When a callow teenager wields the willow like a mature batsman, people sit up and watch. This is exactly what happened when Sachin Tendulkar first put bat to ball in a Test match. There was no doubt from the moment he hit his first scoring shot, that a genius had come on to the cricket pitch. It has come as a surprise to no cricket lover that he is now the highest run-getter in Test cricket. Many would argue that even before he was anywhere near this remarkable statistical milestone, he had earned for himself the ultimate accolade. The great Don Bradman had said that Tendulkar reminded him of the way he himself had batted. Tendulkar was then still in his twenties, and the Don had picked him as the one who approximated to his own unique form of batsmanship. Tendulkar’s name can, without any controversy, be put on the list of batting legends that begins with the name of the grand old man of cricket — W.G. Grace, who, according to another batting legend, Ranji, transformed the “the single instrument of batsmanship into a many-chorded lyre”. Tendulkar, with no undue modesty, can claim to have added a few more strings to that lyre.
Tendulkar is great because his batsmanship is based on solid foundations. There are no solecisms in his batting. The head is held still. The bat comes down straight. When playing forward, his left foot is always to the pitch of the ball, and there is no gap between bad and pad. When playing back, he goes right back, with the right foot across. The errors are rare and minimal; this is one reason why most of the time he is beaten or dismissed by genuinely good deliveries. His judgment of length and line is flawless: he is never caught half-cock and is seldom seen probing in that no-man’s land outside the off stump. His defence is faultless and almost impenetrable. But his greatness becomes evident when he flows into stroke-making. The drive through the covers with the head beautifully poised, the front foot pointing towards mid off and a complete follow through — these technical perfections topped by perfect placement with the use of the wrist — is the connoisseur’s delight. No other batsman — not even Sunil Gavaskar or Vivian Richards — played the straight drive to such perfection as Tendulkar, and he plays it off the back foot and the front foot, off quickies and spinners, along the ground and lofted over the bowler’s head with aplomb. The use of a very heavy bat somewhat restricts Tendulkar’s use of the hook and the pull, but his on-side stroke production, with its drives and flicks, is always exquisite.
The world of cricket is a world by itself, and within it the badge of greatness recognizes no national identities. Yet Indians have special reasons to be proud of Tendulkar. His achievement allows Indians to hold their head high. At a time when politics divides and economics depresses, Tendulkar at the top of the run-getters in Test cricket is an occasion for combined and united celebration. The time is not too far away, alas, when the maestro will have to lift his bat and bid adieu. Till he does that, the magic of Tendulkar’s willow will charm cricket lovers and destroy bowlers.