At 13, playing on a minefield of a pitch at Shivaji Park, Sachin Tendulkar was having a torrid time against a leg-spinner.
Test batsman Madhav Apte, standing at slip, advised, “Son, let the ball come.” The kid nodded and next over, stepped out and hit the bowler out of the park. The methodical style of Bombay cricket was no more in vogue. The little champion was a symbol of the change.
Six years later, the sight of Tendulkar, his shirt flapping in Perth’s strong winds, belting the Australian bowlers on a bouncy WACA pitch became a landmark image.
He was like a raging knight, rising on the toes and punching the ball off the back foot or square cutting it with a ferocity that belonged to Viv Richards. The world of cricket took notice. He was special.
A predominantly front-foot player, bred on Mumbai’s furiously competitive maidans, Tendulkar has constantly evolved as a batsman with time and age. In his initial years, he played many strokes, straight and square.
He curtailed them later, discarded some for a while, and adapted to counter the missiles that came at him.
‘Can’t chase perfection’
He once told this reporter, “Beyond a point you can’t improve. One can’t be running after perfection always. You make certain technical adjustments up to a point. You are good only when you score. I batted with a certain style at 16. At 20, I batted differently. It again changed when I was 25 and again when I turned 30.”
Challenges prepared him differently. When Ashley Giles shackled him with a negative line, he added the sweep to his repertoire.
To prosper from the short ball outside off-stump in ODIs, he developed the upper cut. He could hook well, the pull shot was a productive weapon, as were the drives in front.
He was, in the first decade of his career, carrying the burden of the team on his shoulders like the Lone Ranger.
The pressures of performing and the expectations of a nation weighed him down. And then his back gave in.
Certain shots went out but not the hunger for runs. Long time Mumbai mate Lalchand Rajput says, “Sachin hated getting out and that prompted him to revise his shot selection. He was not going to give his wicket by wanting to play a certain shot.”
The upper cut came into fore, a shot Tendulkar came to master. In later years, he played it very fine, literally over the wicketkeeper’s head.
“He did not discard his desire to dominate. He was willing to wait but only for a short while,” says Rajput. Tendulkar was adept in studying the pitch and planning his batting. According to former Test batsman Gursharan Singh, who went with Tendulkar on the 1990 tour of New Zealand, the man was obsessed with preparation.
“I have seen him standing out of the crease to counter swing or take on fast bowlers. I have seen him take middle-stump guard. But his approach has never changed.
“Timing and not power was his style as he played very close to the body. He was keen on using the pace of the ball,” notes Gursharan, who came out to bat in the 1989 Irani Cup match with a bandaged hand to enable Tendulkar complete a century.
Interestingly, Gursharan earned his ODI debut a few months later at the cost of Tendulkar, who was dropped.
Test batsman Pravin Amre talks of Tendulkar’s head position. “His batting did not change but he adapted to situations. His back-lift was adjusted according to the bounce.
“He would keep the bat close to the toes in the early years and now at times it is not grounded. His strong point has been his head position. It has remained still.”
For some time, Tendulkar blended the styles of Sunil Gavaskar and Viv Richards. He idolised Gavaskar but wanted to emulate Richards.
The process of deleting and adding strokes continued. The sweep, paddle sweep and slog sweep covered a nice arc. The paddle sweep was risky no doubt but his argument was it brought him more runs than dismissals.
King of the crease
With age, he consciously discarded the idea of stepping out. His argument was: “If I can score from the crease, why leave it?” Just the line of thinking that marked Garry Sobers’s batting. He was king of the crease.
With the tennis elbow injury was born his liking for on-side play — silken on-drives, just a caress, a flick off the pads, off the hips.
In 1999, he played some fine cricket in Australia, making runs by attacking. At the World Cup in England, we saw him reverse sweep, his shots as powerful as a left-hander’s.
He once scored a Test double century without the cover drive in Australia. He has always excelled when attacking but has also remembered Don Bradman cautioning him about eye sight being affected with age. His cricket evolution continues as he prepares, at 40, for his farewell Test.