Leading LIGHT

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Injuries have disrupted his batting rhythm in the last two years, but Sachin Tendulkar continues to inspire. To a side that is an amalgam of youth and experience, he is A GUIDING LIGHT. He is someone who can lift the side's morale during times of adversity, writes S. DINAKAR.

Sachin Tendulkar appeared bright and fresh, alighting from the lift, striding down to the hotel lobby, flashing a smile here, signing an autograph there, and then drifting into the conference hall. Greatness sits lightly on the man whose radiant eyes carry everything with them — joy, pain and even a hint of mischief. Now his vision, sweeping across the room, was picking out familiar faces from among those who had swarmed around him.

The event in Chennai was no more than a routine introduction of a product's brand ambassador to the media. Yet, given Tendulkar's aura, it was not surprising that the cameras whirred, the flashbulbs came to life, and the scribes crammed the area.

Soon the questions began to fly. One of them, revolving around individuals in a team game, forced Tendulkar to cross his eyebrows before he gathered himself. "It is the team that is more important. It is India that should win. I am an Indian first," his voice boomed.

Those were difficult days for Tendulkar. A cyst on his right shoulder had kept him out of the ODI series in the West Indies. He was racing against time to regain fitness for the Test series. And a visit to the MRF Pace Foundation formed a part of his rehabilitation programme.

Subsequently, he opted out of the Test series against Brian Lara's men, but Tendulkar the Team-man would be flying out to Sri Lanka for the tri-nation ODI series, beginning on August 14.

Injuries have disrupted his batting rhythm in the last two years, but he still inspires, and to a side that is an amalgam of youth and experience, is a guiding light. He is someone who can lift the side's morale during times of adversity, both in the dressing room and on the arena.

S. SUBRAMANIUM

The blue Indian headgear with its golden crest is the driving force as he pursues glory for the side, his integrity gleaming like headlights on an unlit highway. Wrapped around his considerable natural ability is the kind of commitment and discipline that creates men who are timeless. And shining through is the sort of single-mindedness that can slice through roadblocks, melt down obstacles.

It's the fire within that has fuelled Tendulkar's quest towards greatness and beyond. In several senses, his journey has been a rage for perfection.

To the youngsters in Team India, he is a mentor and a role model who instils self-belief. On the eve of the ODI in Karachi this year, Tendulkar gifted his willow to the talented Suresh Raina during the nets, a laudable gesture from a legend to an aspirant.

Yuvraj Singh would tell you about the surge in his confidence levels when he, on his first day with the Indian team, secured a seat next to Tendulkar. "It was like sitting with a cricketing God. I cannot forget the moment," he said.

In a career of miles and milestones, there are more destinations to be reached for Tendulkar. In the highway of international cricket, many have fallen off the track and never got back on the road again. The secret of Tendulkar's survival is that he has always discerned motes of light amid darkness.

And even more remarkable than his three-figure exploits is the fact that he has shouldered the expectations of a nation for 17 years. The enormous pressure to perform can weigh down on a person, but Tendulkar has seen it as a motivating factor, not burden.

Crucially, he takes the load off Dravid, both on and off the field. Tendulkar, in what he describes as his evolution as a batsman, might have changed his approach in Tests to a less flamboyant one — he has principally cut out the aerial shots — but is still a gloriously aggressive batsman in the ODIs, his blistering efforts against the Sri Lankan and Pakistani attacks underlining his quality.

Argues elegant Sri Lankan batsman Marvan Atapattu: "He has changed, but if someone tells me this much will be your change from age 16 till now, I will say `thank you very much' and accept it. He is such a wonderful player. At home, when my wife grumbles about me watching cricket, invariably Sachin would be batting. As age progresses and the pressures increase, one's approach will change."

Against probing pace attacks on surfaces that assist seam movement or in conditions that encourage swing, Tendulkar and Dravid are technically the best equipped to cope. Tendulkar's temporary dip in form does not indicate a decline in quality. The whispers about his reflexes dulling out are without basis. As India physio John Gloster points out, "He is still only 33. He is still an explosive athlete."

The drying up of his runs in Tests against Pakistan and England had more to do with him picking up a tendency to shuffle across, a flaw he seems to have corrected during practice sessions thereafter, batting with ramrod straightness.

Chappell realises Tendulkar's influential qualities, so do his team-mates; skipper Dravid is a great admirer of his ways. Here is a phenomenon, who has constructed lasting monuments with a delightful mix of sunshine and steel, undaunted by adversity and unfazed by either reputations or situations.

Technically impeccable for most part, and temperamentally hard to break, Tendulkar has been a formidable barrier for the bowlers of all kind, engaging the sphere in captivating conversations. He picks the length of a delivery earlier than most, and with footwork that is precise, is perfectly balanced for the appropriate response.

Psychologically, Tendulkar's presence is a huge boost to the side's morale. He has been in the rarefied zone before, could so easily take flight again in the field of dreams. The opposition is wary of this champion cricketer. In fact, it fears him.

Given his experience and his comprehension of the game's nuances, Tendulkar's views are constantly sought by the side. Though not a part of the team-management that comprises Dravid, Chappell and vice-captain Virender Sehwag, Tendulkar is rarely left out on matters of team selection and the formulation of strategy.

The move to elevate Irfan Pathan to the No. 3 spot in the Nagpur ODI against Sri Lanka last year was his idea. A brilliant ploy, it actually triggered the wave of innovation and flexibility, orchestrated by Chappell and Dravid, that dominated India's cricket in the one-dayers.

He has a heart larger than his small frame. Tendulkar has endured much pain for the country, from the moment he, then a 16-year-old, was struck on his face in the Sialkot Test. He was bleeding but refused to leave the arena.

"He has courage and vision. And he still has the eye of the tiger. You do not judge the impact of a player of Tendulkar's ability from only the runs he makes." says Chappell.

India has a busy and an extended season ahead that would culminate with the World Cup. While the ODI competition in Colombo could set the tone — the season-beginning competitions have their own significance — India faces major challenges in the Champions Trophy, the tour of South Africa where the wickets could be sprinkled with venom and in the ultimate competition — the World Cup.

Astonishingly for a cricketer who has been around for so long, he still gambols on the park with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, his eyes lighting up each time he bounds in with the ball. Says Gloster, "There are times when I have to hold him back during training, rather than push him. He is a professional in every aspect of the word. In terms of commitment and dedication, it's always been nothing less than 100 per cent from him. He has come back from a very difficult shoulder surgery. He has been around for 17 years and I think his body has coped with the demands extremely well. He didn't miss a match for a long time, which I feel is remarkable. It's only natural that he too grapples with injuries now, which is natural with any sportsman who has been around for so long."

To the journalists, he is a man for whom `word' is everything. He once spoke to The Hindu when his Mumbai team-mates did the packing for him; Tendulkar was in a hurry to catch a flight. On another occasion, he shared his thoughts with Sportstar from the back of an aircraft, unmindful of a bumpy journey on a day of cloudy skies. More recently, when this correspondent was down with a viral fever, he received a call on his mobile from a concerned Tendulkar who wanted to keep his interview promise. He then spoke from his heart.

Even while pursuing cricketing eternity, Tendulkar has his eyes open to the wonders on a much larger canvas. Stories of the triumph of the spirit never cease to amaze him. He has kept his feet on the ground. India does appear a different team, when he buzzes around. This diamond is firmly silhouetted in the Indian Blue.