Calls to checkmate castled king!

Sachin Tendulkar is bowled all ends up, this time by Tim Southee. And the legendary batsman permits himself a rare show of emotion.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Three failures , bowled on all occasions, in a row and a comment from Sunil Gavaskar have triggered the debate: is it time for Sachin Tendulkar to leave? Vijay Lokapally takes stock.

His arrival at the crease continues to command a standing ovation. A hush descends the galleries at his dismissal. Sachin Tendulkar, the phenomenon, lords over his subjects and admirers like none in the history of the game with the glorious exception of Sir Donald Bradman. The great Aussie saw a bit of “himself” in Tendulkar and they share a few traits.

Bradman wrote in his autobiography, “It is inevitable that a man who is in the public eye should receive criticism.” He also rubbished critics who accused him of being “unsociable” and a “snob” because he stayed in his room. He sought “quietness” but always welcomed healthy criticism from the likes of Neville Cardus and E. W. Swanton. Not very different is Tendulkar’s state. It is only of late that he has invited criticism from all quarters, but then he is not known to speak his mind in public.

Only three failures, bowled on all occasions, in a row against New Zealand and a comment from Sunil Gavaskar have triggered this debate. Apart from suggesting that age could be a factor in Tendulkar performing below his standards, Gavaskar wrote, “The dismissal that was most disturbing was that of the master when he was bowled through the gate by (Doug) Bracewell. When a player of that calibre gets bowled then it has either to be a great delivery or just a one-off. It is here that a gap between international competitions tells, especially when a player is in his late thirties. Tendulkar, of course, has the class and experience to turn it around and the more he plays the better his movements will be and who knows by the time England come here he will have batted enough to get big runs.”

Getting bowled does not suggest the end of the world for a batsman. It is, as Bishan Singh Bedi says, one of the modes of dismissals in cricket. Even greats like Bradman and Gavaskar shared a common moment of farewell. Both were bowled in their last international innings. That did not in any way affect their stature as great batsmen of their respective eras.

But Tendulkar’s career has suddenly come under scrutiny. The success of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara has led some critics to believe that Tendulkar can be now classified as an expendable. With Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman having retired in succession, Tendulkar assumes the added responsibility of guiding the team. He knows it well and so do the National selectors, who only scoff at any suggestion that Tendulkar’s inclusion requires a rethink.

Bedi is typically candid. “When the lion’s roar diminishes, the jackals make noise. It is true his best years are behind him and in any case no player can pick and choose his matches. You have to play matches to stay consistent. For God’s sake leave the man alone.

“He is the best man to anaylse his technique, the best man to decide when he should stop playing. As a staunch Tendulkar fan I want him to go out on a high.”

Cricket can be a cruel game; a great leveller. A hundred in the first innings, or a five-wicket haul, cannot guarantee an encore in the second innings. Bedi stresses, “Please look at his dismissals and notice he has been getting out to decent deliveries.”

Bedi is so right. Every individual in the opposition values Tendulkar’s wicket just as an actor reveres an Oscar. Ask Ujesh Ranchod, an off-spinner from Zimbabwe. He played just one Test and got one, just one wicket. That of Tendulkar! And then Ranchod quit. His cricket was done with Tendulkar’s scalp.

In different eras, bowlers aimed at special prizes — Bradman, Garry Sobers, Barry Richards, Viv Richards, Javed Miandad. It is Tendulkar now. “There is no technical flaw in his batting,” says Kapil Dev. “He is not in form. And he knows how to fight it. I had said ideally he should have quit after the World Cup, but I am with him in this difficult time. It has nothing to do with age and please don’t talk about his technique and commitment.”

Garry Sobers had observed in his book, “Batting is psychological at the Test level. The mind games are important and you have to be prepared to appreciate what the opposition captain and bowlers are thinking as well as having your own plan of campaign.” And also, “Nets were very important to me when I was a youngster and I took one whenever and wherever I could. That was the place to sort things out, to develop, to improve all aspects of your game.” There could be a small tip for Tendulkar here: to not miss matches between international assignments.

