Sachin-Sachin!

I am a total kindle convert. If there is a way to convert all my physical books into kindle copies, I am ready to stand in a queue longer than what you’ll see outside Wimbledon for a Fedal final to avail myself of the service. Easy to buy, easier to maintain, convenient for taking notes and highlighting texts, and above all, it doesn’t take up real estate space — a godsend in a city cramped for space like no other. But…..

But for the little ritual that paper books allow me to indulge in once in a while. A couple of weeks back, when I was reading The Cricket War, I had to take a break. So I had placed the bookmark on the page I was reading and came back to it a little later. When I opened the book again, I saw 287 at the bottom of the page: that delightful little moment where a standalone number brings back a stream of happy memories. I have always had this fascination with page numbers in a book. I see 148 and my mind thinks serenity. I see 136 and my mind wriggles between transcendence and heartbreak. I see 155 and my mind is torn between genius and genius. Chepauk and Bloemfontein. Breathtaking vs Bewitching.

That Tendulkar would turn out to be an all-time great batsman was a foregone conclusion from the end of his first year as a test cricketer. But for the splashes of sparkling brilliance in between, it was not until the England tour of 1996 that Tendulkar went past that first benchmark against which all great batsmen are evaluated — a test average of 50. From then on, he wasn’t so much as sauntering as sleepwalking his way to legend. 122, 177, 169, 88, 92, 143, 139, 148. Then ’98 happened, a vivid reincarnation of ’76, and some. If Cricket has ever witnessed better batsmanship than Tendulkar in ’98, that’s absurd fiction.

The foundation of one of the greatest runs in sporting history was laid in Chennai. His pre-series preparations to tackle Warne bowling from round the wicket have acquired a legendary status of its own over the years. A generation of cricket watchers knew L.Sivaramakrishnan as the guy who Tendulkar practiced against to handle Warne, much before they knew about his irresistible talent, the stellar start, the instant stardom and the depressing downfall. If he struck the first blow — a stunning blow at that — by beating Warne to pulp in the tour match for Mumbai, what is often forgotten in selective recollections is that Warne didn’t bowl a single ball from round the wicket. Warnie played poker on the cricket field much before he turned pro at the tables.

Cometh the big moment, Warnie drew first blood. First ball, tossed up and full, Tendulkar drives it down the ground for four. Next up, shorter and flatter and Tendulkar taps it to covers. Lot of chatter, hand gestures to Taylor, and a dramatic build up to another flatter one pushing Tendulkar on the backfoot to defend. Then you see the wizard at work….from wide of the crease, thereby accentuating his natural in-drift with the angle, and generating just enough but sharp turn to beat Tendulkar shaping up to drive….and then the sucker ball…again from wide of the crease, a little fuller and an ambitious drive found its way into Tubby’s safe hands.

In the second innings, with the match hanging in the balance, and his highly hyped personal duel against another legend at stake, Tendulkar — to borrow the words of Cardus on Bradman’s 254 — knocked solemnity to smithereens. He started off with a searing cut and a backfoot slap through the covers off Warne, ransacked Robertson over midwicket for a flurry of boundaries, picked out a rare Warnie googly right at the point of delivery and pulled it for a boundary as though he was facing Robertson yet.

Then came the defining moment. Warnie went round the wicket for the first time to Tendulkar after he crossed his fifty. This was the moment Tendulkar had anticipated and prepared himself fully for. In an interview later on, he recalls his preparation and says no one had ever bowled to him from that angle before. That’s a rare blip in an otherwise impeccable memory. Manzoor Akhtar had dismissed him in an ODI match in Sharjah by cramping him for room from round the wicket. First ball from round the wicket, Warnie pushes it through a little outside the off-stump, Tendulkar swats it to the mid-wicket boundary with utter disdain. Next ball, tossed up wide outside the leg stump, perhaps searching for room to sneak through from around his legs — Tendulkar pads it away. The next one wasn’t much different, only that Tendulkar had the line fully covered and launched into it to deposit it over midwicket for a six. Emphatic blow. That was that. Contest sealed. Bubble burst. The Tendulkar vs Warnie war hype machine had been turned off.

