The two faces of mastery

While watching the last part of the Indian innings yesterday, my colleague AR Hemant (@arhemant on Twitter; his match report is here) and I were chatting of how Newlands provides the perfect histogram for Sachin Tendulkar’s career.

There was the Tendulkar of the early to mid 1990s — young in age, but already a batting superstar possessed of a professional maturity far beyond his years. And no Test innings he had played till then (and he had already played some immortal knocks) showcased his incredible talents to the same extent as his incandescent 169 at Newlands in the first week of January 1997: a masterclass of inch-perfect defense and calculated aggression that the cricketing world watched in awe, and disbelief.

As much as it was a joy for spectators, it was a nightmare for the Proteas bowlers — and for those doing commentary. I was doing ball by ball at the time, and by the time Sachin — joined by Azhar with the score a dismal 58/5 — had reached his 50, all superlatives in the thesaurus had been exhausted.

Sachin, we found out, was merely shifting through the gears at that point — the real show was just about to begin. After a while, I gave up trying to describe the shots that flowed from a bat he wielded, on the day, with the panache of a magician, and contented myself with banal postings on the order of “Donald to Sachin, on length on off, driven on the up, four through the covers” — I mean, how many different ways are there to describe perfection? And again, perhaps perfection brooks no description — you applaud what is past, and wait in breathless anticipation for the magic to follow.

When I mentioned this innings on Twitter yesterday, many friends responded with “Ah yes — and remember the catch Adam Bacher took to end that innings?”

I remember. Brian McMillan was brought on to provide some relief for the Donalds and the Pollocks; Tendulkar, batting then with last man Dodda Ganesh, pulled with savage power and Adam Bacher, standing a few yards in front of the line at backward square, saw the ball plummet over his left shoulder and towards the ropes. Precisely how the youngster managed to throw himself up, twist back while airborne, reach behind his head with arm extended to the maximum and pluck that ball out of the air, sight unseen, no one can fathom. My friend Rahul Bhatia (@yesnosorry on Twitter — following him?) put it best:

  1. Rahul Bhatia
    yesnosorry @prempanicker That innings: He was right in the middle of that phase where he made ordinary people do extraordinary things to get him out.

Precisely. Tendulkar then was an immortal — one who inspired colleagues and opponents alike to reach for the heavens in order to keep pace with him.

Ten years later, at the same venue, the world saw a different Tendulkar — a more fallible version confronting the fact that the mind of a cricketing god resided in the frail body of a fallible mortal. He was battling injuries, he was baffled by his own dramatic dip in form, he was confronted by legions of naysayers eager, even anxious, to write finis to his career (‘Endulkar’, remember?). And hampered by those mental demons, shackled by his own physical fallibilities, he slipped into an inexplicably defensive frame of mind that, in the end analysis, contributed more than any other factor to South Africa slinking out of jail and turning the tables on India.

Five years on, we saw what is possibly the final version of Tendulkar yesterday — a mortal, all too human Tendulkar; a man whose muscles no longer respond to the promptings of his mind with the alacrity of yore. This is a Tendulkar who struggles to survive where, earlier, he would have striven to dominate; a Tendulkar willing to eke out his runs where earlier he harvested them at will; a Tendulkar willing to be repeatedly beaten, to be shamed even, but prepared to shrug it all off, to concentrate on survival, to work, to sweat, like the rest of us mortals. It says something about the man that even so, even when brought down from Olympus and forced to join the throng, he still towers over the rest with his serial deeds.

22 players were on view yesterday — but only two mattered. A batsman confronting the fact of his own mortality on the one hand, and the best fast bowler in the world today at the peak of his powers. It was a one-sided battle; a ringside referee would have scored it for Dale Steyn on points. The cognoscenti would likely disagree — Tendulkar was beaten, he was bloodied, he was shamed even, but he fought his opponent to a standstill. More, he realized that Steyn, on that day, was too much for any of his peers to handle, and as champions do, he took on himself the onus of shielding his colleagues from the barrage.

I had thought of underlining this aspect of the Steyn-Tendulkar battle in this post, but Siddarth Monga spared me the trouble, with a perfect summation on Cricinfo. Extended quote (emphasis mine):

Years later, or weeks later, or days later, when they talk about this series, regardless of the result, they will talk about two Dale Steyn spells that started the first two sessions of the third day of the Cape Town Test. Perhaps the 11 best overs anyone can bowl for just two wickets. It was perfect outswing bowling at high pace, often pitching leg, missing off, too often too good for the batsmen. And if it can be considered possible, after that wicketless first spell, Steyn came out to bowl even better. If one were to strain and look for a possible criticism, it was that he bowled just one straighter one and two bouncers in the first chunk of five overs. Everything else was close to perfect. There wasn’t even a no-ball; loose balls were a distant thought altogether.

