After long years of elite sport, there are few bits of an athlete’s body that function as well as they once did. There is no part that can be fixed entirely anymore, no brake shoes to replace, no coolant to refill. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Sachin Tendulkar’s 24-year-long career, thus, is not that he merely had the desire to carry on for so long but that he took care of himself well enough to be able to do so.
“It is no coincidence that he has actually bounced back really well from all the major injury setbacks,” says John Gloster, the Indian team’s physiotherapist from early 2005 through 2008.
“Sachin just knuckled down and took on board every little thing the physio and the doctor told him. He was very committed to his rehab. He always saw the big picture.”
For the first half of his career, Tendulkar was barely bothered by injury. It was 12 years before he missed his first Test match, and that from an external injury — a broken toe in Zimbabwe in 2001. At that stage, Tendulkar was the single pillar that propped India’s batting up, match after match, series after series. At the 2003 World Cup — his delightful battering of Shoaib Akhtar and Wasim Akram an abiding memory — Tendulkar finished top-scorer; it was only later he would reveal the severity of his finger injury. Injections didn’t help; at one point, he couldn’t hold a tea cup in his left hand, he said.
In the two years after August 2004, when tennis elbow — his most serious injury — and a shoulder injury afflicted him, Tendulkar averaged 41 (as opposed to a career figure of 57) in Tests and 32 (against 45) in ODIs. It led to much despair.
His manner of run-making had changed, people complained; the flat-batted shots, the counter-attacking of fast bowlers had become a rare commodity, they pointed out. But this was not so much from specific injuries as the evolving nature of his role in the team and age in general.
“From a physical perspective, there were no limitations because of his injury,” Gloster, physio when Tendulkar was operated on in 2005 and 2006, clarifies.
“In terms of technique or changing his game, there were no limitations at all. In fact we even kept up the rehab long enough so that he could use the heavy bat he always used.”
Tendulkar tailored his game to make the most efficient use of a body that demanded increasing attention.
As the years ticked by, Tendulkar’s career, which some had written off, found a second wind. Ramji Srinivasan, whom Tendulkar consulted in 2006, and who was a physical trainer with the Indian team until recently, says: “Sachin was always aware of the gravity of the situation. He wanted to understand every little thing about his condition and there was no room for error. Till date, he continues to do loads of specialized exercises.”
Javagal Srinath, his India teammate for long, appreciates as well as anyone the enormity of Tendulkar’s physical achievement. “I don’t think any cricketer has managed his injuries the way Sachin has,” Srinath says.
“More than the body, it is about the mind,” he notes, “because age itself is an injury.”