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Has The Colossus Cracked?

Pressures of unrelenting expectation-and a faulty stroke-might just have finished Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar's career

Has The Colossus Cracked?
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It's a beamer from hell that's caught Indian cricket fanatics completely unawares. The ominous question that stares us all in the face: how grave is Sachin Tendulkar's recurring back problem? Will the master batsman's spine hold up long enough not to cut short his tryst with the sport's unscaled pinnacles? It is a question that begs a medical answer-several mystified medicine men across the globe are currently engaged in untangling the knot-but its implications go far beyond Tendulkar's personal well-being. For on the answer the docs and the game's administrators find hinges the very future of Indian cricket.

Sachin Tendulkar isn't just another cricketer. He is a timeless legend in the making-much of the process has already been played out in arenas the world over but, despite Tendulkar's peerless exploits in a 10-year-old international career, it still has some way to go before the legend attains apotheosis. He's the priceless gem that lends an indelible sheen, an aura of magnificence to a generally listless Indian cricket team. Megabucks and the hope of an entire nation ride on him. To the Board of Control for Cricket in India (bcci), he is the key to its swelling coffers. To the burgeoning sponsors and his agents, he is a blank cheque that's never been in danger of bouncing.

Until now, that is. Can his back carry the weight of expectations anymore? Sadly for Tendulkar-he's the kind of sportsman that emerges but once in decades-and for a cricket-crazy nation of a billion people, the blank cheque, if it is not treated with the respect and care it deserves, could bounce and leave India's cricket industry bankrupt. Will God's gift to world cricket be allowed to go to seed simply because the greed of the men who run the bcci has run haywire? Says Dr Arunachalam Kumar, professor of anatomy, Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore: “I see that India's cricketers are on the field once every four days in a year. The bcci does benefit from this kind of scheduling, but some thought must be given to the need to allow the players some rest. If it isn't, we'll have too many early burnouts on our hands.”

Is Sachin's a burnout case or just a mid-career hiccup? Says New Delhi's Dr S.P. Mandal, who treated him on the eve of the crucial second Test against Pakistan at Ferozeshah Kotla last February: “It's nothing that can't be kept under check with the right analgesics and suitable physiotherapy.” The Melbourne-based Dr Greg Hoy, who recently operated on Aussie leg-break bowler Shane Warne's spinning finger, isn't yet aware of the Indian captain's back problem. But he is confident that “a back problem does not necessarily mean the end of a cricketer's career”. Dr Hoy cites the example of legendary speedster Dennis Lillee, who returned from a back injury to bowl as well as ever. Lillee managed what at one point seemed impossible because he modified his approach to bowling, cutting down on yards of pace and concentrating on swing and seam to snare batsmen.

Something of the same nature is, perhaps, what Tendulkar too would require to do. There is nobody in world cricket today who started out quite as early as him. He was barely into his teens when he made his Test and one-day debut in Pakistan in the late '80s. Since then, he has weathered more stress and pressure than any of his contemporaries, not only because he features in a generally brittle batting line-up that relies far too much on him, but also because he represents a country where cricketing success is inextricably linked with nationalistic fervour. And he's only 26, and being the obsessive cricketer that he is, he would give his right hand to play until he is 35, if not more. Can he? According to London's Dr Ken Kennedy, who attended to Tendulkar both before and after World Cup 1999, “Sachin will play cricket for a long time to come.”

That is great news indeed coming from a man who relieved former England captain Mike Atherton of a similar but much more severe problem. But the doctors warn that there can be no room for complacency. Most medical experts agree that Tendulkar needs to completely reorder his personal and cricketing lifestyle if he desires to stay on in the game “for a long time to come”. The fact that he is personally keen to do so is well known. “I want to take every precaution. I don't want any short-term solution. I want to serve the country for a long time,” the world's premier batsman said on his return to Mumbai from the Singapore tournament.

