There is life in the Old Master yet. Sachin Tendulkar’s response last weekend to his recent batting crisis was not that of someone about to hang up his bat.
Having been bowled six times in nine innings, provoking talk that his eyes had gone, Tendulkar played for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy and took it out on Railways. Not just a bunch of signalmen and ticket-collectors, but a proper first-class team, with a bowling attack led by Murali Kartik, one of India’s recent left-arm spinners.
It did not take Tendulkar long to find his feet. He hit 137 off 136 balls. He did not labour over scratchy singles: 99 of his runs came in boundaries. He is back, past his prime at the age of 39, but capable of adding in the next month to his 100 international hundreds.
And to think he played his first Test in 1989, aged 16. So he has played international cricket in four different decades, a feat which cannot conceivably be repeated as the game’s treadmill quickens.
You can quibble and find flaws in his record – he hasn’t half helped himself against Bangladesh in Tests (five centuries, including his highest, in seven matches) and against Kenya and Zimbabwe in one-day internationals (four and five centuries apiece) – but you cannot argue with this longevity. Staying at the top for so long: this is what sets him apart from all other batsmen, indeed from all other cricketers perhaps other than the original Dr WG Grace.
And the secret of his success? His mind. Tendulkar, I would venture, has the keenest cricket mind of anyone since Don Bradman.
He analyses every bowler, picks up every cue, processes all the factors and works out the way he is going to bat. It is not his natural talent, his hand-eye co-ordination, that sets him apart: we know that from his being turned away by a coach early in his career as not talented enough. It is his brain-hand-eye co-ordination that has made him supreme.
His shot-selection over 23 years has become ever more disciplined, more rationalised. He might get carried away in his youth, especially on a hard pitch in Australia and South Africa, and play a shot that he had not rehearsed mentally a hundred times and practised assiduously in the nets; there is no risk of that now.
But it was not his batting that led me to this conclusion that he has the keenest cricket mind. It was a short spell of bowling a dozen years ago.
It was the first Test of a series against England, in Mohali. Marcus Trescothick and, more surprisingly, Nasser Hussain had set off like a train. India’s seam attack was in the hands of a couple of rookies, the pitch had pace, and even Anil Kumble went for 12 in his first over. After 21 overs England had raced to 94 for one.
Tendulkar came on at the pavilion end to restore order. From his locker – he can bowl anything, within the restrictions of a slow arm – he chose slow-medium outswingers as being right for the conditions, and he tied England up. A maiden to Hussain, a maiden to Trescothick, four overs in which he conceded one scoring shot, all pace off the ball. India, back in control, rolled England over for 238, and went on to win by 10 wickets.
Tendulkar was the first to score 200 in a one-day international. He will be the first to play 200 Tests if he can manage 10 more. Let us enjoy him while he lasts.
By Scyld Berry for Telegraph