Picture this: A genuine fast bowler streaming in from the top of his run-up. Tall, big-built, face covered in white paint; his hands and legs moving in rhythm as he gains in pace with every stride. It's a sight that often keeps batsmen awake the night before a Test match, shuddering at the prospect of what they will face the next morning.
Now picture Sachin Tendulkar at the crease. His crouching five-foot-five frame looking even smaller. His bat aligned with the off-stump. His gentle eyes peering from behind the visor. It's a wonder how this benign vision has turned out to be the most fearsome image for bowlers around the world for more than two decades.
What is it that makes Sachin such a huge problem to tackle? How did bowlers approach a match knowing they would come up against his straight drives, his horizontal bat strokes, and his silken flicks? How hard, really, was it to bowl to him?
Waqar Younis, who had famously struck Sachin on the face with a bouncer in the fourth Test of his debut series at Sialkot, says the oft-recounted incident only tells a fraction of the story. "First, I don't think the ball hit him as hard as it's been portrayed. I was bowling at around 145 kmph but it went off the glove before it struck him. He went down, we had a chat, shook hands, and he was up in a minute, ready to play the next delivery," the former Pakistan captain told India Today.
The episode, Waqar says, turned out to be an aberration. The 16-year-old boy they had first heard about from Ajay Jadeja during India's under-19 trip of Pakistan just before the 1989 tour, didn't allow himself to be dominated ever again. "I remember we didn't think too much when we had our first team meeting. There were other important guys to worry about: Krishnamachari Srikkanth, Mohammad Azharuddin, Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar. By the end of the trip, his image within our team had changed entirely."
Over the next few years, as India and Pakistan started playing one-day cricket on a regular basis, all talk in the Pakistani dressing room would be about how to counter Sachin. "We'd realised that if we didn't get him out in his first few overs at the crease, he could do a great deal of damage."
Waqar says that Sachin had no particular chink in his armour to begin with, and his technique got only better with time. "As a fast bowler, you set a batsman up, bowl different deliveries in a pattern, and then induce him into a false shot. Sachin was much better than any other batsman I've bowled to at reading that pattern. But I always felt that more than any other delivery, he was slightly vulnerable to the ball coming into him at good pace early on in his innings."
Allan Donald, another great fast bowler of the 1990s, had heard so much about Sachin's prowess before India's tour of South Africa in 1997 that he turned to West Indies pacemen Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, who had got Sachin out lbw on a few occasions, for help. "Generally fast bowlers don't give away their secrets, but they knew what I was up against, and were nice enough to talk to me about Sachin," he says. Ambrose and Walsh told Donald to bowl fuller and make him play a majority of the deliveries early on in his innings. They said that he just sits pretty at his crease and leaves the balls he doesn't need to touch. "They suggested I bowl full and slanting in from outside the off-stump," says Donald. The ploy worked, but only on occasion, considering that Sachin got a big century in the series. Donald dismissed him just once in three Tests.
As Sachin's career progressed at an astonishing pace around the mid-1990s, the hardest thing was how to prepare against him. Pakistan's Shoaib Akhtar, who began his Test career in dramatic fashion by dismissing Rahul Dravid and Sachin off successive deliveries in 1999, says he knew he needed to treat Sachin differently from all other players. "I never sledged him while he batted against me. There are some players who are better off left alone. Players like Sachin will only hit back harder."
Akhtar says he has no qualms in admitting that most of his plans against Sachin fell through. "I would think that if I bowled like this, he will play like that, and then I will stand a chance. At the 2003 World Cup, I tried to bowl short outside the off thinking he would pull me. Instead, he decided to cut me over point for six. It was a shot that made me famous," Shoaib laughs. "Then I decided to bowl at his body, and he flicked me away. I bowled full to him and reversed the ball, he drove straight." That's how he unsettled most bowlers.
Javagal Srinath, who has bowled to Sachin perhaps more than any other bowler in the nets and in domestic cricket, says the only preparation you could do against Sachin was to ensure your mind was always ticking. If you had a set plan, he would always outsmart you. If you didn't have a counter, he would run away with the game. "From my experience, I can remember only Fanie de Villiers, the South African fast bowler, who could think one step ahead of Sachin and beat him regularly," Srinath says.
The Indian quick, who shared the dressing room with Sachin for more than a decade, says Sachin knew the bowlers' tricks so well that he would keeping telling batsman at the other end what the bowler would do next. "He would say, 'Ab yeh upar dalega (Now he will pitch it up)' or 'Thoda chota marega (The next one will be a little short)'. He would be right 90 per cent of the time," says Srinath.
There is no doubt that Sachin had his flaws. But it was his ability to iron them out that kept him one step ahead. During India's tour of Australia in 2003-04, he offered the ultimate example of this quality by scoring 241 runs in Sydney by cutting out the cover-drive completely from his repertoire. That's what the art of batting is all about-playing to your strengths and minimising your weaknesses. That's what let a tiny little man tower over the world of cricket for as long as Sachin has done.
Follow the writer on Twitter @GSV1980. Reproduced From India Today. © 2013. LMIL. All rights reserved.