A match-winner in his own right

Just imagine. This man, Sachin Tendulkar, most selfless and most dedicated, plays to win matches for India. But when he fails at times, as is natural to virtually all performers in the sports arena, people begin to doubt his calibre, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

JUST imagine a day in the life of Sachin Tendulkar.

The alarm rings, and soon the phone. The alarm's cacophony dies soon, as does the phone's. Tendulkar's day has begun in right earnest, just as it has been, for months, and years.

In contrast to his batting, he prepares himself at a leisurely pace. With no one to hustle him, he is in his own world. He is meticulous in his methods, from preparing tea, to readying himself for a day of harsh combat on the field.

Most times, especially in India, he prefers to order breakfast to his room. Not that he wants to keep a distance from his mates. It is just that the fans won't let him eat in peace.

The bus is in the lobby. A frenzied cry rends the air as fans hail him. And Tendulkar walks languidly from the hotel lobby to the bus where he takes his seat, right in front. The team has accorded its navigator this privilege. He is the first to get into the bus and the first get off it. He has never kept it waiting. Never.

The buzz at the ground excites him. The crowd occupies every inch of the arena, anticipating a grand performance by this great exponent of batting. One who gives his vocation everything that he has — time, dedication, and loyalty. When it comes to batting, there can be none more devoted than this dynamite at the crease.

The delirious crowd celebrates an India victory. Tendulkar walks up to the podium to receive the Man of the Match award. A familiar sight when India plays around the world.

On another occasion, he bites his nails. A defeat looms large on the horizon and his heart aches. The anguish is visible on his face. Remember the World Cup final at The Wanderers, the concluding ceremony? He was named the Most Valuable Player of the Tournament, but he struggled to smile. India had lost and so the award did not mean much to him.

Just imagine. This man, most selfless and most dedicated, plays to win matches for India. But when he fails at times, as is natural to virtually all performers in the sports arena, people begin to doubt his calibre. Is he really good? Can he win matches? Is he great, as many say? So goes the refrain.

After such a momentous journey, it is a shame if the navigator is asked to prove his credentials. This is Tendulkar's plight now.

What more do these people expect Tendulkar to do? He has committed himself to the game a long time ago and dedicated his talent to the team. In fact, the man deserves a salute for motivating himself by setting new standards. He is chasing himself in pursuit of a glory that has eluded thousands of cricketers who have played this game. He is the best in the business.

RISING TO THE OCCASION — Dravid has done that quite often, and so has Tendulkar. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

He is a rare happening, we all know. But the debate is whether Tendulkar is a match-winner. What a topic to debate on after he has carried the team to such heights! Is he a great batsman? This, after former greats the world over have acknowledged him to be one. Is he a gladiator who knows how to flatten the opponent with an assurance that stems from his faith in his potential? Is he not allowed a few failures, if not breaks from the game? The administrators are the first to grumble when Tendulkar talks of taking a break.

Tendulkar, strangely, is often compared to the volatile Viv Richards or the gifted Brian Lara. These are the batsmen with different styles, composure and vision. There is no merit in the argument that Lara and Richards were better finishers, or achievers, in winning results. Statistics do not always reflect the true value of an effort. The conditions and your team's strength do matter and here Tendulkar has always lived under pressure to perform, and keep performing. And he has contributed in many victories without being very demonstrative.

How many times do individuals win matches? Of course, a stunning century or an incisive spell can alter the course of a match, but then there are always other performers who do not get the credit they deserve. In Tendulkar's case, the accusations have mostly been about his not being able to bat well in the second innings. But what of his contribution in the first innings that keeps the team in the reckoning? His century in the first innings would have set up the match for someone else to finish. Does that make Tendulkar's effort insignificant?

Even the great Richards has no century to his credit in the fourth innings of a match won by the West Indies. Lara has just one in the fourth innings of the match and that was when his unbeaten 153 laid Australia low. But Lara, and the West Indies, were distinctly lucky on many occasions in that fascinating finish. Will Richards or Lara lose their value to the team because they did not score consistently in the fourth innings of matches?

For those who are driven by statistics alone in judging the merits of a performer, Richards has hit 12 centuries in matches won by the West Indies and Lara seven. Tendulkar's count is nine and of those two are in the second innings. He has not scored any 50s in the fourth innings of matches won by India.

Much has been made of his failure in the Barbados Test when India could not make 120. There were 10 others in the team, who failed too, and Tendulkar had got out to an incredible catch by Lara in the slips. It was also a wicked ball, arguably the toughest in the match to negotiate.

