TENDULKAR versus the best

People have said that my duel with Tendulkar in India in 1997-98 was the most compelling cricket they have ever seen, but there is no doubt he enjoyed the better of the exchanges. — Shane Warne

NANDITA SRIDHAR

THEY are a prestigious group who can almost smell the leather burning, as it parts ways with the willow, and have the best seat in the house to catch a straight drive. But these men would rather run the 22 yards and indulge in some left-hook practice than toss the ball to him, only for him to make fielders out of spectators.

Sachin Tendulkar does that to bowlers, even the best of them. He makes them rue their choice of profession, scratch their heads with fingers that usually send the ball through bouts of schizophrenia, and makes even the best of deliveries seem like a wayward feather.

A true measure of a great batsman lies in his answers to the barrage of questions that the best bowlers in the business throw at him. Despite its growing complexities, cricket is simply a game between bat and ball, a contest that throws up enormous debates, discussions and duels. To talk of the Sachin Tendulkar-Shane Warne hype that preceded the 1998 series with the blessed power of hindsight, the thought of the world's best batsman against the greatest leg-spinner of all times was delicious enough to overlook the fact that a spinner against Tendulkar on Indian soil was not going to keep him awake at nights. Warne could have as well bowled to the boundary ropes. His dreams of `Mike Gattingising' Tendulkar with his deliveries pitched on the rough outside leg-stump were swiftly replaced by nightmares of Tendulkar hitting him for a straight six. He batted with his feet and when he does that, spinners can only bowl from memory.

"Some people have said that my duel with Tendulkar in India in 1997-98 was the most compelling Test cricket they have ever seen, but there is no doubt he enjoyed the better of the exchanges," said the "Tendul-corised" Warne.

Fellow Aussie Glenn McGrath, a firm believer in `If you can't beat them, bore them,' has enjoyed better success against him. Having given pavilion directions to him the most number of times (six) in Tests, a privilege he shares with Jason Gillespie, `Pigeon' has pecked Tendulkar with his suffocating accurate bowling. But when the little master chose to break the boredom with some attacking cricket, the sulk and the headshake would tell it all. His assault on McGrath in the 2000 ICC Champions Trophy is one such example. He did not score a half-century, but dealt a psychological blow to McGrath, who had a poor day.

"Any batsman on his day is difficult to bowl to. But I will choose Sachin and Brian as the two best batsmen I have bowled to. I have had some success against Brian, but on other occasions he's got lot of runs against us. Sachin too," said the Aussie.

But from a purely emotional point of view, the way Tendulkar negotiated Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq in the Chennai Test in 1999 stands out. A normal batsman with all his resources in full flow will promptly march his way back to the cozy comforts of the dressing room when the three are on song, but Tendulkar, on that day, had to carry the hopes of the entire nation on a painful back with spasms. He started off as a labourer and transformed into an artist, specially against Saqlain. He lofted, swept and did it all.

One-on-ones with Shoaib Akhtar, Chaminda Vaas (who has dismissed him nine times in one-dayers), Muttiah Muralitharan have made for some interesting viewing and reading. Every bowler worth his salt eyes his wicket. He relishes nothing more than putting bowlers who make tall claims in place. Shoaib Akhtar and Andrew Caddick did that in the 2003 World Cup, and what happened then was a leather hunt of gigantic proportions.

On his part, Tendulkar has never indulged in a war of words with any bowler. He respects the bowler but not the ball. He has acknowledged the great battles that he has had with the best in the business running towards him. "There have been plenty of great bowlers I have played against... the likes of Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram, Chris Cairns, Shane Warne, Muthiah Muralitharan."

The Tendulkar of today, rather the circumspect Tendulkar of today might not create the kind of terror in the bowlers' minds like he did earlier, but they will be wary, with questions running across their minds. "When will he let loose and break free?" He might have lost the aggressive streak that marked his batting, but the bowlers will not breathe easy. "I hate losing and cricket being my first love, once I enter the ground it's a different zone altogether and that hunger for winning is always there."

With the one-and-a-half-year old monkey off his back and no one before him, it will be interesting to see Tendulkar's approach to batting. With the cricket ball being subjected to a variety of finger and wrist variations, and new methods of turn and seam creating path-breaking bowling geometry, more such interesting duels are on the cards. Will the bowler get to see the ball fly off the bat or a straight defensive shot? Only Tendulkar will know.