A blessing in disguise

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Nothing is worse in sport than seeing a great player reduced to mediocrity

Sachin Tendulkar's withdrawal from the tour of the West Indies may be a blessing in disguise. Now that the elbow injury has flared up again he has been forced to acknowledge that complete recuperation will take time. He must treat tennis elbow with the same respect shown to the game's mightiest bowlers. Otherwise his chances of reclaiming former glories will evaporate.

Doubtless Tendulkar is itching to return to the fray. He has always been desperate to take his place on the field. His bat brings him to life. Stories are told about his boyhood, the time he arrived earlier than usual at Shivaji Park and asked that the malis put the nets up, or could he do it himself? Or the time he travelled through the night with a youth team and after an hour's sleep awoke his coach to say that he was not happy with his batting and could they hasten to the ground for some extra practice?

A caged lion

It must be agony for him to sit on his thumps, runs unscored, energies unspent. At home, he must resemble a caged lion. Whenever he feels even remotely repaired he surely hastens to the nets to face some balls. His frustration at the setbacks must be deeply felt. Meanwhile, months pass and India accustoms itself to life without him.

Yet Tendulkar must not hurry. Nothing is worse in sport than seeing a great player reduced to mediocrity by some inconvenience. Batsmen of his calibre come along about as often as a literary masterpiece. To see him hobbled would be as painful as watching an ageing ballet dancer struggling to leap as high or land as well. It is not to be countenanced.

If Tendulkar cannot play properly then he must not play at all. Nor ought the selectors consider choosing him till he has scored runs in domestic cricket. Not that Tendulkar needs to prove himself, but he must confirm his fitness for a sustained period before walking back into the ferment of international cricket. Anything else is unfair on the player and other contenders. Whatever the pressure from the masses, those responsible must avoid creating the impression that an ailing Tendulkar is better than a fit contemporary.

Hard to correct

Of course it is possible that Tendulkar will never again be fully fit. As Jacques Kallis is discovering, elbow injuries of this sort can be devilishly hard to correct. Kallis is undergoing an operation this winter and will miss the spring tour of Sri Lanka. He has been handicapped in recent months. At the urgings of a community anxious to field its strongest team, he tried to keep playing through the pain. Inevitably the injury deteriorated and now surgery is required. It is a familiar pattern.

Not even doctors can predict Tendulkar's prospects. Sometimes bodies turn around, sometimes they defy the tenderest attention. Not so long ago Jose Maria Olazabel could hardly walk let alone play golf. Every remedy was tried, none succeeded. Retirement seemed inevitable. Eventually the Spaniard heard about the remarkable results achieved by a German surgeon. Now the veteran is back playing superbly, and has reclaimed his place near the top of the rankings.

Tendulkar cannot be ready to hang up his boots. His mind and spirit have retained much of their youthful vigour. But they cannot function without the permission from bones and muscles from which much has been expected these last 20 years. Let's hope Tendulkar comes back. If not, let us celebrate his deeds and welcome his replacement. Above all, though, let us avoid the return of a shadow.

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