I have been moved by unwarranted criticism of Sachin Tendulkar. He was, is and will remain a jewel in India's batting crown for the next foreseeable future. A lot of factors have been ignored while having a go at India's little genius.
Tendulkar returned to international cricket last October after nearly a year's absence because of tennis elbow. In between there were a few occasional forays on to the field. But Sri Lanka first saw the man at his original best and he then brought the nation to its feet with the record 35th hundred. But he was still short of quality international competition and, let's be candid, Chaminda Vaas is no Shoaib Akhtar.
Now Shoaib may not have the purest of action but there is little denying the fear factor of his pace. Every batsman has known fear and those who deny it are lying. I still live to this day the fear of a thunderbolt from Ray Gilchrist during that much-celebrated visit to the West Indies in 1958. Tendulkar too must have known that dread to the limbs. It comes with the game, pure and simple.
Let me first recall that face off with Gilchrist. I had got 337 in the first Test and as I was walking out to bat in the second, Clyde Walcott offered a word of advice: "Ray (Gilchrist) is too quick. Don't attempt to hook him!" Those were the days when I hooked with abandon. But now I decided to pay heed to his word and began following my usual drill: watch the bowler from the start of his run-up, never lose sight of his arm and try to make sense of that blur of a red line which to the outsiders appears as the ball.
I was never a ducker so I started to sway in and out of the line before I saw a short delivery head for that space between my eyes. I instinctively bent myself in an arch to the extent that my head nearly knocked off the bails! The ball whistled past the upturned nose. I still made 80 but that delivery still sends the shiver down my spine.
Now, there is little denying that Shoaib is stirred by the sight of Tendulkar. It is alright to bowl your usual stuff to the Sehwags and Dravids but when Tendulkar appears on the stage, every bowler worth his salt would be at his snarling best. He would pull the trousers from the waist up, push back his sleeves and rip through the thunderbolts with utter venom. The home crowd is always in the background, egging him to bowl meaner and faster.
As I see it, a couple of short deliveries from Shoaib climbed to the extent it cleared even a leaping wicketkeeper Kamran Akamal, standing some 20 yards behind the stumps, and smashed the hoardings for four byes.
Now, there was again this snorting ripper from Shoaib and Tendulkar ducked, hoping it would clear him comfortably. Suddenly, he sensed the variable bounce in the delivery -- his mind froze, he took his eyes off the delivery and was handed a nasty blow on the side of the helmet. Nothing wrong in here -- when something unexpected happens, it is instinctive for a batsman to take his eyes off the ball.
Let me also deal with the utterly nonsensical suggestion that Tendulkar walked away from the crease in Faisalabad in dread of Shoaib. The insinuation is that when the ball touched his gloves, he wasn't holding the bat.
I have seen those replays dozens of times and I can recreate the moment for everyone's benefit: the ball was climbing on to the legside, Tendulkar jabbed the bat in front of his face and his bottom hand came off the handle because of the ball's impact. It is fairly common if you are defending a rearing delivery above your rib cage. Also, Tendulkar perhaps was trying to play it with soft hands.
The likes of Shoaib don't give you much time. I remember I had a similar Gilchrist-like instance in Kolkata during the 1960-61 tour when a rising delivery from Ramakant Desai caught me unawares. As I was getting underneath, I saw from the corner of my eye the ball hadn't climbed enough. But I could adjust in time because the pace wasn't blinding and the raised bat safely guided the ball down to the turf.
Such troughs are not uncommon in a batsman's life. I was once struggling in a series against New Zealand before I struck gold with a hundred in Dhaka. Denis Compton once had nine consecutive innings of average returns against India and even the likes of Vijay Hazare were getting him out. But the sight of Pakistan soon thereafter fired him up to the extent that he smashed 278 at Trent Bridge. That nervous wreck was now making light of our Fazal Mahmoods.
Please, for God's sake, don't suggest that Tendulkar was running away from the battle. If it was so, he could have chosen ways to escape the heat. He had starts in all three innings of the Tests. It would have helped him if he had batted in Lahore. He is not old but only 32 and I am sure he would find his bearing before long. The least you can do is to give the little champion some time.
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