Pic­ture this: A gen­uine fast bowler stream­ing in from the top of his run-up. Tall, big-built, face cov­ered in white paint; his hands and legs mov­ing in rhythm as he gains in pace with ev­ery stride. It’s a sight that of­ten keeps bats­men awake the night be­fore a Test match, shud­der­ing at the prospect of what they will face the next morn­ing.

Now pic­ture Sachin Ten­dulkar at the crease. His crouching five-foot-five frame look­ing even smaller. His bat aligned with the off-stump. His gen­tle eyes peer­ing from be­hind the vi­sor. It’s a won­der how this be­nign vi­sion has turned out to be the most fear­some im­age for bowlers around the world for more than two decades.

What is it that makes Sachin such a huge prob­lem to tackle? How did bowlers ap­proach a match know­ing they would come up against his straight drives, his hor­i­zon­tal bat strokes, and his silken flicks? How hard, re­ally, was it to bowl to him?

Waqar You­nis, who had fa­mously struck Sachin on the face with a bouncer in the fourth Test of his de­but se­ries at Sialkot, says the oft-re­counted in­ci­dent only tells a frac­tion of the story. “First, I don’t think the ball hit him as hard as it’s been por­trayed. I was bowl­ing at around 145 kmph but it went off the glove be­fore it struck him. He went down, we had a chat, shook hands, and he was up in a

minute, ready to play the next de­liv­ery,” the for­mer Pak­istan cap­tain told IN­DIA TO­DAY.

The episode, Waqar says, turned out to be an aber­ra­tion. The 16-year-old boy they had first heard about from Ajay Jadeja dur­ing In­dia’s un­der-19 trip of Pak­istan just be­fore the 1989 tour, didn’t al­low him­self to be dom­i­nated ever again. “I re­mem­ber we didn’t think too much when we had our first team meet­ing. There were other im­por­tant guys to worry about: Kr­ish­na­machari Srikkanth, Mo­ham­mad Azharud­din, Kapil Dev and Manoj Prab­hakar. By the end of the trip, his im­age within our team had changed en­tirely.”

Over the next few years, as In­dia and Pak­istan started play­ing one-day cricket on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, all talk in the Pak­istani dress­ing room would be about how to counter Sachin. “We’d re­alised that if we didn’t get him out in his first few overs at the crease, he could do a great deal of dam­age.”

Waqar says that Sachin had no par­tic­u­lar chink in his ar­mour to be­gin with, and his tech­nique got only bet­ter with time. “As a fast bowler, you set a bats­man up, bowl dif­fer­ent de­liv­er­ies in a pat­tern, and then in­duce him into a false shot. Sachin was much bet­ter than any other bats­man I’ve bowled to at read­ing that pat­tern. But I al­ways felt that more than any other de­liv­ery, he was slightly vul­ner­a­ble to the ball com­ing into him at good pace early on in his in­nings.”

Al­lan Don­ald, another great fast bowler of the 1990s, had heard so much about Sachin’s prow­ess be­fore In­dia’s tour of South Africa in 1997 that he turned to West Indies pace­men Curtly Am­brose and Court­ney Walsh, who had got Sachin out LBW on a few oc­ca­sions, for help. “Gen­er­ally fast bowlers don’t give away their se­crets, but they knew what I was up against, and were nice enough to talk to me about Sachin,” he says. Am­brose and Walsh told Don­ald to bowl fuller and make him play a ma­jor­ity of the de­liv­er­ies early on in his in­nings. They said that he just sits pretty at his crease and leaves the balls he doesn’t need to touch. “They sug­gested I bowl full and slant­ing in from out­side the off-stump,” says Don­ald. The ploy worked, but only on oc­ca­sion, con­sid­er­ing that Sachin got a big cen­tury in the se­ries. Don­ald dis­missed him just once in three Tests.

As Sachin’s ca­reer pro­gressed at an as­ton­ish­ing pace around the mid-1990s, the hard­est thing was how to pre­pare against him. Pak­istan’s Shoaib Akhtar, who be­gan his Test ca­reer in dra­matic fash­ion by dis­miss­ing Rahul Dravid and Sachin off suc­ces­sive de­liv­er­ies in 1999, says he knew he needed to treat Sachin dif­fer­ently from all other play­ers. “I never sledged him while he bat­ted against me. There are some play­ers who are bet­ter off left alone. Play­ers like Sachin will only hit back harder.”

Akhtar says he has no qualms in ad­mit­ting that most of his plans against Sachin fell through. “I would think that if I bowled like this, he will play like that, and then I will stand a chance. At the 2003 World Cup, I tried to bowl short out­side the off think­ing he would pull me. In­stead, he de­cided to cut me over point for six. It was a shot that made me fa­mous,” Shoaib laughs. “Then I de­cided to bowl at his body, and he flicked me away. I bowled full to him and re­versed the ball, he drove straight.” That’s how he un­set­tled most bowlers.

Jav­a­gal Sri­nath, who has bowled to Sachin per­haps more than any other bowler in the nets and in do­mes­tic cricket, says the only prepa­ra­tion you could do against Sachin was to en­sure your mind was al­ways tick­ing. If you had a set plan, he would al­ways out­smart you. If you didn’t have a counter, he would run away with the game. “From my ex­pe­ri­ence, I can re­mem­ber only Fanie de Vil­liers, the South African fast bowler, who could think one step ahead of Sachin and beat him reg­u­larly,” Sri­nath says.

The In­dian quick, who shared the dress­ing room with Sachin for more than a decade, says Sachin knew the bowlers’ tricks so well that he would keep­ing telling bats­man at the other end what the bowler would do next. “He would say, ‘ Ab yeh upar dalega (Now he will pitch it up)’ or ‘ Thoda chota marega (The next one will be a lit­tle short)’. He would be right 90 per cent of the time,” says Sri­nath.

There is no doubt that Sachin had his flaws. But it was his abil­ity to iron them out that kept him one step ahead. Dur­ing In­dia’s tour of Aus­tralia in 2003-04, he of­fered the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of this qual­ity by scor­ing 241 runs in Syd­ney by cut­ting out the cover-drive com­pletely from his reper­toire. That’s what the art of bat­ting is all about—play­ing to your strengths and min­imis­ing your weak­nesses. That’s what let a tiny lit­tle man tower over the world of cricket for as long as Sachin has done.

Photographs by WAQAR YOU­NIS



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