Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Tendulkar slap


This is a resounding slap across the face of West Indies cricket, the sting of which will linger for some time, certainly until July 10, the scheduled final day of India's tour of the Caribbean.

For more than two decades on the international scene, Sachin Tendulkar has let his bat do the talking. Indeed, it can be argued that his achievement of staying virtually free of major controversy for such a prolonged period in an environment where he has a god-like status and is the subject of attention for hundreds of millions - both in his private and public life is as remarkable as the runs and records compiled since he first walked out to bat for his country almost 22 years ago.

Yet his decision to opt out entirely from the West Indies tour, citing a desire to spend some time with his family after more than three months of non-stop cricket (World Cup and then Indian Premier League), while not controversial, certainly reinforces how low is the regard for the regional side as reputable opponents and a team against whom notable achievements can stand up as worthy of being considered world-class.

Think about it for a moment. Tendulkar is 38 years old, so time isn't exactly on his side, even though his appetite for the game is undiminished on the evidence of his prolific form over the past 18 months. His last Test innings in the Caribbean was nine years ago as he also missed the 2006 campaign in the West Indies, when Rahul Dravid played two of his gutsiest innings to lead his team to a series-clinching victory in the final Test in Kingston.

In ten Test matches in this part of the world, Tendulkar has just a single hundred to his credit, an innings of 117 at the Queen's Park Oval in 2002 which lifted his tally of Test centuries to 29, level then with the legendary Sir Donald Bradman. Of course, he has since raced along to establish a new and increasingly distant standard, both in Tests (51) and One-Day Internationals (48), which means that the next hundred he scores for India will be his 100th in senior international cricket, a phenomenal achievement by anyone's reckoning.

So here was the chance: three Test matches against generally inexperienced bowling on pitches in Jamaica, Barbados and Dominica that aren't exactly noted to be particularly challenging these days. It would have been like taking jelebi from a baby.

But there was obviously something missing that made India's batting maestro determine that a month in the Caribbean and the prospect of a couple really big innings was worth passing up. Maybe it was the challenge. Maybe it was the sense of occasion. Maybe it was both. To put it bluntly: milking our bowlers on the way to a 100th senior international hundred in a near-empty stadium would have been the equivalent of Barcelona defeating Manchester United on a Sunday morning at the Aranjuez Savannah with ten men and two dogs in attendance and two vagrants sleeping at the back of the pavilion.

Tendulkar's humility and soft-spoken nature should not be interpreted as evidence of the absence of an ego. Like anyone who excels to such levels and for so long, the little man from Mumbai is driven as much by an inward hunger as any flag-waving sense of patriotism. In that context, it surely does not profit him much (beyond the statistical significance, that is) to pile on the runs against the West Indies next month, in the same way that sealing a Test series victory in the second week of July will not be seen as one of the glittering achievements of the captaincy of Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Two weeks on from the final ball being bowled in Roseau though, and the picture will be very different. Full houses at Lord's, Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and The Oval, the crowds as much Indian as English, and the top-ranked Test-playing nation in the world in town to take on a home side that had vanquished Australia Down Under as never before.

Now that is motivation. That is the environment to get the pulses racing. To hear the roar of thousands as you emerge from the pavilion, to overcome the threat of Anderson, Broad, Tremlett and Swann on the way to yet another significant personal milestone while also putting your country in a strong position. Let's be honest. What is coming up over the next few weeks, as competitive as it might be, cannot compare with the sort of theatre that is being anticipated in the English summer just ahead.

It has been one of the more laudable traditions of Test cricket in the Caribbean over the decades to appreciate great deeds from visiting players as they clash with our own champions. Gupte versus Weekes, Roberts versus Gavaskar and Marshall versus Amarnath are just three of the many West Indies-India confrontations that rekindle memories of men at their very best on the field of play while the animated masses in the stands react excitedly to every thrust and parry.

That enjoyment of the contest has gradually been replaced by a narrow-minded cheering of your own, even when there has been precious little to cheer. Still, we could look forward to the doers of great deeds performing in our own backyards.

Now, as the Indians of 2011, led by their premier batsman and national icon, are showing, we're not even deserving of that privilege.