Tendulkar, 39, is battling poor form and intense criticism. It is a new experience. He has had lean spells in the past too, notably in 2003, when he failed to score a century in five Tests, and 2006, when he went without a century in eight Tests. But he managed to come back strongly to silence his detractors. He doesn’t lack in preparation. He had had hours of net sessions with only leg-spinners bowling to him prior to Australia’s visit in 1998. His target was Shane Warne. And Warne was conquered in style. Away from public eye, Tendulkar spent considerable time in the ‘nets’ playing the in-swinger after his first-innings dismissal in the Bangalore Test against New Zealand. That he still got out bowled in the second innings was his failure to come to terms with the fact that his feet movement has indeed slowed down. “It’s only a matter of time before he scores. He is the greatest cricketer we’ve ever had. He may have some technical issues to deal with, but he knows what best measures he needs to take. He has to spend time in the middle and runs will come. It is about form and fitness and nothing to do with age. He is not a liability on the field. Look, experience can’t be bought off the shelf. Also, his presence in the dressing room is invaluable,” says Dilip Vengsarkar.

Vasu Paranjpe, a respected coach and a highly rated expert, has watched Tendulkar from the time he was making waves in Bombay cricket even before making his first-class debut. When Paranjpe speaks Tendulkar listens. “I don’t understand all this fuss. I know getting bowled repeatedly can be worrisome even for great players, but this can’t be a reason to call for his retirement. He looks a trifle slow in his footwork but I know he will come back strongly. What can I say of these critics? He seems to have unknowingly become a part of their life. I would say leave him alone.”

Observers, however, are convinced that Tendulkar is not the same dominating batsman he was a few years ago. His body and mind are slowing down with age and his movements are pre-determined. The forward stride is too big and not always to the pitch of the ball. They point out that he has been playing a lot from the crease and is not as close to the ball as he used to be. Tendulkar is aware, too, but has failed to arrest the slide.

Tendulkar’s timing and reflexes may have taken a beating and his angry reaction in Bangalore after getting out playing across the line was a reflection of his frustration, as pointed out by former New Zealand star Martin Crowe. It was a rare demonstration of emotion on the field by Tendulkar.

Many seasons ago, Tendulkar was getting out to uncharacteristic shots. When probed, he had a simple explanation. “I’m trying to play shots off balls on the stumps.” In Bedi’s opinion, cricket becomes exciting when the bowler attacks the stumps consistently and the batsman looks to score consistently. It is this contest between the best that lifts the quality of cricket. Tendulkar is not the first, but, given the state of the game in modern times, could well be the last with such longevity. Bradman was 40 when he retired; Geoff Boycott played Test cricket till he was 42. Jack Hobbs, described as one of the most technically accomplished batsmen ever, played his last Test at 48. He hit 197 first-class centuries and 100 of them came after he had reached 40. Tendulkar has kept alive the legacy of great players retiring late.

True, Tendulkar may not be the dominating and aggressive batsman that he once was. He loved taking on the best of bowlers and being technically sound has lasted this long. Motivation has never been an issue for Tendulkar. He has overcome back, ankle and elbow injuries, made runs in all conditions and played with dignity.

More than five decades ago an English selector — Cyril Washbrook — had picked himself to play a Test against Australia. He was 41 and made 98 against the likes of Ray Lindwall and Richie Benaud. In 1976, Brian Close, recalled at 45, opened the batting against Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel. True, those were different times but these gentlemen proved that age had nothing to do with playing. Just as Tendulkar is out to prove his unflinching “passion” for cricket! What does he need to prove to anyone? Calibre, and not age, is paramount. Life goes on and Tendulkar, with 33959 runs and 100 international centuries, too will move on. Just leave the decision to him.