Mumbai: From 2008 to April 2011, when the ball was pitched full and the drives were flowing, any error in line was met with a fierce cut or an elegant flick. It was a period when Sachin Tendulkar was at his best.
It was only natural that he was expected to carry on in the same vein when he returned from a break after the World Cup win at home. He had raced away to 99 hundreds then. When he didn't get runs in a flood, it was blamed on the pressure of the 100th hundred.
For those who had thought the floodgates would open after he finally got to the mark in March this year, they have been surprised that it hasn't.
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After all, the Kiwis should have been easy meat for the man with 100 hundreds.
Returns of 19, 17 and 27 have been a puzzle. At 39, scrutiny is inevitable as everyone is looking for signs of ageing, especially when he remains the only player of his era who is still playing at the top level.
However, it is early to jump to the conclusion that his meagre return of 67 runs in three innings is about slowing reflexes. To give him the benefit of doubt, the manner of his three dismissals looked a case of technical issues caused by rustiness which can happen at the start of the season. Most of the players in the India versus New Zealand series came with a series behind them (the Kiwis versus the West Indies and the Men in Blue vs Sri Lanka), Tendulkar was playing after the Indian Premier League, which meant an almost three-month gap.
In every innings, a batsman, like a tennis player, subconsciously ends up making small changes in his game like grip, back-lift, which can be ironed out as you spend more time in the middle.
Tendulkar is guilty of committing the same mistake twice. Last season too he went straight into the England series without any match time under his belt and he did the same this season.
Hence, it's his next four innings against England which should provide a clear indication of the cause, whether the poor return is due to ageing or rustiness.
It's a tricky situation for Tendulkar. At his age, he has to get the balance right and the amount of load he can put on his body. At the same time, he will need to spend enough time in the middle to get into rhythm and be at the top of his game.
In preparing for the season-opening series, he had intense training sessions for a month at the Mumbai Cricket Association's indoor academy at Bandra and the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore.
But he will vouch that to get into the right frame of mind, the bowling machines and net practice cannot replicate the experience of facing a bowler with a slip cordon in place.
It's where you get the shot selection right.
Rustiness again will be the challenge before his next assignment. Except the Champions League Twenty20, he hardly gets to play any cricket before the England series in mid-November.
At 39, age is a factor, and from a great player he's been reduced to a good player. He will not dominate a pace attack like he did against Australia at Perth or South Africa at Newlands in the 1990s. But he could be an effective contributor with the bat while adding value to the dressing room by helping the team tide over the transition phase.'