In Singapore, after stroking his way to a fine 85 without any apparent back trouble during India's opening match, he told Indian reporters: “I will go by the doctors' advice. But only I can judge my pain. The decision when to play and when not to will ultimately depend on me.” During the course of that innings against Zimbabwe, Tendulkar was clearly wary of the strokes that tend to push him over the pain barrier, like the one he had played off Sri Lankan spinner Upul Chandana at the Sinhalese Sports Club on August 29, stepping out of the crease and clubbing a lofted delivery over long-on and then bending over and clutching his back in agony. In Singapore, he cut out the stroke completely; the only straight six he hit during the knock of 85 was a flat-batted stroke that put no undue strain on his back.

Just as well. Tendulkar is a national treasure that deserves to be conserved no less than the most precious of India's historical monuments. But will the bcci-and the sponsors of the game in India-allow Tendulkar the leeway to catch his breath back whenever he needs to? To occasionally get away from the game to preserve his back? To enjoy the luxury of stepping down from the team if and when he desires and getting back the captaincy every time he returns to the middle? More sensible scheduling of matches alone isn't enough. The bcci has to play a far more proactive role in reining in Tendulkar, and ensuring that he doesn't play more cricket than is good for him.

On his part, the bcci president Raj Singh Dungarpur is all support. “That (taking periodic breaks from cricket) is for him to decide. He is a responsible young man. I feel he would like to get himself examined thoroughly to try and find out the exact cause of the back problem,” he says. What, indeed, is the exact nature of Sachin's back problem? “His back seems to bother him intermittently. It's more stiffness than pain,” says Dr Anant Joshi, a Mumbai-based private sports medicine practitioner who's known Tendulkar for years. According to Dr Shekhar Bhojraj, a spine surgeon at Mumbai's Hinduja Hospital who's done an investigation on the star batsman's back, “there is no structural problem.” The spine, the disc, the joints are all okay and no surgery seems to be necessary. “So if Sachin is still having those nagging back problems, I think it has something to do with his muscles. That's why Dr Joshi and I have advised him to go to Australia,” says Dr Bhojraj. Tendulkar is expected to visit a doctor at the North Sydney Orthopaedic Centre. Dr Joshi has already sent Sachin's X-rays to a few specialists in Australia.

Dr Mandal, who has suggested a thorough master check-up for Tendulkar, has diagnosed his condition as “stiff spine syndrome”, which, incidentally, has been supported by Dr Kennedy. When Tendulkar visited the Delhi orthopaedic surgeon's Chittaranjan Park clinic a couple of days after the problem first surfaced in public-during Tendulkar's glorious 136 in the first Test against Pakistan in Chennai-magnetic resonance imaging was done on him. “I detected tenderness in the right sacroiliac joint (between the lowest vertebrae and the hip bone) and muscle spasms. It happens due to wear and tear of the muscles,” says the doctor. Thanks to a combination of physiotherapy and pain-killers prescribed by Dr Mandal, Tendulkar was ready to play the next day.

But now, with Tendulkar having reached a stage where he is being forced to take one day at a time, several doctors in India have begun to suggest long-term remedial measures. Dr Kumar suggests several immediate steps for Tendulkar: drop the lofted on-drive from his repertoire, shed a few kilos of weight (at about 75 kg, he's way over the desirable limit for a sportsman of his height-5'4”), use a bat considerably lighter than the 1.42 kg piece of wood he wields today, change his stance to a slightly open one like Mohinder Amarnath and Graham Gooch and, most important, take breaks between crucial matches so that he has enough time for off-the-field relaxation.

Dr Kumar's theory about the lofted on-drive, which Sachin employs to great effect against spinners and fast bowlers alike, may have some merit. The anatomy professor, passionately fond of cricket since childhood, has never met Sachin in person. But as he watched the master blaster blaze away against the Australians in two back-to-back games in Sharjah last year, he spotted one cause for Sachin's nagging back problem. “I noticed Sachin's awkward footwork when he played the lofted on-drive, much like a golfer's tee-off. I told my friends that he was playing a shot which is bio-mechanically impossible and if he does not drop it from his repertoire, he could hurt the left knee joint,” recalls the doctor. Dr Kumar published his prognosis in a paper presented at the 46th National Conference of the Anatomical Society of India in Karad, Maharashtra, at least three months before the back problem began to plague Sachin.

