A breath-taking repertoire

As a boy, Tendulkar had fast bowling ambitions, but Dennis Lillee advised him to “stick to batting.”-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

When he skips daintily to the bowling crease, Tendulkar is all cheek. The situations that need him to roll his arm over, the partnerships that he is called on to break, almost demand that he be expansive, that he try different things. Karthik Krishnaswamy takes a look at the Little Master’s bowling ability.

“I think you should stick to batting,” Dennis Lillee claims to have advised Sachin Tendulkar when he arrived as a 12-year-old at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai brimming with fast-bowling ambitions.

Cricket might have gained one of its greatest batsmen that day, but equally, it might have lost the compelling sight of a 5’5" tearaway and the squeaky falsetto of his LBW appeal. Throughout his career, Tendulkar’s part-time bowling has hinted at containing the same sort of natural ability that suffuses his batting. At Barbados in 2002, when the West Indies openers walked out with only five runs needed for victory, Tendulkar finally got the new ball in a Test match. He swung it both ways in the same over. More routinely, he beats the outside edge with his leg breaks and the inside edge with his googly (It would work the other way round against left-handers but for his choosing mostly to deliver off breaks at them.)

Of course, these exhibitions of skill haven’t always been matched by a consistent ability to land the ball on the right spot, or land it at all. But his bowling, far more than that of other part-timers, has offered endless delight. It has more than anything given us a window into a side of his personality that we seldom see when he bats.

When Tendulkar bats, flashes of mischief bubble every now and then from beneath his veneer of technical purity, but mostly the Little Master part of his personality obscures from view Tendlya, the little prankster.

But when he skips daintily to the bowling crease, he is all cheek. The situations that need him to roll his arm over, the partnerships that he is called on to break, almost demand that he be expansive, that he try different things. Tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth, he tosses his leg breaks alluringly high. Bad balls are excused, even expected, and sometimes, and this broadens his grin like nothing else, batsmen contrive to get themselves out to his long-hops and full-tosses.

But it isn’t all mirth and merriment. Behind this facade lurks a store of street-smartness and self-belief that makes captains throw the ball to him in tight situations, for they know he will compete nervelessly when others might give in to self-doubt. This revealed itself as early as 1993, in a one-day match that has now passed into folklore, the semifinal of the Hero Cup against South Africa, when the 20-year-old Tendulkar grabbed the ball from his not-entirely-convinced captain to bowl the final over with South Africa needing six to win. They managed only three.

It then became the norm for Tendulkar to fill the fifth-bowler void perpetual to India’s one-day attacks in the absence of that fantasy all-rounder, sharing duties at various times with Sourav Ganguly, Robin Singh, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and assorted names that have come and gone. To the rapidly-increasing five-digit number next to his runs column he has added over 150 ODI wickets. Twice, both times in Kochi, he has taken five wickets in an innings, almost inevitably against Australia and Pakistan.

But his best spells, like his greatest innings, have come in Test cricket, and have on a couple of occasions helped shape the course of truly historic matches. If we were to select five of his best spells, we end up with one from each of this decade’s first five years — what was possibly a golden age for Tendulkar’s golden arm. Before that, he was inexplicably under-utilised in Test matches, and later, persistent injuries have cut down on the number of overs he has bowled. But his wicket-taking ability remains undiminished, as he showed at Wellington in April, where he took the ball after having bowled just four overs in his 26 previous Test innings, and took the wickets of Brendon McCullum and James Franklin in a nine-over spell.

Tendulkar’s best spells (in increasing order of significance):

Two for 107 vs. West Indies, St. John’s, 2002: Only 18 wickets fell over five days of uninterrupted cricket on a pitch where Geoffrey Boycott’s grandmother could have taken a tilt at the world-record Test score with her trusty stick of rhubarb. If this match hasn’t been forgotten entirely, it is thanks only to Anil Kumble’s 14 overs on Day Three, delivered with a broken jaw swaddled in bandages. But Kumble’s departure on the fourth morning left two full days to be bowled by a combination of tiring, ineffectual fast bowlers, part-timers and first-timers. All 11 Indians bowled, including wicketkeeper Ajay Ratra. Tendulkar sent down 34 overs, the most he has ever bowled in a Test innings, and picked up the wickets of Wavell Hinds and Carl Hooper.

