Stalking Sachin

It's only when you're closest to greatness that you realise how far you really are.

I am two feet behind Sachin Tendulkar as he takes guard. Considering my flailing career and our sexual orientation, this is possibly the closest I will get to the great man.

This is Tendulkar’s second day at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. The first – Independence Day – passed without incident as the closed holiday somewhat smothered news of him landing in the city.

Today is different. There is a junior selection trial camp in progress, which has been consensually interrupted as young cricketers drop whatever is it they’re doing to catch Tendulkar at what he does best.

Tendulkar has been vacationing in Europe for the past two months, and the holiday – notwithstanding the toll on fitness such jaunts usually foster – appears to have done him a world of good. The 39-year-old looks leaner than ever, as eager to get to the middle as he ever was.

It also helps that the beacon of Indian cricket has opted out of the straight-hair look, the one that appeared like greased fettuccine slithering lasciviously on either side of a meticulously maintained partition.

Tendulkar’s latest look is that of an unruly heath and a shock of wild curls – threatening to evolve into a full-blown Afro with another few weeks of spa-assisted neglect – sway with his each step, before they’re unceremoniously jacketed into a helmet. The Rajya Sabha member now bears a striking similarity to a widely-circulated childhood photograph of his, one that shows him holding a bat, curls erupting from the pate like coiled snakes.

So, here I am, 24 inches behind the little master, as he walks around the crease, grabs his crotch, tugs at his pads, searching for that perfect alliance between man and equipment, one which he has attained almost unfailingly at will for the last 20 years.

Zaheer Khan, Tendulkar’s former partner in follicular crime, hurls the first ball – a loosener that dribbles down the legside and which the maestro wants nothing to do with. David Mathias, a hulking 21-year-old Karnataka fast bowler who has been branded a prospect, steams in next. Mathias is dispatched immediately through what would have been cover were the nets not in place.

A gangly seamer with an action reminiscent of Gladstone Small with a neck is spraying the ball all over the place. Tendulkar walks up to him and has a word, leaving the young bowler, one would assume, quaking in his boots.

Watching the session from right behind the batsman is not a revelation – one already knows about the solidity of Tendulkar’s balance, the economy in his movement, the symmetry of his actions, the unwavering nature of his focus – and yet the experience is an elevating one for reasons beyond cognition.

This display of perfection is not lost on the crowd of aspiring cricketers who are truly enraptured by the sight, albeit from a fair distance because Tendulkar has apparently grumbled to one of the office bearers about the ‘noise factor’ jarring his tantric reverie at the crease. A tidy left-arm spinner seems to be testing the maestro the most, ‘testing’ in this case strictly signifying that not all balls are being met with a boundary shot.

Zaheer has now warmed up sufficiently and, with a stiff breeze slanting across the pitch, is moving the ball alarmingly. One such away mover accounts for the great man as he drops back for the cut, but ends up edging the ball. Zaheer grins. Tendulkar doesn’t. The next delivery by the left-arm fast bowler is hit ferociously past him, all the way to the far end of the ground. Now it’s Tendulkar’s turn to smile. The grin is only likely to broaden once New Zealand arrives for the two-Test series.