No other player has endured greater scrutiny than Tendulkar and none has delivered more often
Sachin Tendulkar has spent a major part of his life pushing the boundaries; literally and figuratively.
While crossing the age of 40 is no big deal for most people, it is a huge milestone in the life of a professional sportsman. Not many reach that age and are still playing at the highest level; especially if they began their international career as a precocious 16-year-old.
The great golfer Jack Nicklaus once remarked that “the older you get the stronger the wind gets…and it is always in your face.”
Tendulkar might not be worried quite so much about the wind in his face, but he probably feels that the faster bowlers are always bowling with a strong breeze at their back these days.
I had no expectations of what it would be like to work with Sachin Tendulkar when I took on the Indian coaching role in 2005. Having watched him bat on many occasions from Sydney to Sharjah and Dhaka, I was convinced that he was one of the best batsmen to have ever played the game.
When I arrived in India, Sachin was recovering from various injuries and did not play the first series on which I travelled with the team, so it was some months before I got to see him up close.
What struck me immediately was that he went about his preparation with a calm intensity. That did not surprise me as most good players have a routine that they stick to during their career. If something works for them, they rarely tempt fate by changing that routine.
What did surprise me was the meticulous attention that he gave to his bats.
I had seen others who were quite protective and caring of their bat, but I had never seen anyone who showered their bat with such loving attention. He constantly altered the batting grip and spent hours with a scalpel scraping and cleaning the blade so that it was pleasing to his eye.
As he explained it, he did not want anything out of place when he looked down at his bat when standing at the crease. I can’t say that I ever noticed my bat to that degree. It was an implement that I used, and as I often had to get used to another one, I did not want to be too attached to my current bat in case we were separated, for any reason.
Sachin built a symbiotic relationship with each bat that he used. Batting, I began to realise, was why Sachin lived and he was taking every part of it very seriously indeed.
Another thing that I learnt was that the experienced match referees knew that, if Sachin was playing, they had to make sure that the area behind the bowler's arm at each ground was free of impediments to his fastidious eye. One of the first things Sachin did at each ground was to go out to the middle to study the background at each end. If anything was not to his liking, the match referee was going to hear about it; best to get in first was their motto.
Over the years, Sachin has modified his method somewhat. When he first began, he had a very simple and uncomplicated set-up and preparatory movements. He stood relatively still and tapped the bat until he needed to use it. Once he picked up the line and length, this method allowed him to get into position very quickly to play the ball.
Because he was so strong on both sides of the wicket, there were not many balls that he couldn’t redirect into a gap for runs. Being equally adept off the front foot or back foot, there was no particular shot that stood out, although his ability to whip the ball away on the leg side was reminiscent of many of the greats of the game. He was confident enough to go over the infield, if the opportunity presented itself.
During the 1990’s, Sachin modified his preparatory movements somewhat. Instead of tapping the bat up until the bowler was about to release the ball, he began to pick the bat up a little earlier in the bowler's delivery stride.
The initial change may have coincided with an increase in bat weight which might have made it a little harder to overcome inertia. This forced him to get the bat ready a little earlier. The bat weight must have gone up a little further a few years later because he began to hold the bat up much earlier again.
What this did to his batting was to make him a little less dynamic at the crease. The subsequently restricted wrist-cock caused him to push his drives with a checked-stroke rather than flow through the ball as he had done early in his career. It also restricted his ability with cross-bat shots on both sides of the wicket, making him less potent against the shorter balls.
What this meant was that he had to work much harder for his runs as he approached his mid-thirties when most batsmen become a little more conservative anyway.
Having watched Sachin from such close range and having been privileged to see his life away from the cricket field, I gathered that there was nothing else in his life, apart from family, that interested him anywhere near as much as batting did.
This, I believe, is what has kept him in the game so long, along with a burning ambition to outlast anyone who might challenge his batting records.
First Lara retired and then Ponting. As each one moved on, the need for him to keep playing has diminished a degree.
I don’t think there is anyone on the horizon that is likely to play enough Test cricket to get close to his records, so the spectre of retirement must be looming larger.
It will be a huge day in his life and that of his family when he decides to give it up. It will also be a heart-wrenching day for millions of Indian fans who have never known a time when Tendulkar was not around to carry their hopes.
No other player, not even Bradman, has endured greater scrutiny and higher expectations than Tendulkar and none has delivered more often.
My warmest birthday wishes and may the final stanza of his career play out as he deserves.