In a class of his own

It is indisputable that Father Time now has a hold on Tendulkar’s genius, so we should be grateful that the old fellow at least allowed us some glimpses of the past. Over to Steve James.

Oh, he had worked so hard. Indeed Sachin Tendulkar worked so hard that even the most fervent England supporter would not have begrudged him a century at The Oval.

Sachin may never bat in a Test match in England again. And the knowledgeable and fair-minded crowd (or so they were until some isolated drunken behaviour later) recognised as much when they rose to acclaim the Little Master as he trudged off 18 runs s hort of a 38th Test hundred.

It had taken a decent delivery from James Anderson — pitched on an impeccable length with just enough away movement to find the edge — to dismiss him but the great sadness was that Tendulkar had just been delving into a glorious history.

From the two balls previous to his dismissal he had hit boundaries which carried sufficient grace, precision and command to remind us of Tendulkar in his pomp. For a moment the grind of before — and the fortune of Matt Prior’s drop with the Indian on 20 in the first innings — disappeared and the clock ticked back to a time when Tendulkar always batted with such authority and verve.

First was an on-drive as Anderson overpitched slightly, Tendulkar’s balance beautiful in its proffering of a straight blade to punch the ball with wondrous timing for four.

Some say that is the most difficult shot to play. They are wrong, though. It is hard but not as hard as the shot of which a classic example then came next ball. Anderson, understandably, dragged his length back, but too much. Tendulkar pounced on the offering short of a length and, perching up on his toes, punched it with a straight bat through the covers. It was not a cut, so much easier to play with its horizontal plane, but a booming back-foot drive.

Have you ever tried doing that? It seems possible against a slower bowler but against a bowler of Anderson’s pace even very good international players will find that the ball squirts off behind square.

When playing off the back foot the temptation is always for head to follow feet backwards but the key is to “leave one’s head behind” so that the ball can be hit along the floor. However, only those with the sharpest of eyes can then hit the ball early enough to propel it in front of square.

Naturally Tendulkar ticks all those requisites. If that is the last shot we see him play in Test cricket on these shores, then it will be some memory to cherish. However, Tendulkar has always had the ability to play shots that linger long in the mind.

For instance, this correspondent can recall distinctly the moment Tendulkar entered his consciousness. It was 1990 in a tour match between India and Glamorgan at St Helens, Swansea. There a relatively unknown 17-year-old batsman suddenly played a back-foot drive — this time straight down the ground and so even more remarkable — off the opening bowler Hamish Anthony. The Antiguan was wild and woolly but sharp enough so as to make that shot unimaginable for most mere mortals.

Fielders should never display overt admiration but it would be no betrayal of confidence to report that there were several gasps of awe that August day.

Tendulkar played a similar shot off Chris Tremlett through mid-off in the third Test at The Oval but in general his innings was not pretty. The Indian’s uncertainty against the short ball precludes so these days, as also evidenced in his 91 in the previous Test at Trent Bridge.

Not that he wants to let on too much. Few admit such a weakness, especially in their method of practice. So on that Thursday morning, while Rahul Dravid took to the nets to bat in full gear in replicating Test-match intensity, Tendulkar, with nothing more than gloves as protection, hit some gentle half-volleys in the next net. But there are many different means of preparation for batting. For example, team-mates were often required to awaken Sir Vivian Richards to usher him on his aura-oozing swagger to the crease.

There was no such entrance from Tendulkar, during his first innings at the Oval but still a tingling expectation reserved only for the great players. And once he hooked Ryan Sidebottom — not far from Tremlett at fine-leg — for four to move to 59, he did at least announce a partial slackening of the shackles as precursor to that denouement.

It is indisputable that Father Time now has a hold on Tendulkar’s genius, so we should be grateful that the old fellow at least allowed us some glimpses of the past.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007