From then on, it was a best of Sachin hits collection. There was a waltz down the wicket demolition of Robertson, a homage to Ranji with the finest of leg glance to bring up his hundred. A swivel-pull off Kasper that was all orthodoxy, and an upper cut that was all adventure. As if to compensate for the brutality of the assault so far, brought out a delightful late cut against Mark Waugh, and followed it up with an even later (in fact it should be called the latest cut) cut off the next ball. The sublime and the brutal have never enjoyed such a joyous coexistence before, or since.

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If Tendulkar was at the peak of his powers in ‘98, the story in ’01 wasn’t quite the same. He had come back from a serious back injury in ‘99, and was returning from a long lay off from a toe injury. It wasn’t quite Endulkar yet, but the earliest seeds of such blasphemy were sown around this time. On his first game back from the injury, Tendulkar scored a hundred at Wanderers in an ODI against SA — easily his scratchiest hundred. The innings had much to celebrate about: I have never seen a batsman so woefully out of touch almost-literally will his way to an international hundred. But that’s not what Tendulkar had prepared us for. To paraphrase Federer: He had created a monster out of himself. Now, he has to live up to it with an injury-prone body and advancing age. The rest of the ODIs in the tri-series (Kenya was the third team) didn’t assuage our fears much. Is this the end of Tendulkar as we knew him?

If the existential pondering wasn’t enough, we had to put up with the snarky comment from Barry Richards on the eve of the series that Tendulkar, unlike Lara, hasn’t scored much against quality pace attacks in testing conditions. Facts, after all, have no place against the wisdom of a legend.

South Africa won the toss at Bloemfontein in the first test of the series and inserted India in on a wicket with plenty of bounce. Tendulkar walked in at a not-too-unsusual situation of 43 for 2, only for it to get worse from there. At 68 for 4 with the team in tatters, Tendulkar still finding his way back from a long break from the game, with a debutant for company against Pollock, Ntini, Hayward, Klusener and Kallis on a seaming wicket. What are the odds?

Chin music, they said, was the name of the game.

Ntini ran in, pitched it short and was spanked through point. Pollock bowled in the channel, Tendulkar transferred his weight ever so slightly on to the backfoot and unleashed the most gorgeous square cut. Ntini kept the length the same but cramped him for room, and Tendulkar tapped him over the slip cordon as an afterthought. Hayward was reading out from his chin music sheet and was ramped over third man. Kallis tested the middle of the pitch only for the cherry to be helped on its way for a six over the slip cordon again. Tendulkar, the classical batsman, was merely offering a tilted version of the classical — slightly redefining the V from point to first slip.

If the point to first slip V was peppered with a stream of boundaries, he saved some special ones for the more conventional V on the odd occasions the ball was pitched up. A most delectable off-drive against Kallis, with an orgasm-inducing follow-through, topped up with an on-drive for the ages off Pollock to go past 7000 test runs.

When he got to his hundred with a two off Klusener, the commentator said: If you don’t clap for that innings, you are a mean-spirited guy. Guess who was the commentator? Geoff Boycott.

The strokeplay exhibition continued after the hundred as well. Peach of a pull, a rasping square cut, some delectable flicks….the innings had it all. He was taking us into a dream state from what appeared like a nightmare when it all started. In ’98 he was at his peak. Here, he willed himself to his peak.

What were the odds again?

In his restless quest for perfection, this exploit was the pinnacle of efficiency to which he himself always aspired: speed without noticeable haste, risk without obvious recklessness. If Bradman’s feats now seem scarcely human, the self-scrutiny that singled this innings out implies that they cannot have been altogether unconscious.

That is Gideon Haigh on Bradman’s 254. He could so easily have been describing Tendulkar’s 155 too.

It was chin music alright, only that this most blissful music was composed with a solitary note. Sa-chin music.

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