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.