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Tendulkar and Chennai

S. RAM MAHESH
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CRICKET His training at the MRF Pace Foundation and his famous centuries at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium… there are many more reasons why a mere mention of Chennai brings a warm smile to the master blaster's face

Bombay, as it was then, birthed and formed Sachin Tendulkar, but Chennai's influence on the great man has been no less significant.

A 14-year-old Tendulkar arrived in Chennai in 1987 with dreams of bowling seriously fast. Only, Dennis Lillee didn't see a fast-bowler in the short, slim, curly-locked kid, and dissuaded him from considering it as a career. “That was the first time I saw him,” says T. A. Sekar, who assisted Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation for three decades. “Dennis saw him, five-foot nothing, and thought to himself, ‘No chance'. We spoke to Vasu Paranjpe, who had sent these boys from Bombay, and it was he who told me that Sachin was already a very good batsman, but only an occasional bowler. When Dennis tells the story these days, he jokes, ‘I rejected Tendulkar'.” Tendulkar was back at the Pace Foundation a year later — this time to bat. “The wickets were fast, we had Vivek Razdan who was sharp and Dennis himself was in peak shape because he was thinking of a comeback,” says Sekar. “Dennis would have been among the fastest bowlers in India at that time. Initially, Sachin found it difficult. He took a break, stood behind the nets and watched the others bat. After half an hour, he told me he was ready to bat again. In just that time, watching from behind, he had judged the pace and bounce, and found a solution. He played Dennis so confidently, middling every ball, and he hit Razdan into the railway tracks (behind the Pace Foundation). Dennis called the bowlers to a huddle and said the only chance was to bounce Tendulkar. But he batted for about 45 minutes and never looked in trouble.” Shortly afterwards, Tendulkar made his Test debut in Pakistan. It's a stretch to say Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis came easy to the prodigy after his stint at the Pace Foundation, but there's no doubt the exposure to quick bowling helped.

Chennai welcomed Tendulkar, the Test cricketer, like an old, affectionate friend: he made 165 against England in 1993; not only was it his first Test century in India, it remained his highest score for nearly two years. His next Chennai century, in 1998, is better remembered, for it featured the battle between world cricket's finest batsman and its foremost bowler. Aware of the problems Shane Warne could pose, Tendulkar trained with L. Sivaramakrishnan in Chennai, getting the former Indian leg-spinner to bowl to him on a doctored pitch. Warne won round one, but Tendulkar's unbeaten 155 in the second innings, during which he repeatedly attacked the Australian, set up a famous win.

His next century at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium was every bit as dazzling, but it ended in teary heartbreak. Tendulkar's 136 took India to the brink of a remarkable victory against Pakistan in 1999. Defeat shattered him, but Chennai wouldn't forsake Tendulkar. He found redemption in 2008, guiding India's astonishing chase against England not long after the terrorist attack in Mumbai. These hundreds and his 126 here in the third Test of the magical 2001 series remain close to Tendulkar's heart. They were singularly cathartic. A Test century is enough to make a batsman fall in love with a city, five is soul-mate territory. Consider that Chennai was also where a vital part of his rehabilitation from career-threatening injuries took place, and it isn't difficult to see why a warm smile lights up the Master's face every time he is asked about the city.

S. RAM MAHESH

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