To appreciate Sachin Tendulkar‘s effort today – his fourth century off his first innings in each of the last four years – it is important to appreciate the most exciting bowler in world cricket at his best. It was just such a day of Test cricket. Of the 66 balls from hell that Steyn bowled in those two spells, which went for 13 runs and took two wickets, Tendulkar negotiated 48. In that mix of some masterful defending, some luck (he could not have survived that without luck), and huge responsibility, is the difference between India’s being even and being woefully behind by the end of the third day.

There was no counterattack there: Steyn was too hot to touch for that. It was good old-fashioned buckling down, doing your best and hoping that the good deliveries are too good for the edge. Then again, Tendulkar played five back-to-back Steyn overs for 10 runs – six of them unintentional - and in this modern world, that calls for an injudicious shot to release the incredible pressure. He reserved the releasing of pressure for Lonwabo Tsotsobe, who bowled well too, but in comparison to Steyn he was like Mother Teresa. Calculated risks were taken: the premeditated pull and the upper-cut in Tsotsobe’s first over of the day.

Day three was perhaps the single most fascinating day’s play we have had in what is proving to be the most compelling Test series I recall watching in recent years — and normally, a post like this would want to examine the ebbs and flows, the various plot points that spun the game around on its axis just when you thought it had settled into a predictable course:

#Gambhir struggling for authority, finding a measure of self-belief, and succumbing to the one bowler least likely to threaten a masterly player of form;

#A young Cheteswar Pujara, hoping to cement his place in the side, forced by circumstance to walk out just as Steyn took the second new ball, and immediately facing a delivery that no batsman in the world could have survived;

#Graeme Smith losing the plot, and his mind, and releasing the pressure just when India, at 247/6, was down and out and allowing the Harbhajan-Tendulkar partnership to flourish against an inexplicably spread field (startling, the contrast between Smith the trash-talker ["flat track bullies"? India has outbatted the hosts in every innings except the first innings of the first Test on a wicket from hell] and the Smith who in the first innings here hid from Zaheer Khan, and on the field yesterday, backed off when he was not asked to);

#Bajji’s lofted six over long on and Zaheer’s carved six over point, both off Steyn, that raised a germ of doubt — is Steyn fallible after all, and is it just a matter of freeing the mind, shedding the inhibitions?;

#The potentially game-changing partnership for the first South African wicket between Smith and Petersen that moved the scoreboard along at 4.5 and signalled the home side’s intent to set up for a win;

#Harbhajan shrugging off the stock bowler robes he has donned in recent times to strike twice and twist the game around…

Compelling though all of it was — or would have been on any other day — somehow, none of it seems to matter. Yesterday was about just one thing: a battle for the ages, between an aging but brilliant master and a young man at the peak of his powers. Somehow, I hope to get a recording of this day — and when I do, I’ll edit out all the rest, and play those 48 deliveries on endless loop. That is cricket — the rest is just window dressing.

PS: A wish-list for today:

#1. Attacking fields — and none of Dhoni’s patented “defensively offensive” nonsense.

#2. Bajji to bowl at one end from start of play — with a leg slip in place, and with fielders placed in the V to prevent the pushed single. Screw the boundaries — on this track, any batsman who can hit a quality spinner for more than the odd boundary deserves them; it is the singles that will hurt.

#3. Rapid rotation of the seamers, so each can bowl at full tilt in brief spells, and there is no let up of pressure.

#4. The sense, when a partnership assumes obdurate proportions, to switch Sehwag’s off spin on for an over or three — he bowls wicket to wicket, he is savvy with the ball, his angles are different from Bajji’s, and on this track he could get you the breakthroughs just when you need them.

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41 thoughts on “The two faces of mastery

  1. MSD looked a very ordinary Captain,and unlike what Shastri says”no sign of a thinking Captain”.When things go well he looks great otherwise ordinary,he may still savour a series win.The reports of Sree crying also point to all is not well in the dressing room.A Clarke defends a Hughes,while our own bowler is left to cry alone!

  2. India’s goose is well and truly cooked. Good thing I fell asleep half way through the second session. 99% chance we lose. 1/2% chance we draw and…

  3. prem:

    you wrote the following on august 31st last year. looking at how the indian and south african tailenders are doing, regardless of what you and a host of other writers are writing, how are we to believe that no fixing is going on?

