The choosy patriot

How are Tendulkar's selective appearances helping rebuild the Indian team?

Tendulkar has opted out of another tour, again.

For a fortnight, players of the Indian team have been arriving at Bangalore’s National Cricket Academy one by one. They’re here to shed holiday flab and get ready for the arduous cricket schedule ahead. One player not expected for the training sessions was Sachin Tendulkar, who, having completed his hundredth hundred and appearing for Mumbai Indians in IPL, was vacationing. This hinted at his possible sitting out of the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka.

On Wednesday, announcing the Indian squad for the tour, chairman of selectors Krishnamachari Srikkanth said, “Sachin is not available (for selection). He must be aiming for the England and Australia series later this season.” Since Srikkanth didn’t mention any health issues, it can be safely assumed Tendulkar is fit, but wants to extend his break. Although he is expected to play New Zealand in a home series in August, a trip to the Emerald Isle, it appears, ranks below IPL duties for the little master.

Now that he has skipped the tour, let’s recall what Sachin had said in one of his many interviews after completing his century of centuries: “I feel when I am batting well, it is important that I continue to serve the country and not give up. It is extremely selfish to suggest that I should give up when I am doing well. That’s the time to serve the country. And when I am not doing well and am unable to serve India, I will stand down and give it all up.”

Another aspect that begs discussion is Tendulkar’s unwillingness to give up his batting positions. The above quote is taken in its entirety, leaving no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Tendulkar had said this in response to a question about the possibility of his retirement. It was a valid query. He’d been through a full year in search of an elusive hundred. Days passed, failures piled up and — by his own admission — frustration grew. He can’t say he was “doing well” in this period.

Tendulkar then played the tri-series in Australia — a myopic decision that was deservedly criticised. And when he failed to cross fifty in that tournament, he played on in the Asia Cup, still on a quest for the mother of all centuries. Consequently, two opportunities to groom a young batsman were missed. Tendulkar insisted he wasn’t in it for records. But the moment the milestone was reached, he proceeded to celebrate it – somewhat defiantly – with a succession of media events, accepting praises with practised modesty.

The quality of that hundred against Bangladesh, and what it cost India, has been discussed elsewhere. Yes, he batted slowly. Yes, the bowlers bowled badly. Yes, India lost. We needn’t bring that up again. The point of interest now is the clever patriotic spin Tendulkar gave to the achievement when he said he wants to serve the country when on top.

Never mind that he had limped to the milestone. Tendulkar said the hundred was a gentle reminder to his critics that he was still around — and he emphasised that he will be around. “When I retire is something I will decide because when I started it was not decided by someone else,” he said.

There are two points to be made here. One: normally, it’s the selectors who pick, drop or rest players.  Tendulkar must be the only player in international cricket who decides when he will condescend to play, and when he will not. After the World Cup, he appeared in the IPL for Mumbai Indians, but skipped national duty in the West Indies. The selectors, who clearly need to grow a pair, obliged him and his whips every single time. To them, or to Tendulkar’s countless cheerleaders, he has earned the right to rest when he wants.

Two: let’s nitpick his 'patriotic' comments for a bit. If he’s fit, and when he clearly believes he is on top of his game, why hasn’t Tendulkar now agreed to tour Sri Lanka? Shouldn’t he be serving the country this moment? Is it because no apparent records are at stake? Is it because he knows he has the Board (and his legions of fans) by their family jewels? Or has unprecedented, incomparable success blinded the great man into believing that he can do no wrong?

Another aspect that begs discussion is Tendulkar’s unwillingness to compromise on his batting positions. In ODIs, he always opens. In Tests, he always bats at No. 4. Remember that India at the moment are in the dumps (forget the IPL, remember the recent 0-8 Test record!). It’s important for the country to try out new players and discover batting combinations that would see them through the next decade. But every time Tendulkar returns from his self-imposed breaks, potential combinations have to be broken up to accommodate him in his usual slot.

Finally — and it all boils down to this — where is Tendulkar taking the team to with his super-selective tactics? Srikkanth mentioned he wants to prolong his career since there’s a long season ahead. But he doesn’t mention how Tendulkar will help the team recover from its slump. For too long, there’s been an individualistic streak to India’s pursuits on the cricket field. When that changes, the team can hope to start winning again. And who better to ring in the change than the favourite son who can do no wrong.

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