A fine balance

Footwork, judgement, simplicity, above all, perfection in practice—the things that made Tendulkar a special batsman.

8 Jun 1996: Tendulkar brings up his Edgbaston hundred.

The year was 1996, the venue was Edgbaston in Birmingham, and I was there. England won that game by eight wickets, and it was a low-scoring affair, too. However, the reason I, and many others, remember that game is the way Sachin Tendulkar set about the hapless English bowlers in the second innings. On a fourth-innings pitch that offered everything and more to the seamers, and made the ball seam and swing, Sachin single-handedly took the fight out of a marauding Chris Lewis. Of the team score of 219, he made 122. The second highest scorer was Sanjay Manjrekar, with 18.

The discipline and focus required for an innings of such calibre are perhaps at odds with flair and aggression, yet Sachin displayed plenty of both. What struck us all was his complete fearlessness in the face of a hostile bowling attack with blood on their mind, and his refusal to call it a day, even as his fellows departed in a steady procession from the other end. That temperament, I believe, can only belong to someone whose technique makes him well-nigh invincible, should he so choose. It is the approach of someone who has visited, and conquered, weaknesses that have felled many lesser players.

I have seen so much of Sachin over the years that I now find it impossible to pick and choose my 'Sachin moments'. To give a random example, I recall him getting ready to tackle Shane Warne during an Australian tour of India. Conventional wisdom would dictate that Indian batsmen get ready to counter Australian pace, given the state of things, but conventional wisdom would be wrong. What sense does it make to plan for pace when the pitches support spin? Sachin was perhaps the only member of the team who understood that. And he took the trouble to ask Laxman Sivaramakrishnan to bowl at him, round the wicket, into the bowlers' rough. The results are history, cliches be damned.

I remember that practice session largely because it impressed upon me Sachin's unorthodox intelligence. Here was a batsman who had spotted a possible loophole and was working on it. He wasn't going through the motions as many do, no matter how hard they practise. Practice alone does not make you perfect. Only perfect practice makes you perfect. If you're practising the wrong things, you are merely getting better at being wrong. For the greater part of his career, Sachin has displayed this uncanny ability to practise right. And that has translated into footwork that is a coaching manual's joy. If you ignore the bumpy ride of the past year and a half-and you should because that was simply nature doing its job—I have never seen him put a foot wrong. Like a well-trained dancer, Sachin has, time after time, got into the best position to play a shot. That's because, as I was telling British Prime Minister David Cameron recently, you need to get your feet set first. The arms and hands simply follow.

As the Warne duels showed us, practice alone won't make you perfect—but perfect practice does. In Sachin's case, the footwork becomes even more important because, like Sunny Gavaskar, he is a small man. And small batsmen take smaller strides when they play forward. If your footwork isn't right, and your step is just about a foot and a half and you are too far away from the pitch of the ball, the outcome can be fatal, not least because you're caught at the crease and rooted to the spot. During his best time, which was pretty much all the time barring the past 18-odd months, I have never seen Sachin caught at the crease. Ever. But those feet have finally stopped moving as well as they should, I feel. And that's what time is all about, isn't it?

The other aspect of Sachin's technique that has always delighted me is his judgement of length. I probably do not need to explain this, but we've seen so many players play back when they should be playing forward, and vice versa, that this bears repetition. Even a player of the calibre of Mahendra Singh Dhoni nicked one to the wicketkeeper during the recent Kolkata Test against the West Indies because he stayed back instead of coming forward. That isn't something you would normally associate with Sachin. The lad just possesses a sublime sense of length. And that's all, really. Footwork and judgement of length. These are, or ought to be, the basics of any good batsman's technique and the beauty of Sachin's game has always been that he has kept things simple.

This is largely what has allowed him to play any kind of bowling on any kind of pitch. This is also what allows him to play those perfect drives, cuts and pulls with minimal expenditure of energy. That economy of movement comes from hours upon hours of dedicated practice, whereby perfectly orthodox technique wins over on-the-spot, sometimes desperate, innovation, every time.

For anyone who cared to notice, Sachin's feet were always aligned wicket to wicket, bat perfectly in line with the off stump, the back-lift enabling the release of the bat and a cocking of the wrists. The fact that he hits with such power can be attributed to the perfect transfer of weight as well as the release of his wrists at the top of his bat swing.

You can also sense that there is a definite plan behind each and every innings, that technique is subservient to Sachin's assessment of the game, and that he isn't using technique simply for the sake of it. While this may not be actually possible, he gives the impression that he has thought every innings through, prepared for every ball, studied every individual bowler, and conducted a personal risk assessment for every shot. All of which make him a game controller, and a game changer on occasion.

There is no shame in the gradual decline that Sachin has been going through. And I completely understand his desire to continue to play. Through all the ups and downs, Sachin Tendulkar has never stopped enjoying himself. And now that he has finally called it a day, the judgement, as usual, is perfect.

Geoffrey Boycott is a former English Test captain who has followed Sachin's career as a leading commentator. Reproduced From India Today. © 2013. LMIL. All rights reserved.

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