    “On March 23, 2003, I wrote my last match report, ending seven years of non-stop commentary and reports/analysis. By then, ‘match-fixing’ was inextricably embedded in the vocabulary of the cricket fan; it had become increasingly difficult to write with conviction about ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ and ‘turning points’ while deep down inside of you, there was a voice constantly second-guessing; it was difficult to write with any honesty, let alone passion, when deep down inside of you a cynical alter ego kept going, yeah, right, like you don’t know better.

    This is a true story [and knowing you guys, the comments field will fill up with speculation on the identity of the central characters. Speculate all you like, I'm not telling]:

    There was once an opening batsman known as much for his impeccable technique as for his preternatural sense of the ebbs and flows, the rhythms, of Test cricket. The way he constructed an innings was both masterclass and template: the early watchfulness, the constant use of the well placed single to get away from strike and go to the other end, from where he could observe the behavior of pitch and bowler, the imperceptible change of gears and then, as the lunch interval loomed, the gradual down-shifting of gears as commentators marveled: ‘He is pulling down the shutters… he knows it is important not to give away his wicket just before the break… the onus is on him to return after the break and build his innings all over again… the man is a master of focus…’

    I followed along, on radio first and later, on television, and I marveled along with the commentators, the experts. And then, years later, I heard a story — of how, when the toss went the way of his team and this opener went out to bat on the first day of a Test, a close relative would bet with not one, but several, bookies, about whether the batsman would get to 50 before lunch. Or not. ‘So he would get to 45 or so, and there would be 20 minutes to go before lunch, and he would defend like hell, and all these experts would talk about how he is downing shutters for lunch when the fact was, there was a lot of money riding on his not getting 50 before the break,’ is a paraphrase of what one of the bookies who suffered from such well-placed bets said.”

    - s.b.

    • No one can be absolutely sure. To a great extent, though, you can — this series is being totally monitored by the anti corruption guys, especially because it is in SA where the whole Cronje thing is still fresh in mind, which makes it that much harder to spot fix such twists and turns.

      One thing to remember — that opening batsman incident I spoke of happened before fixing was a buzz word. Not saying it doesn’t exist or hasn’t existed since.

  4. Love reading your posts Prem. It’s part of the game. The Sachin-Steyn contest wouldn’t be complete without reading beautiful words about it. Sachin is an aging master – that isn’t a failing. He’s aged gracefully. More so than any to-be-retired-soon cricketer in the past. He’s inhuman to play so well at the age of 37. The Sachin of 1996 would have torn into Steyn; it’s a miracle he’s playing as well as he is now against quality pace bowling.

    • I only vaguely remember the 1996 innings. But as far as I remember, I dont think Donald & Co were not as threatening as Steyn yesterday. In the first two spells yesterday, every over had at least two balls with “WICKET” written on it.

      • That’s true. Steyn was lethal yesterday. It’s rare in cricket nowadays we see such spells. I wonder what would have happened if we had a Sehwag in form at that moment. *Shudder*… Makes for a some good day dreaming :)

  5. Couldn’t have said it better. Wonderful review of what exactly mattered in yesterday’s play :)

    Btw, looks like I’m not the only one who has a problem with MSD underusing the services of Sehwag the bowler. Most underused (street-smart) bowler in world cricket that man is. But again, considering they’ve ‘rested’ him citing a sore shoulder, I’m not sure if he’d be used at all in the 2nd innings.

  6. JazzyB :
    JII, actually I was surprised how Cricinfo missed those replays. They didnt mention about the replays where the ball is shown touching the ground. And worse, their reports also seem to be ignorant about that.

    This is what The Hindu says. All of them say the same. That it was a clean catch.

    Steyn seemed to have Tendulkar caught behind second ball. But there were doubts, in real-time, about the edge and the catch. Snicko registered a sound spike when ball passed bat; replays confirmed that Mark Boucher had got his gloves underneath it. Steyn barely appealed.

    • Now, this is really strange!!! How come all those reporters missed? Or did I imgaine it? I know I saw the replay that showss the catch is inconclusive, I guess Prem also saw that. Anybody else?

      • Anyway, as pointed out, it would have been a Notout even with URDS. Snicko is not available for referral. Umpire surely didnt hear the nick, as Steyn himself didnt appeal first. So, it becomes a notout even with the edge itself, forget about the catch. And as far as SRT walking for the edge, he does not walk till umpire says (thats not a derogatory remark, he always walks when the umpire says so, even in ridiculous decisions, he does not stay back and curse or spit or stamp or whatever.) So thats that.

