The road ahead

S. SUBRAMANIUM

More pertinent than whether he will be the Tendulkar of old are the questions of how much longer he will last and whether he will be able to accept his playing at a level below what he is used to, writes S. RAM MAHESH

THE closest Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man will get to realisation is the elite athlete — a bewitching confluence of geometric principles and spatial co-ordinates. Through human composition that is often inconceivable, the master sportsman suggests the possibility of infallibility, immortality even.

For the best part of 16 years, Sachin Tendulkar — a cherub with curls — shared more than a physical resemblance to angels. Even in this age of the hyperbole, God (as Australian batsman Matthew Hayden called him, something Tendulkar shrugged off almost apologetically) was a title that, at times, seemed in sync.

During this period, the great man's aura grew and there were few things Indian cricket fans thought were beyond him. Fantastic projections were made, incredible numbers were coughed up. Tendulkar met them. Perpetually 16 to his followers, he remained suspended romantically in mind space as a man-boy conquering an adult world.

Ominous portents were first noticed in early 1999. Clutching a sore back, the Mumbaikar held off Pakistan's Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq in Chennai as he drew on his deep mental reserves. A hundred and thirty six of the finest and most gut-wrenching runs followed; they weren't enough as Pakistan whooped while Tendulkar wept.

Emotionally spent, his back still twinging, the then 25-year-old looked in danger of missing the next Test in Delhi. Tendulkar not to play! What blasphemy! He did, but the die of mortality had been cast. After turning up for a record 185 ODIs since his debut against Pakistan at Gujranwala in 1989, Tendulkar — horror of horrors — missed four ODI series in 1999.

More cracks opened up. A problematic sesamoid bone in the right great toe, which Tendulkar later revealed would never heal since it is so badly smashed up, forced him out of the three Test series in Sri Lanka in 2001 after 84 successive Tests. The first stint of the now famous tennis elbow kept the batting legend out of the first two Tests of the home series against Australia in 2004, and the second occurrence ruled him out of the recent Zimbabwe tour.

In all, Tendulkar has missed seven Tests and 81 ODIs because of creaky body parts. In May 2005, the man with over 23,000 international runs, went under the knife — "a foolproof method of getting rid of the tennis elbow," according to Indian physio John Gloster. At 32, it left him facing an opponent far more insidious than any he has encountered on the field — uncertainty.

Rehabilitation, strengthening the weakened elbow and a return to batting in stages ensued. "It (the elbow) still pains a little, but my doctors have declared me fit to play. They say it is very normal and I don't have to worry about it," said Tendulkar before the Challenger series, having missed the Super Series against Australia.

"I'm just going to go out there and give myself a chance and see what happens. I would know where I stand and basically that becomes the target."

In sport, injuries are reminders of the evolutionary accidents and curious interplay of factors that have brought an athlete that far. Of how a career that has absorbed dollops of sweat and chance can be felled by a single blow. In its most virulent form like the Monica Seles stabbing — whether it can be classified as a sports injury is a different matter — injuries throw up questions both philosophical and existential.

And yet some of sport's most stirring stories have a career threatening injury as the backdrop that threatened to overwhelm. Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee was told he might never walk again after sustaining four spinal stress fractures in the West Indies in 1973. This after storming the world as a young tearaway, having made his debut in 1969-70. With Dr. Frank Pyke, a physical education specialist, Lillee strengthened his back, remodelled his action and returned `the complete fast bowler'.

"One more major injury could mean years in a wheelchair," Lillee had said then. "But I didn't let myself dwell on that possibility." The Australian quickie returned 18 excruciating months later to help his team crush England 4-1.

More recently, English paceman Simon Jones recovered from a horrendous knee injury that had made the strongest of men wince. Jones's reverse swing was a key factor in England's triumph in the 2005 Ashes.

V. GANESAN

Tendulkar's problem with his top hand has a curious precedent. Sir Leonard Hutton, one of England's greatest batsmen with an average of 56.67 (remarkably close to Tendulkar) in 79 Tests, had broken his left arm during commando training in 1941. Three bone grafts, eight months in the hospital and Hutton found his left arm two inches shorter than his right.

The technical purist worked to get the strength back in his top hand and was so successful that the masterful leg-spinner Bill O'Reilly, comparing the post-war Hutton to the one in 1938, said: "His footwork is as light and sure as Bradman's ever was. He is the finest player now... one cannot be failed to be impressed by the fluency and gracefulness of his stroke making."

Injuries have provided others opportunities to reconfigure their technique. Tiger Woods plays a game whose technical demands outstrip cricket. In his book How I Play Golf, Woods refers to his tendency to make do with athleticism. He writes about "snapping my left leg straight" to get "an extra twenty yards" on his drive. This led to the golf great injuring his knee, prompting him to change his swing technique under Hank Haney through 2003-04.

But can Tendulkar, after 16 years of scarring, regain the form of old? "I don't think he is ever going to be the player he was," Indian coach Greg Chappell had said after taking up the job. "You change. You are a different player in your 30s compared to when you were 18.You have to learn to play accordingly. In many ways you can be better. In many ways you can't because you aren't as flexible of body and mind."

Tendulkar has spoken in the past about how he has had to make technical changes to cope with injuries and of how his body has taken a beating. "At a certain point one has to realise his body cannot take it anymore. My body has not remained the same in the last 16 years."

Tendulkar's returns after injuries have been mixed. After missing the Sri Lanka tour in 2001 (toe), he hit a circumspect century in his first ODI at Johannesburg and a brilliant 155 in his first Test innings at Bloemfontein. The first tennis elbow gave him more trouble — 125 runs in seven innings before his highest Test score of 248 not out versus Bangladesh.

But the man who is poised to overtake Sunil Gavaskar's record 34 Test hundreds played the 2003 World Cup in pain. And did spectacularly accumulating a record 673 runs. A torn ligament and tendon in his finger didn't allow Tendulkar to hold a teacup properly. Yet he batted on painkillers in a fashion reminiscent of his young marauding days.

Now, a team in transition needs Tendulkar. Chappell has spoken of redefining the diminutive Indian's role. More pertinent than whether he will be the Tendulkar of old are the questions of how much longer he will last and whether he will be able to accept his playing at a level below what he is used to. The Indian season is packed and to get the best out of the man from Mumbai, the team management must find a formula to nurse him through.

In the Challengers, Tendulkar looked understandably rusty. He also got three very good deliveries — a late outswinger from Lakshmipathy Balaji, a nippy in-ducker from S. Sreesanth, and an impeccable googly from 16-year-old leg spinner Piyush Chawla. Thirty-eight runs from three matches are lean pickings. "But there have been very good signs from him," said Chappell after the Challengers final. "He came down in the afternoon and had a net and halfway through that session, I could see the turning point in him. The timing started to come back. I saw that again this afternoon and I saw him start to return to what we know as the Sachin Tendulkar of old. I think he's really close to hitting some really good form."