Says he: “In executing the on-drive, the stress borne by the torso, hip, knee and ankle is stupendous because he swivels from a crouched stance to an outward spiral and erect posture. The right inter-vertebral ligaments of the lumbar region are stretched and ruptured, the inferior iliofemoral ligament of the left hip is likewise strained.” If the stroke is persisted with, adds Dr Kumar, “some damage is bound to happen in the left meniscular ligament of the knee”. Therefore, unless Tendulkar stops playing the lofted on-drive the way he does, the damage could spread from the right sacroiliac joint to the left one, the Mangalore-based expert warns.

 

As for the inordinately heavy bat Tendulkar uses, the general consensus is that it must go immediately although at least one expert, Dr Joshi, isn't ready to hold Sachin's bat responsible for his back trouble. “Sachin's been using a heavy bat for the past 15 years. The problem seems more related to overuse of the back than the bat. And I don't think Sachin's problem has anything to do with his build either,” says the Mumbai doctor.

But veteran cricket columnist K.N. Prabhu doesn't buy that line. Says he: “It stands to reason that anyone who has a back problem should not lift heavy objects. Why does Tendulkar insist on using an undoubtedly heavy bat?” Former India off-spinner Erappalli Prasanna also blames Sachin's bat, citing it as a departure from the norm. “Sir Don Bradman used a light bat and still got an average of 99.96 because he was naturally talented. Clive Lloyd used a heavy bat, but then he was a 6'4” giant, which meant that the strain was distributed over his large frame,” he argues.

While on heavy bats, English cricket writer John Woodcock has this to say in the latest issue of International Cricketer, albeit in a different context: “Sir Donald Bradman, much the most prolific batsman of all time, could not have played the game as he did using the mallets, with great thick handles, that are being produced today; nor could Denis Compton, the most magical improviser of strokes there ever was. They were using bats half-a-pound lighter than today's, penny canes compared to lumps of wood, and what the batsmen may have lost in power, which was very little, they gained many times over in dexterity.” There's a clear, if unintended, message for Tendulkar in Woodcock's apt words. Closer home and closer to our times, India's deposed captain Mohammed Azharuddin uses a virtually featherweight bat and has been none the worse for it-neither in terms of longevity nor the utterly bewitching quality of his strokeplay.

While the onus is on Tendulkar to heed the warning signals, all his efforts will come to naught unless the bcci decides to mend its ways. By not packing the calendar with too many days of cricket, by cutting down on one-dayers in favour of Test matches, by appointing a trained physiotherapist to address the needs of the Indian team, by putting in place a long-term conditioning regimen for the players and, last but not least, by putting the game before profit. Says former India all-rounder Roger Binny: “Our players have fitness problems because we don't have a good physical trainer. We must have one from South Africa or Australia so that our boys are fit in every respect. This holds as much for Sachin as for the other members of the team.”

The problem, explains Dr Thomas Chandy of Bangalore's hosmat (Hospital for Orthopaedics, Sports Medicine, Arthritis and Accident Trauma), lies in the absence of a regimen for conditioning. “It's often left to our players (to remain fit) and many of them don't have the expertise to follow an intensive fitness programme prior to or during a match.” The key word, adds Dr Chandy, is conditioning: a set of warm-up and warm-down exercises so that the players are primed for peak performance in both formats of the game.

Unfortunately, the bcci continues to bumble along. As India prepares for a tough season of Tests against New Zealand and South Africa (at home) and Australia (away), our squad is crisscrossing the world-Colombo to Singapore, Singapore to Toronto, Toronto to Nairobi-to play one-dayers and more one-dayers. Exactly how skewed the bcci's thinking is can be established by the move to curtail next year's three-match Test series against South Africa to only two matches, while increasing the number of scheduled limited-overs games from three to five.

Can such a Board save the goose that lays the golden eggs? If it can't, not only will it break the back of India's current batting line-up, it will be writing an epitaph to Indian cricket as well. Sachin Tendulkar's admirers deserve better.

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