        • Topic closed:-). My point was that if we win this series (which still require a lot of effort), I don’t want to hear comments on BCCI flexing its muscles to not have UDRS. We keep complaining about Sydney even now. I don’t want SA to do that.

          • You will still hear that from odd places(mostly regarding the second test), but not generally for sure. I guess by this time, most SAs has recognized that this Indian team is not as soft as they thought. I dont think any SA gave it a chance after the first test that the series will be wide open at the end of the 3rd day of the 3rd test.

  7. What a fantastic post to sum up a fantastic day of cricket. Thanks for this Prem.

    And yes, this is what cricket is all about- sublime test cricket. A duel between two greats of the game.

    Its great that India will be playing quite a few tests this year. A much welcome relief from the barrage of T20′s and meaningless ODIs (esp against Sri Lanka). Its been fantastic start to the new year indeed.

  8. JII :
    My previous reply got truncated. So, posting again.
    This is from Cricinfo:
    Steyn to Tendulkar, no run, 126.4 kph, Shout for a catch by Boucher .. Steyn didn’t go up until very late. And it looks like an edge too! Tendulkar leaned across to stab an outswinger that curved away to take the edge. Boucher lunged forward to take the catch cleanly. He went up right away but Steyn didn’t and only joined in the appeal late. Which means the bowler didn’t hear the noise and the umpire didnt hear or see the deflection. Drama here at New Lands.
    I haven’t seen the replays. Will try to catch the replay somehow. But, the fact that Cricinfo bulletin and other match reports talk of a ‘clean’ catch convinces me that it was indeed a clean catch. Imagine if the same thing happened to Kallis and he went on to hit a 100. Anyone remember Symonds and Sydney?
    And finally, there was the wkt of Harris. Stuck clearly outside off-stump. Agreed, you don’t expect him to score a match winning 100. But, he could’ve been a nuisance today.

    As for the first appeal, the referral wouldn’t have been upheld.. why because the replays were inconclusive themselves. The nick was only detected by the snicko which is not available to the third umpire.

    As for the second, Harris wasn’t offering a shot, and i guess the umpires decision would have been upheld by Hawkeye which showed the ball hitting the off stump.

    • Cricinfo wrote what it did before the replays — which fairly clearly showed Boucher taking it on the bounce. That was the immediate comment, made as it happened. Fair enough, that is what everyone saw — but with UDRS you get the benefit of review, and that was conclusive.

      Look, to repeat a point made in the earlier response, I am all for UDRS. I think though that the umpiring errors in this series have been no more, no less, than in pretty much any Test series you can remember, and not as egregious/deliberately biased, as some. I’d have loved for the series to be controversy free, but for me at least, the umpiring decisions did not take away from the compelling nature of this series, and whatever happens results-wise, I’m willing to accept as fair.

      My point? That this series provided too many great moments of skill, for umpiring to become the focus/talking point.

    • If Steyn was almost perfect with the ball yesterday, the Umpiring was absolutely perfect yesterday. Really high-class umpiring in real tough conditions. A marvellous day of Test cricket if you look from any angle.

  9. Prem, wanted to bring to notice since you may not have been following indias cricket as well as before
    #4. The sense, when a partnership assumes obdurate proportions, to switch Sehwag’s off spin on for an over or three

    Actually Shewag has not been asked to roll his arm over bcos of a problematic shoulder. Dhoni doesnt want him to bowl even an over and let him rest for ODIs. He doesnt even throw overarms from the outfield.

  10. Am surprised as to why Sehwag has again stopped bowling… on days 4 and 5, he is as good as Bhajji (maybe even better !! ;-)

  11. Just like Tendulkar and Steyn didn’t disappoint, you too didn’t with this post! This kind of quality was just what the quality of play on the third day deserved :)
    Just a teeny-tiny doubt – can Sehwag bowl, given that his shoulder is not 100% and he is being rested from the ODIs for that?

    • You need what, 2, 3 overs once, tops twice, in course of a day? With a long rest to follow. With a Test at stake, your shoulder has to be dropping off for you not to want to do it, mate.

  12. A series between the best 2 teams in the world needed UDRS. Even if we win this test, there will be question marks because of the number of decisions that seem to be going against SA.

    Posting this again in the most recent thread.

    • Two clear decisions went against SA in the last Test. None in this. Boucher took the catch on the bounce, it would have been given not out. I’d have called the Harris LBW out against Sachin, but many neutrals suggest that was marginal, since the ball was clipping outside of leg and Hawkeye is not that infallible. The caught behind Smith and company were banging on about was caught off the outside of the off stump, not the edge of the bat. Had SA used UDRS yesterday, they would have lost all their appeals, no?

