Well-versed in the grammar of batting

Sachin Tendulkar’s batsmanship was rooted in strong fundamentals. His technical purity provided him a platform to exhibit his strokes, both in offence and defence. By S. Dinakar.

A cover, a cover-point, a mid-off and a sweeper cover were in place. Jimmy Anderson gathered momentum with every stride. Sachin Tendulkar settled into his stance.

The colourful crowd at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore stood expectant in this crucial India-England 2011 World Cup league match. Tendulkar versus Anderson was a fascinating face-off within the larger battle.

Soon there was a roar! The sweeper had thrown in an exasperating dive only to see the ball crash into the ropes. Tendulkar had coaxed the ball, through a fortified off-side field, to the cover fence. Anderson had hands on his hips.

Tendulkar had got to the pitch of the ball and then brought his wrist into play at the last instant to direct the ball through the eye of the needle — past the slimmest of gaps.

The stroke revealed several aspects of Tendulkar’s batsmanship — his poise, timing, inventiveness, an innate sense of the field, and his ease.

Tendulkar had this gift of making difficult strokes look easy. Like most great batsmen, he picked the length early and was ready with his response. The little man had two strokes for every delivery but was decisive with his shot.

Crucially, Tendulkar’s batsmanship was rooted in strong fundamentals. His technical purity provided him a platform to exhibit his strokes, both in offence and defence.

It was his solid back-foot game that lent weight and dimension to his batsmanship. Tendulkar averaged 53.20 in Australia, 54.31 in England and 46.44 in South Africa in Tests. To succeed on surfaces with pace, movement and bounce, and in conditions that encouraged swing and against some very good attacks, technical excellence is important.

Tendulkar’s back-foot play, as he countered short-pitched bowling from the quicks, was the cornerstone of his batting. He would rise on his toes and simply time the ball past the bowler to the ropes. The stroke appeared simple, but was hard to execute.

A batsman had to be balanced, get his left elbow high and meet the sphere with the sweet portion of his willow. This was a stroke that frustrated the pace-men; it was essentially a defensive shot, but still travelled past the straight-field to the fence.

Tendulkar’s exemplary back-foot play also allowed him to venture deep into the crease and punch the ball between point and cover — another stroke of his, that was extremely productive on tracks with bounce — or work it on the leg-side off his hip or chest. Here the alignment of his feet, elbow and wrists was such that the bat stayed vertical.

And when he went forward, if the delivery demanded, he did so with precise footwork. Tendulkar’s batting was devoid of exaggerated movement. No wonder he appeared so compact at the crease.

Tendulkar had a largely bottom-handed grip and this was actually his ally while essaying horizontal bat strokes, such an effective counter to the pacemen on pitches with juice. The grip enabled him to cut and pull with power and placement. His awesome record in Australia — 1809 runs from 20 Tests with six centuries — is hardly surprising.

It can be argued that this grip was not the ideal one while driving the ball through off-side but Tendulkar compensated with subtle positioning of the feet, as he created room, with dexterous wrists and timing.

For someone who was essentially an attacking batsman for a major portion of his career, Tendulkar’s judgment in the corridor was exceptional. Here, his battles with Aussie pace legend Glenn McGrath are a stuff of legend.

Although Sunil Gavaskar scored over him in this attribute, Tendulkar, too, could sway away from the line of a menacing short-pitched delivery, with his eyes on the ball.

Not surprisingly, Tendulkar adapted like a champion. If he excelled with his back-foot play in Australia and South Africa, he, rightly used his front foot more in England to cope with swing. He would cover for the movement even if he did not offer a shot.

Here again, Tendulkar did not travel fully forward like he would often do on a sub-continental pitch. This was essentially to give him some leeway just in case the ball climbed off a length when the bowler hit the seam on a grassy surface.

In seaming, swinging conditions, Tendulkar would rely on defensive pushes and checked drives in the ‘V’ and would wait for the bowler to err in length before unleashing the cut and the pull. Once he settled down, Tendulkar would open out. Yet, early on, he would show the maker’s name to the bowler.

Tendulkar’s preparation complemented his technique and natural ability. His ploy to create an artificial rough outside the leg-stump and have former India leg-spinner L. Sivaramakrishnan bowl at him at nets ahead of the India-Australia home series in 1998 reflected his cricketing acumen.

When Aussie spin legend Shane Warne attempted to get his deliveries to jump off the rough from round the wicket in the Chennai Test, Tendulkar pulled him against the spin on his way to a decisive 155 not out. Here too, Tendulkar’s willow was always on top of the ball to prevent it from taking the top-edge.

In the sub-continent, Tendulkar employed the sweep effectively to unsettle the line of a bowler. He would use the reverse sweep as well, if set, in both Tests and ODIs. The point to be noted here is that when Tendulkar played leg-side shots against spinners, he would quickly get his front leg out of the way. He seldom had to go around his front pad.

And he would utilise the depth of his crease to play delicate late cuts. The ball would have almost kissed the gloves of the keeper when Tendulkar would direct it with soft hands.

Of course, Tendulkar was explosive in the ODIs, giving the bowlers the charge and forcing them to alter length. Yet, what stood out in his limited overs batting was the manner in which he used the pace of the ball.

The sight of Tendulkar guiding a lifter from the fast and furious Shoaib Akhtar over the square third man fence in the 2003 ICC World Cup game in Centurion is etched in memory.

When Tendulkar lofted, he did so with an amalgam of timing and power, getting under the ball and then providing it elevation. On the slow sub-continental tracks, the maestro used his wrists to fire the ball through the open spaces on the on-side.

Tendulkar comprehended the grammar of batting. He was a natural, and always made it look easy.