian chase, inspite of only two other batsmen crossing double figure marks, the match seemed headed for a 1998 ‘desert-storm’ finish. Like that night in Sharjah, when he scored in every way possible to keep India in the hunt, Sachin was timing his shots perfectly on this day, picking runs at will and in a chase of 351, keeping the asking rate under the scoring rate. What more do you ask from a man who is trying to win you a match? Some support from others indeed.
When the others failed, Suresh Raina to his credit did the needful for a while but fell just when the last roll of the dice, the batting power plays came on. From there on, the match headed towards Chennai ‘99, down South for India literally.
Back then, Pakistan came calling and chasing 271 on a turning pitch that man took his team single handedly from 82 for 5 to 254 for 7, when he departed trying to knock off the final few runs quickly because he couldn’t bear the pain in his back anymore. He was human after all. But greater no less, for four batsmen - tail-enders all - could score only five runs. India lost by twelve that day.
On this day they lost by three, but more than anything it showed Sachin is still human, inspite of the divine knock that he played. More importantly after all these years, it showed that questions that were asked in the 1990s, when ‘Sachin is out, India loses now’ used to be the mantra, still come back to haunt the great man. Where is the independent and cherubic middle order that Sourav Ganguly once built, gone now?
The inept middle order that this Indian team possess came to the fore. Time and again, their weaknesses have been exposed and if some of them were pertaining to cricketing ability at times, on this occasion it was about temperament. It was a match that questioned the logic of dropping Rahul Dravid from the team prior to the series. Yes, the scoring rate would have been a touch low but he would have held one end up for sure. Something that Tendulkar so desperately needed some one to do.
And that is the difference between a Ricky Ponting and Tendulkar. Ponting for all his flaws is a wonderful batsman but he has never had to face a bowling line-up that had the likes of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne bowling in tandem, alone. There were always the Haydens, Gilchrists, Waughs, Martyns and Symonds to rally around him. Add to the absence of such names with the billion expectations this man carries with himself whenever he pads up and one is sure no batsman has ever felt anything remotely similar.
The Aussies don’t play an individual centric game however and in that sense then, it was just another loss for Indian cricket. The anguish felt across the stadium, or the zillion television sets, tells a different story though.
© Cricket World 2009