      Not suggesting this series — in fact, all Tests — don’t need UDRS. Merely saying this Test doesn’t make the case for it — Gould was phenomenal.

      Oh, and incidentally, too soon to forget the last two tours of SA — where the umpiring was on occasion farcical, and always in favor of the home side.

      • This is from Cricinfo:

        Steyn to Tendulkar, no run, 126.4 kph, Shout for a catch by Boucher .. Steyn didn’t go up until very late. And it looks like an edge too! Tendulkar leaned across to stab an outswinger that curved away to take the edge. Boucher lunged forward to take the catch cleanly. He went up right away but Steyn didn’t and only joined in the appeal late. Which means the bowler didn’t hear the noise and the umpire didnt hear or see the deflection. Drama here at New Lands.

        • My previous reply got truncated. So, posting again.

          This is from Cricinfo:

          Steyn to Tendulkar, no run, 126.4 kph, Shout for a catch by Boucher .. Steyn didn’t go up until very late. And it looks like an edge too! Tendulkar leaned across to stab an outswinger that curved away to take the edge. Boucher lunged forward to take the catch cleanly. He went up right away but Steyn didn’t and only joined in the appeal late. Which means the bowler didn’t hear the noise and the umpire didnt hear or see the deflection. Drama here at New Lands.

          I haven’t seen the replays. Will try to catch the replay somehow. But, the fact that Cricinfo bulletin and other match reports talk of a ‘clean’ catch convinces me that it was indeed a clean catch. Imagine if the same thing happened to Kallis and he went on to hit a 100. Anyone remember Symonds and Sydney?

          And finally, there was the wkt of Harris. Stuck clearly outside off-stump. Agreed, you don’t expect him to score a match winning 100. But, he could’ve been a nuisance today.

          • JII, actually I was surprised how Cricinfo missed those replays. They didnt mention about the replays where the ball is shown touching the ground. And worse, their reports also seem to be ignorant about that.

          • JII,

            You got the Harris one wrong. It hit him outside off stump but he was not offering a shot. If a batsman does not offer a shot and is struck on the the pad, it does not matter where the ball hits him as long as the umpire is convinced that the ball will go and hit the stumps. The replays showed the ball was indeed hitting the off stump.

  13. Sachin’s effort is all the more creditable as somehow the great man didn’t seem to be all present during the SA first innings. Uncharacteristic fielding glitches was there for all to see. I also thought the bat was turning in his hand quite a bit when facing Steyn and he seemed to be consciously eschewing that trademark flick to even to deliveries on the middle. It was almost as though he expected Steyn and Mornie to get him fishing outside. And several times I noticed that deliveries on the off or just outside ended up on the on-side as though Sachin wanted to keep his bat’s edge away from the slips. Nonetheless, if anything we can only bow to the man whose intent to survive heightened after VVS’s run out.

    • I thought his cutting out the flick was a sign of his mental acuity, actually. He tried it twice; on both occasions, the prodigious seam movement away found the edge, and he was lucky. He realized that on this track, against this bowler, that shot is suicide – survival lay in the straightest bat face he could possibly present.

      • Also, I feel there is a lot being said about “play and miss”, but I thought that has to be expected in a swinging track. The key was that Sachin knew the off-stump line, kept his head at that line and his bat went only where his head could go. Any ball that was outside the line of the head, you get beaten, but you are safe. For me, thats a demonstration of a very good defensive technique in those conditions. I thought he really attempted to play and missed more against Tsotsobe than Steyn.

        • Agree. “Play and miss” is often used with a fair degree of ignorance of the mechanics of batsmanship, IMHO. There is a difference between actually addressing a ball and being beaten, and keeping the bat in optimal defensive position and seeing the ball flash past it.

  14. Thinking a bit ahead of the match, waiting for the Steyn / SRT duel to unfold in one day arena. Sense that it will be a different story there with SRT going for his shots rather then holding back.

      • Gives the batsman that much more chance to go for his shots.
        If I remember right Mcgrath had said this once on SRT – On balance I think I got better of him in tests and he held an edge in the ODI’s.

  15. Cannot agree with you more. For a match of this epic proportions, I hope, today is not a big let down.

    Was reading Steyn’s post-day conference on Cricinfo, he said “”The first thing we need to do is make sure we have enough runs so that we don’t lose the match,” Dale Steyn said at the end of play on day three. “Then, we will think about setting a target.” ”

    Got me thinking, this negative approach may just give India the upper hand, or then again, may not be an ideal approach to what has been a classic thus far.

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