The story of the Australian tour from an Indian point of view isnít Australiaís run at seventeen wins in a row or the mock-epic stand-off after the Sydney Test. No, the real story of the last year, of which this tour Down Under is a part, is Sachin Tendulkarís remarkable bid for immortality.
Till this last year (and in particular this, unfinished, Australian tour), a summary description of Tendulkarís career might have read like this: he was one of the great batsmen of the 20th century, who plateaued and then declined into a merely good batsman in the 21st.
This is the start of 2008; itís hard to believe, but next year in November, Tendulkar will have been a Test batsman for twenty years. Gavaskar had sixteen years at the top; so did Dilip Vengsarkar. Mohinder Amarnath had eighteen, but his was an interrupted career. In terms of longevity, no one else comes close. Of the three, only Gavaskar can sustain the comparison. Gavaskar and Tendulkar are Indian cricketís greatest batsmen, and one of Gavaskarís claims to greatness was that he retired from cricket on a high: his last innings was that great 96 against Pakistan in Bangalore, on a track that was turning square. He followed that up with a big hundred at Lords playing for the Rest of the World in 1987 and called it a day. So our sense of Gavaskarís career is one of unwavering skill at a remarkably high level of performance.
This isnít how the trajectory of Tendulkarís career was viewed till recently. The first decade of his career was his time of greatness. It encompassed both his time as a child prodigy dazzling the world in Perth and elsewhere and the pomp of his maturity in the late Nineties when he took bowling attacks with such relentless intent that Bradman was moved to anoint him as his heir. But as his second decade unfolded, it was hard not to feel that while greatness had been achieved, the promise of immortality had been belied.
This is not to argue that Tendulkar in the 21st century was an inconsiderable batsman. He scored lots of runs, hit substantial hundreds, played match-saving, sometimes match-winning innings. But something had changed, the spark that made him not just a very good consistent batsman (a Kallis, say), but a magical one, who was impregnable and overwhelming at once, seemed to have been extinguished.
The moment that marked that transformation from genius to journeyman for me wasnít a failed innings but a successful one: the match-winning hundred Tendulkar made in the Madras Test of 2001. It was the deciding Test of that extraordinary series against Steve Waughís men. India and Australia had shared the first two Tests, thanks to Harbhajanís heroics and Laxmanís sublime double hundred. Laxman scored a pair of lovely sixties at Chepauk, but the decisive innings was Tendulkarís. It was a dour, unlovely hundred made to look even more earthbound by Laxmanís unearthly cameos, and it signalled the arrival of a utilitarian Tendulkar.
Utilitarian because where once Tendulkarís innings had seemed a form of self-expression, he now began to play to purpose. The way he spoke about his batting changed: his refrain became the need to play to the needs of the team, almost as if he was a craftsman working on commission. Part of this was defensive: as it became evident that he wasnít imposing himself on the bowling any more, people began to ask where the Warne-annihilating persona was hiding. Tendulkar answered this chorus by saying two related things: a) no batsman could play the same way through a long career, and b) as he had grown into the senior pro of the team, his role had changed in a way that required a more responsible style.
This explanation of late-period Tendulkar suggested a batsman using his formidable skills to adapt to circumstances instead of bending circumstances to his will as he had done in the first half of his career. Even his big innings in this century seemed to bear witness to a once-great batsman adapting magnificently to the physical toll of a long career.
Take his double century at the SCG in the last Test of Indiaís previous tour of Australia. It was a crucial innings that allowed the Indians to press for a victory that eventually eluded them, but thatís not why we remember it. We remember it for its freakish aspect: Tendulkar scored 241 runs without once driving through the off-side. He had suffered a string of dismissals trying to drive through cover, so he just put away the shot and worked everything through the onside. Tendulkarís signature shot through his career had been that cover drive hit off the backfoot standing on tiptoe and he was showing the world that he could limit his repertoire and thrive.
But the change in style was also accompanied by a secular decline in both his batting average and the frequency of his centuries. These things are relative: Tendulkarís Ďdeclineí would constitute success for the merely very good. From the very high fifties, the average dipped to under fifty-five. At the same time the achievements of other batsmen eclipsed Tendulkarís efforts.
Brian Lara reversed a slump that saw his average plunge into the forties and salvaged his reputation by dragging it up into the fifties as he ended his career in a blaze of brilliance, and Pontingís career-graph seemed to be the opposite of Tendulkarís: he raised his game to such heights in the second half of his career that there were seasons when his results were Bradmanesque. A new generation of batsmen led by Mike Hussey and Kumar Sangakkara produced passages of such consistency and flair that they made Tendulkar look grizzled and tentative.
Then, in 2007, Tendulkar began his bid to rehabilitate himself. In South Africa, in Bangladesh, in England, in India and finally in this series in Australia, he emerged from the cocoon of conservative caution that had marked his batsmanship for more than five years and gave himself permission to play the whole Tendulkar repertoire. The results were mixed: 2007 was a decent year, not an annus mirabilis: some seven hundred runs with a clutch of fifties and a couple of centuries against Bangladesh. Itís real importance is only now becoming apparent: as a run-up to his tour of Australia.
He has hit two fifties and a big, unbeaten 150 in five innings against the best team in the world aggressively seeking a record sequence of Test wins. This would be reassuring in itself for Tendulkar, when you consider that his last century against respectable opposition came in 2005. But the real significance of this brief Australian purple patch has been the manner in which he has scored his runs. For the first time in years, he has played with intent and without inhibition. Every shot from the paddle sweep to the off-side force off the backfoot, to the pull and the improvised upper-cut, has been taken out of storage and played. He has taken the fight to the Australians, on and off the field. I donít think itís a coincidence that after the ugly Sydney Test, it was Tendulkar who forced the Harbhajan issue and compelled Sharad Pawar to stand up for him.
Having put the mirage of captaincy firmly behind him, Tendulkar has stepped into the role he should have claimed years ago: not the senior pro of the Indian team (thatís for lesser men) but its ťminence grise, its elder statesman. The way he is batting in Australia, that part will be his to play for years yet, at the end of which he might well stand on the pedestal that Bradman chose for him and that Cricket reserves for its durable geniuses.