October 12, 2013, 01:29:09
It was an early March morning and I was still in pain from being hit by a water-filled balloon the previous evening.
Without going into the specifics, that hard, balloon-dunk from an over-zealous friend had left me faint for a while and ensured I would be spending the next day, the day of the auspicious Indian festival Holi, at home.
It wasn’t a great feeling for a 12-year-old, to be holed up at home despite wanting to be out with mates to be a part of the celebrations. In the end though, it turned out well.
My non-celebration of Holi was, instead, ‘compensated’ by being allowed to wake up early to watch an ODI between New Zealand and India – because of the time difference, I remember hopping out of the bed at three am which was stretching the limits in a rather strict household – and until date, I haven’t regretted it.
New Zealand batted first and never got going, ending up with a sub-150 score. It wasn’t a challenging total but those were the days when batting in New Zealand wasn’t easy because of the nature of their pitches and India were devoid of their current, confident bunch.
They were shaky chasers and an early wicket or two would invariably send Indian fans in a tizzy.
Those were also days when Sachin Tendulkar hadn’t started opening the Indian innings.
He had played in 70 ODIs until then and averaged roughly 31 in that format. A modest average but hardly one that would describe a champion batsman.
It would change that day.
That day, when I was struggling with the after-effects of being hit on my head, there was another Indian who had his own set of fitness issues and like me, he was grounded.
Navjot Singh Sidhu, now more known for his oratory histrionics behind the microphone, was the Indian opener but he had woken up to a back spasm and news had filtered in that Tendulkar would be replacing him at the top.
Now that memory is a tad hazy and I don’t quite remember what I thought of the move at that point but the one comparison that did spring to mind was of a similar decision that the Indian management had taken with Kapil Dev but quickly shelved it after he did not succeed as an opener.
The Tendulkar experiment gave different results.
He bludgeoned the Kiwi bowlers that morning.
He shred them to pieces and hung them to dry and I remember being very, very enthralled by the sheer ease with which he was doing it even as every other batsman at the other end, struggled to come to grips with the obviously difficult pitch.
As I look back at the scorecard of that game, I see an 18 off 25, a 21 off 30, a 12 off 17 and a 7 off 20 from the other Indian batsmen.
And I also see Tendulkar’s 82 off 49, a knock that, in many ways, changed the way Tendulkar played his cricket in the shorter format of the game.
Till then, his innings at the WACA and Sydney in the Test match arena had stood out, but a few unfortunate souls like me did not have the live videos of those games on TV.
Not on the channels I had on my TV for sure given cable TV was only just starting out in the country. I had only heard them on radio.
Rather sadly for Tendulkar that day, much like was the case on his first tour of New Zealand, he fell in the 80s, thereby missing a chance to score his first ODI century.
In 1990, he was batting on 80 overnight in a Test match in New Zealand and after hitting a couple of boundaries, was dismissed 12 short of making his maiden century in the five-day format, at the age of 17. They say he cried that day.
In 1994, he sure made the New Zealand bowlers weep despite falling short of his century.
Getting back to this New Zealand game, this was not only one that established Tendulkar firmly at the top of the ODI order – until captain Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappell displaced him from that spot ‘for the sake of the team’ – but also carved out a demi-god-like status in many of the Indians, me included.
Years rolled on and I soon had likes of Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ganguly and later even VVS Laxman to choose from as my hero, and given how much my own batting style was remotely modelled around Dravid’s – in that I loved to block, block, block for hours without scoring any runs! – I chose him over the rest. For that same reason, incidentally, I also liked Steve Waugh.
I had my own set of cricketing arguments with friends as a teenager, the Tendulkar versus Lara ones, the Waugh versus Tendulkar ones and even Michael Bevan versus Tendulkar, but his sheer consistency at excellence wore every of those debates down.
I remember a friend telling me once at the end of one such argument; Bevan may be better than Tendulkar in ODIs (in those days) and Waugh may be better than him in Tests (for a brief period), but let me tell you he’s the best across formats.
Coming from a huge Tendulkar fan like him, this admission followed by obvious praise, made me stop in my tracks for a bit.
Yep, there was no doubting that Tendulkar’s biggest asset then as a batsman was the ease with which he adapted to the different formats and maintained his superior batsmanship.
Even for a superb technician like Dravid, it took years of work, both in the nets and on the mental aspect of his game, to get to a level where he was an integral part of the ODI squad – and one of the best – but that came so naturally to Tendulkar.
There’s one other lasting memory of Tendulkar. And it came against Australia in a 2000 Champions Trophy game (or the mini World Cup as it was then called).
Glenn McGrath and Tendulkar had faced off many times at the international level and it had made for some fascinating battles between these two players of very similar pedigree.
The one quality that Tendulkar always possessed was his ability to not allow any kind of lip service affect him during match-ups.
McGrath, for some reason, seemed to have gotten under his skin a little those days and kept chirping away at him in that game.
He probably wanted to remind him how badly things had gone for Tendulkar and the team earlier in the year, when India toured Australia and lost all their games – Tests and ODIs included – to the hosts.
Tendulkar had been the captain on that tour and had to step down following the abysmal results.
For one of the first times in my cricket-watching career – and probably the last – I saw Tendulkar mouth off an expletive back at McGrath.
Then, he went on to play one of the most underrated knocks he would have in his career, an explosive 38 that saw him take on McGrath in a calculated assault and lay a foundation for the rest of the batsmen to take over.
It’s not quite often one can say this, but McGrath looked rattled after that dual assault – both off the bat and verbally – and he backed off pretty soon and ended with figures of 0/61 in his nine overs. Those, statistically, are his worst figures in ODI cricket.
To the critics, the Indian team was often known as a highly talented, but a tad soft when the things were not going their way.
This particular gesture was a sign of things to come, probably brought on by their new captain Ganguly and executed to perfection by a trustworthy lieutenant.
It wouldn’t have taken me by surprise had he hung up his boots from all forms two years ago. As a sportsman, one does get to an age where it’s only inevitable the ends comes by sooner rather than later and it was never going to be different with Tendulkar.
Even now, take the emotions out of the equation and most fans would have known he was on the verge of an end.
The ODIs were out of the way, he had already bid adieu to the IPL and the Champions League t20 and it was going to be a matter of time before he walked off from Tests too.
I was surprised because after he had quit from all the other formats of the game, one would have thought he would continue in the five-day form of the game. At least take on Dale Steyn and co. when (and if) India tours South Africa later in the year.
Unfortunately for many, that one last battle, Tendulkar versus Steyn, would never happen. And that I think is one of the very few minor regrets I have from Tendulkar’s career as a cricketer. It was a fulfilling one.