Three for 10 vs. South Africa, Mumbai, 2000: This was the first Test of what proved to be Sachin Tendulkar’s final series as captain, which ended in a 2-0 defeat to the Hansie Cronje-led Proteas. Had his teammates backed up his efforts in this match, the result might have looked a lot different.

Batting first, India made 225, with Tendulkar contributing 97. In reply, Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs threatened to engulf the home side entirely with an opening stand of 90. Enter Tendulkar, who first induced Gibbs to edge to slip, creating an opening for Anil Kumble to widen. With Kirsten and Lance Klusener beginning to build a sizeable fifth-wicket stand, Tendulkar came back and bowled the opener around his legs, before sending back Shaun Pollock at the same score. In the end though, India failed to capitalise on a first-innings lead of 49, and lost by four wickets.

Two for 36 vs. Pakistan, Multan, 2004: A match lit up by Virender Sehwag’s breezy wrecking of the Pakistan attack, the first Test of India’s momentous 2004 tour also served as the backdrop for the most memorable delivery of Sachin Tendulkar’s bowling career. Having kept Sehwag company through much of his triple hundred, Tendulkar was six runs away from 200 when stand-in skipper Rahul Dravid declared at 675 for five.

In reply, Pakistan moved doggedly towards crossing the follow-on mark. When Tendulkar took the ball to deliver the last over of Day Three, Moin Khan and Abdul Razzaq were at the crease with only 115 needed to complete that objective. After his first five balls had been safely negotiated, Tendulkar dropped his sixth just short of a length on off stump. Looking for the leg break, Moin’s feet froze crookedly as the ball turned the other way and thudded into the stumps after sneaking between his legs, to the unbridled jubilation of the Indians. Off the first ball of Day Four, Irfan Pathan forced Razzaq to glove a bouncer to the keeper, and India was on its way to victory.

Two for 36 vs. Australia, Adelaide, 2003: India’s first win in Australia in 22 years was the result mostly of Rahul Dravid’s unwavering focus through both innings, supported by an inevitable V. V. S. Laxman hundred and a wholly unexpected six-wicket haul from Ajit Agarkar. Tendulkar scored only 38 runs in the match, but hastened victory with a magical little spell in the middle of Australia’s second innings. Having slumped to 44 for three thanks to a combination of Agarkar’s swing and indiscretion from the top order, Australia was beginning to recover through Steve Waugh and Damien Martyn.

Tendulkar came on, and in his third over tossed one up outside off. Martyn reached out to drive but didn’t get to the pitch, and Rahul Dravid snapped up the edge one-handed, diving low to his right. In his very next over, Steve Waugh made the same mistake, leaving Dravid to pouch a much simpler chance. Agarkar came back after that to end Australia’s residual resistance.

Three for 31 vs. Australia, Kolkata, 2001: Two years before Adelaide came the even greater tumult of Kolkata. It is a wonder how so much action — Laxman and Dravid’s miraculous partnership, Harbhajan’s 13 wickets and, it shouldn’t be forgotten, Steve Waugh’s magnificent first innings hundred — could come packaged in just five days of cricket. India was truly battling time on the last day to complete the turnaround, and at the start of the final session, Australia still had seven wickets in hand. After Harbhajan precipitated the slide by removing Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting in the same over, Tendulkar took over. First, he dismissed Adam Gilchrist for his second first-ball duck of the match, LBW trying to sweep a too-full delivery, and then sent back Matthew Hayden in identical fashion. It was the wicket of Shane Warne, however, that raised the most eardrum-shattering roar from the Eden Gardens crowd — the greatest leg-spinner of all-time foxed by a wrong ’un, rooted to the crease and trapped plumb in front.