The persistent blot on Sachin Tendulkar’s legacy has often been cited to be his inability to finish the game off in pressure situations, especially in tournament finals, knock-outs and the fourth innings of crucial Tests . While it may be argued that for nearly twenty years it has primarily been Sachin who has been responsible for bringing India to the finals and more generally to winning positions in the first place, this criticism has not been without foundation, even more so in recent years with perhaps the most egregious example of Sachin failing when he was needed the most being the final game against Sri Lanka in the preliminary stage of World Cup 07, where he folded up against a straight delivery from Dilhara Fernando.
The last time that Sachin played a command innings under choking pressure is, as far as I recall, during World Cup 2003 in the match against Pakistan. With qualification for the next stage on the line, he came out with all cannons firing and launched a blistering attack on Akram, Akthar and Waqar in the process taking all the fight out of Pakistan. Even then he could not “finish” the game and while it took a solid partnership from Dravid and Yuvraj to put the seal on an emphatic victory, it is undeniable that the ease with which they knocked off the runs was influenced by Sachin’s belligerence earlier on.
In order to find the last time that Sachin single-handedly dominated and finished a pressure one day game, we would have to go back to 1998 to that innings against Australia in the finals at Sharjah where he played arguably the best cricket of his career.
Well not any more. Now we just have to go back to March 2, 2008.
With his century against Australia in the first final of the CB tri-series, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar may not have exactly silenced questions about his legacy but has, most definitely, shown the world that he still has it in him to play epic innings against the best of oppositions, stay till the end, dominate and bring victory for his team in make-or-break situations.
Dominate. Yes. But dominate in a very different way from how he did it in 1998 when the world was younger, the hand-eye coordination was a lot better and the body more willing.
1998. Sharjah. Michael Kasprowicz gives Sachin an earful. Sachin lifts him onto the shamiana at Sharjah and does not even deign to make eye contact after the shot, reducing the bowler to insignificance. Moody and Damien Fleming are blasted all over the park—the back-foot punch, the drive down the ground and the swing to mid-wicket rifling to the fence, straight from the sweet spot. Shane Warne, arguably the greatest spin bowler of his generation, comes to bowl. Sachin moves to the leg and sends him many rows deep into the stands with a contemptuous swing of his bat leaving Warne with an expression of utter shock and confusion.
One of those eternal “Who’se ma bitch” moments that no Indian fan who saw that game can ever forget.
2008. Bracken angles one away giving Sachin length and room. He swings his bat and it flies off his edge, rather fortuitously, for his first four. For the first ten overs, there are no more hits to the boundary. Sachin blasts a few off the middle of his bat but none of them make it through the ring. As the commentator points out, in his golden days each of them would have found the ropes. Brad Hogg, a rather sorry excuse of a spinner especially compared to his predecessor, is sought to be dismissed imperiously but there is more than a bit of struggle there. Sachin does manage a few streaky boundaries but they sorely lack the bunker-buster intensity of old.
But Sachin persists. As that overgrown mutant potato would say, just like an obnoxious weed. He works the angles and unleashes the slap over the slips, a shot he has over the years favored as his response to the short ball on the off stump. It isn’t the exhilarating get-out-of-the-seat stuff from 1998, but it’s solid, effective and unlike many of Sachin’s grander more awe-inspiring innings, it brings the team victory.
And therein lies what makes this century so special. This was not an innings of a man at the top of his powers, a giant who nonchalantly sleepwalks his way through demolishing the opposition. On the contrary, it was the conscious thought ,the studied factoring-in of his own reduced abilities behind every shot-selection, that made it a different kind of delight to watch. Whereas an old Sachin of ’98 would launch into a cover drive and back himself to get a four, the new Sachin was deliberately holding back, reducing his odds of being bowled through the gate and playing instead a push for two. Of course this has been the mark of Sachin’s batting till 2003—-it’s just that today, for the first time in many years, it all came together in a one day international when it mattered the most and when the stakes were the highest.
There were a few close shaves—and how close the shaves were were not immediately apparent. There are two ways Sachin has gotten himself out more than once in recent times: 1) playing a half cock defensive shot and getting bowled if the ball stays slightly low or deviates late and 2) trying to cutting a ball too close to his body. At least once, Sachin found himself in each of these two situations, got beaten but managed to survive. And then tightened himself for the subsequent deliveries.
Yes this was domination too. But through solidity. Through determination. And through sustained concentration.
Thank you sir, once again, for your greatness.
[Have been very busy with my day job for the last week. Hence delay in posting]