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Keen Flesh, Young Blood

The Tendulkar example shows the importance of intitiation rituals

Keen Flesh, Young Blood
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After so many seasons watching moderate England batting I some-times fantasise and see Sachin Tendulkar in an England sweater. But he is wooden. Gone is his poise and timing and wonderful flexibility: he is prodding forward to spin or wafting a hefty bat at balls rising outside the off stump. He might be called Sachin Stewart or Graeme Tendulkar. He looks the same until he moves and then he becomes Alec Stewart or Graeme Hick. It is a bit of a nightmare really.

England spends a lot of money trying to get Stewart, Hick and all to play like Sachin. There are countless coaches, bowling machines with eternal actions and, in order to get mind and body right, there are psychologists, psychiatrists, masseurs and masseuses, chaplains for pastoral care, mother confessors and patient priests so that the agonies of failure can pour out, but the vital truth about fine batting has never sunk home in my country.

The question to ask is, what age? How old is a great batsman? Answer—very young. There is very little chance of altering a player after the age of 23, bar the odd technical shift. Sachin was a great player when he was in his early teenage, so was Denis Compton, so was Don Bradman. Talent can develop but once you have it—you have it.

There is more to Sachin Tendulkar than that. He has a most competitive temperament. He has not needed special coaches to teach him how to compete. It is inbuilt. All it requires for a great player is to be exposed to sharp competition. A Test match is warlike and the finest exponents love it out there in the middle. The faint-hearted can reveal a death-wish. Sunil Gavaskar did not need anyone urging him to "hang in there". An Indian sweater on his back and the sight of another country in opposition was all he needed.

Great batsmen make difficult strokes look easy. Of all the Tendulkar strokes to enjoy, I love the backfoot drive with almost straight bat, sending the ball along the ground wide of mid-on. It shows the extraordinary time he has to get onto the back foot and the confidence to wait until the ball is right underneath his nose. His demolishing of Shane Warne was a classic and perhaps as much cerebral as natural talent. He had worked out that by hitting the leg-spinner, who was coming at him from round the wicket, through the line of the ball as it spun in from leg. He was not committing any technical crime, but it required split-second eye-hand communication to keep whacking the ball high, low, everywhere to the leg-side boundaries.

The England and Wales Cricket Board have been looking at the problem of prolonged international ineptitude through the wrong end of the telescope. They have been garnishing the efforts of the current mediocre players with all sorts of aids but have made no improvement at the grassroots. Cricket has vanished from state-owned schools in the UK. Far from finding our own Sachin on a public park like Shivaji in Bombay, we rear ordinary, mechanical batsmen on artificial pitches. We do not have the thrill of inter-school rivalry.

Let me give you an example close to my heart. I am Welsh, brought up in the town of Neath where I began my cricket on a dead-end road. We used a tennis ball, a solid rubber ball or a cork ball—fashionable and affordable when there was little money to go around. My pass to the Neath Grammar School transformed my game because I played for the first time on a grass pitch. Now, in 1998, there is no Neath Grammar School cricket team at all, mainly because there is no field. When I was chairman of Glamorgan in the 1980s and early 1990s, I asked for a review of school cricket in the Cardiff area—popula-tion 500,000. The news came back: only two schools played cricket but they did not play against each other. In fact, neither had a fixture list at all during term time.

Given England cricket to control, I would think Tendulkar. Catch ’em young. Stimulate their cricket from the cradle and let them fight to win from an early age.

I know another cricketer who did that. He learned on the beaches of Antigua with a piece of driftwood and a soaking, skidding rubber ball. He never went to the nets during a match, just felt bat on ball in front of the pavilion without pads. He grabbed a couple of catches and  stretched his thigh muscles, otherwise he let nature take over his game. He was Vivian Richards, of course, the only match I have seen for Sachin Tendulkar and I would not like to be pushed to say who was the better batsman. 

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