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Saturday , October 23 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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- From defecting legislators to golden batsmen

On the morning of Monday, October 11, the fate of the state government in Karnataka hung in the balance. The ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, had been asked to prove its majority in the assembly, after a clutch of its legislators had defected. The speaker had warned that he would disqualify the truant MLAs under the anti-defection law; the governor had warned the speaker that this would be an abuse of his powers.

Before the legislature met at the Vidhan Soudha that Monday morning, everybody in Bangalore knew there would be excitement, and very likely trouble too. As a resident of Karnataka and a commentator on politics, I suppose I could have stayed at home to watch the drama unfold on television. I chose instead to walk from my home towards the Vidhan Soudha. However, some 400 metres short of that destination I abruptly turned right to enter the Chinnaswamy Stadium, where another, and indubitably more appealing, drama was about to unfold.

The previous evening, I had been at the ground, watching Sachin Tendulkar make his assured way to 44 not out at stumps on the second day of the second Test match against Australia. He had come in at a difficult time, with India having lost two early wickets while facing a total of close to 500. Tendulkar eased the pressure through two fine forcing shots off the back foot, followed by a peach of a straight drive. With young Murali Vijay also playing a steady hand, India had, by close of play, brought the match back to even terms.

In the first over of the third day, Tendulkar played two late leg-glances to get to his half-century. Then he hit two lusty pulls off Mitchell Johnson, Australia’s fastest bowler, and a man reckless enough to announce before the series began that the Indians were suspect against the short ball. After these four shots, the fielding captain, Ricky Ponting, went immediately on the defensive. The bowlers were instructed to bowl wide outside the off stump. Tendulkar still found a way to reach the extra-cover fence twice. More fielders were sent out to patrol the boundary. The scoring rate slowed down, with the Indians content with singles and the occasional two.

Australia needed to win the match to square the series. To stem the runs was not enough. Wickets had to be taken. Ponting thus eventually called upon his sole spinner, Nathan Hauritz, to take advantage of a wearing wicket. That, at any rate, was the theory, to be decisively refuted by three strokes by Tendulkar, an off drive and two sixes over long on, the last bringing up his 49th Test century.

Shortly after Tendulkar hit Hauritz for his second six, lunch was taken. There was a buzz around the ground, and in the Press Box (where I sat), as we all took stock of this latest landmark. Tendulkar was now 10 centuries clear of Ricky Ponting, 15 in front of the next Indian on the list, Sunil Gavaskar, and 20 more than the man commonly considered to be the greatest batsman in the history of the game, Donald Bradman.

As the afternoon wore on, and Tendulkar further wore down the Australian bowlers, the talk turned to comparing Sachin to his great Australian rival, to his great Indian predecessor, and to the Don himself. I asked the experienced Mumbai journalist, Makarand Waigankar, to reflect on Sachin Tendulkar’s precise location in the Bombay School of Batsmanship. He explained how, like Gavaskar, Tendulkar had his talents recognized early, by the scouts sent to study school cricket; how, like Gavaskar, he was fanatically committed to long hours at the nets; and how, like Gavaskar, he was as keen to score runs for Bombay in the Ranji Trophy as for India in Tests. Having situated him historically, Waigankar nonetheless affirmed that in his range of stroke play and the sheer bulk of his achievement, Tendulkar comfortably surpassed the achievements of Gavaskar, and of other outstanding Bombay batsmen (such as Vijay Manjrekar and Vijay Merchant) who had preceded him.

In between overs, and during the drinks and tea breaks, I spoke also to Peter Roebuck, the former English first-class cricketer who now makes his home in Australia, and whose columns appear in newspapers published in at least four continents. Having watched at least 15 Test hundreds by Tendulkar as they unfolded, Roebuck wondered how he would write about this particular innings. “Each made by the same man, but each, of course, constructed so differently,” he reflected. He then spoke of what Tendulkar’s innings meant to Murali Vijay, watching from the other end. Was this not the best lesson in batsmanship the young man could or would receive?

The conversation then turned to Tendulkar’s contemporary, the Australian captain on the day. Roebuck and I discussed whether Ponting was to Tendulkar what Walter Hammond had once been to Don Bradman; a truly great batsman forever condemned by the accident of birth to live (and play) in the shadow of an even greater one.

My immediate neighbour in the Press Box also had plenty of things to say about Tendulkar. This was Suresh Menon, who is arguably the finest Indian cricket writer of his generation. Menon had covered Tendulkar’s first tour, in Pakistan in 1989, where he had watched him being hit on the mouth by Waqar Younis — and battle on regardless — and strike Abdul Qadir for several straight sixes. His abiding memory of that tour was of a peculiar complaint of the team manager, the old Indian cricketer, Chandu Borde. Borde had been assigned a hotel room immediately under Tendulkar’s, and had been woken up at dawn each day by the boy knocking practice balls on the floor of his room.

Menon and I compared Tendulkar to Donald Bradman. At 99 plus, Bradman’s average is some 40 points higher. He scored 29 hundreds in a mere 52 Tests, whereas Tendulkar’s 49 have come in 171 Tests. In narrow statistical terms, the Australian has a clear edge. But, as Menon pointed out, Bradman played only in England and in Australia, and in ten Test grounds in all. Tendulkar has played international cricket in as many as eight countries, and in more than 70 different venues. Where Bradman played only Test cricket, Tendulkar has also been supremely successful in the one-day game. Altogether, he has had to adapt to, and master, very many more situations than Bradman. The stresses and strains of international cricket are also far more acute than they were in the 1930s or 1940s. All things considered, in the history of the game the two men must be placed together, at par with each other.

As we spoke, Tendulkar marched serenely on. At close of play, he was just nine runs short of his double hundred. I learnt from the next day’s papers that the last stages of his innings had been watched by, among others, the leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka state assembly, the Congress politician, A. Siddaramiah. That morning, Siddaramiah had gone to work hoping that the BJP government would be voted out, and that he would stake a claim to be chief minister. The plan was foiled when, with the aid of the police, the speaker enforced his decision to disqualify the defecting legislators. The decision was being challenged in the high court for the moment; however, the Congress and its allies would not form a new government. The thwarted leader now chose to leave for the Chinnaswamy Stadium, where, since Tendulkar was still at the crease, he knew he would find pleasure — and consolation.

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