And then, came the contest against Pakistan in Chennai. Why do people forget that, it was Tendulkar who created a contest after Pakistan threatened to crush the home team in a humiliating fashion? It was an innings crafted like a master, but not given the appropriate finish because he was hampered by back pain. For so long he had carried the burden of the team on his back that it was only a matter of time before he would suffer this pain.

Centuries at Wellington, Cape Town and Perth ended in a similar heap, buried under the weight of crippling defeats. He made no excuses, yet the carping critics debated the worth of his contributions. It was a cruel world indeed, demanding every ounce of his flesh and every drop of blood, absolving the rest from all blemishes. It was a team game but the punishment was being handed to one individual.

Many times, a brilliant ball or a brilliant catch would have ended Tendulkar's innings. Then, he rarely gets a `life'. Almost all his edges go to hand and the fielders rarely put down a chance offered by the god of batting.

His current slump in form, a rare happening again, has to be viewed in the right perspective. For the first time in 14 years of dedicated service to the team, Tendulkar is struggling to get his bat to the ball — BY HIS STANDARDS. Otherwise he has continued to bat well. A genuine loss of form is something only he can best handle. Some support from well-wishers is also most welcome.

All great batsmen have been through such phases. Richards had suffered a severe loss of confidence; Lara too looked ordinary when runs eluded him. Our own Rahul Dravid was a flop when India toured Australia in 1999-2000. But this time he is a hero. It is just that Tendulkar is not being given any leeway. He has to remain at his best.

Tendulkar has never batted with an intention to under-perform. So why doubt his intentions in the middle? He values his wicket dearly and has won many matches with his distinctly authoritative statements with the bat.

How short memory can be! Please recall the episode of a grieving Tendulkar, having lost his father, rushing back to help India beat Kenya in the 1999 World Cup. He paid tribute to his father with a century. Not a great innings, but unmatched in value considering the poignant situation.

Cricket looks very easy from outside the boundary. It is only when you are in the middle you realise it is a very different ball game. Tendulkar has had to contend with the challenge of taking on bowlers who gun for his wicket with a single-mindedness of purpose. Get Tendulkar, and you have got India, had been the refrain for many years. The scenario has changed of late as India has discovered batsmen who have provided Tendulkar some respite.

Comparisons can create needless rancour. It will not be fair to compare Sunil Gavaskar and Tendulkar, batsmen of different eras and different styles. Moreover, Gavaskar batted without a helmet. It means a lot when you stand up to Malcolm Marshall or Jeff Thomson without head-protection.

Tendulkar is a match-winning batsman in his own right. Let us not expect a batsman who loves to dominate to be reduced to a dour blocker, battling to force a draw. The joy of batting lies in watching a Tendulkar, a Lara or a Richards going out and playing their natural game. Can you imagine Richards or Lara grafting? Why such demands on Tendulkar then?

One need not be protective of Tendulkar. He may not have finished a few matches, but then please spare a thought for the man and the pressure that he endures every time he bats for the team. Remember those occasions when he would have made batting easy for his partners by taking on the demon bowlers all by himself. The occasions when he would sprinted like a hare to take runs for his partner.

The current famine of runs is a minor concern for this accomplished batsman with no technical flaws. He is one batsman who can read the bowler's mind faster than anyone and take batting to a different level. He has a role to play and he has performed it impeccably thus far.

Tendulkar is a cricketer who mostly thinks for others and often takes the pressure of others upon himself. Nothing pleases him more than his colleagues excelling. Observe him when he applauds a century by Laxman, Dravid, Ganguly, Sehwag... little things, but they matter a lot.

When Tendulkar bats, he does so with millions of silent prayers backing him. He bats for them all. The pressure often leaves him sleepless. The demands of the game keep him away from his family for long periods. But he has never complained. His fingers ache from signing a million autographs a month, but he never turns anyone away. He maintains a pleasant demeanour, aware that he is the role model for countless youth. That he has remained on his best behaviour for so many years speaks for the man's grooming.

Tendulkar has won matches for India. The cricket world documents these results. The sheer weight of his performances has enriched the game and places him among the all-time greats of cricket.

How big a match-winner is Sachin Tendulkar? Are there bigger match-winners in the Indian team? Who is the greatest match-winner in the history of Indian cricket? Go ahead and write us your opinions in less than 200 words. A selection of the best responses addressed to the Editor-in-Chief, The Sportstar, will be published in the magazine over the next few weeks.