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Friday, January 28, 2011

Batsman Tunes Out Troubles and Sets a Record


Sachin Tendulkar’s 50th score of 100 or more in five-day tests, achieved earlier this week in Centurion, South Africa, was more than just another personal landmark in a career already overflowing with them.

It was a significant moment for cricket as a whole. Cricket as a game thinks in fifties and hundreds and applauds when players reach those marks.

Until recently it was unthinkable that any one man might score as many as 50 centuries in tests. Tendulkar not only met the old record, 34, set by his Indian compatriot, Sunil Gavasker, he smashed it. One more and he’ll have exceeded the original mark by 50 percent.

It is not unthinkable that somebody may one day overtake Tendulkar, though his closest pursuers right now — Ricky Ponting (39) and Jacques Kallis (38) — are far behind in his wake.

It appears unlikely, barring some implausible explosion in the number of the matches or the emergence of an authentic Superman, that we will ever see the next step, somebody scoring 100 centuries in tests, and that makes Tendulkar’s mark of 50 a truly special moment.

For many of the Tendulkar’s millions of followers, he already is Superman. He is a rare sporting marvel, a child prodigy who not only fulfilled the awesome potential he first showed when he broke into India’s team at 16, but then showed the desire and durability that allowed him to maintain his top-level play later on in his career. It is as if Mozart had lived to be 70, composing fresh works of greatness all the while.

That Tendulkar, 37, retains his underlying genius was evident in the first innings at Centurion as India collapsed around him. Tendulkar was facing the most effective and aggressive pace pairing in world cricket — Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel of South Africa — in conditions that perfectly suited them. He did not merely cope, but scored more than a run a ball, producing a succession of breathtaking strokes.

In the second innings, when he reached his own landmark, he was battling for his team, desperately attempting to avert first defeat and then, when that became inevitable, the humiliation of losing by an innings.

It was left to a South African, India coach Gary Kirsten, to shed light on what is perhaps the secret to Tendulkar’s extraordinary durability: practice.

He is, “the model of what an international cricketer should be, and has been for years,” Kirsten said. “I still reckon that I do more throw-downs to him every day than any other member of the squad.”

That comment brought to mind other great athletes who had nothing else to prove, yet still had the inner drive to take them to the next level.

Like the golfer Gary Player, who when complimented on his good fortune said, “And you know, the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

The baseball player Joe DiMaggio explained his dedication to performing well every day by pointing out, “there might be some kid watching who has never seen me play before.”

The 50th century is yet another addition to the monument being built by the man who, without a doubt, is the greatest living batsman. He plays in a batting order that also includes the world’s most explosively brilliant player, Virender Sehwag, and the man who most closely resembles the outcome should anyone ever succeed in constructing the ideal batsman from scratch, Rahul Dravid.

Yet none of them, not even Tendulkar, is India’s most valuable player, in the sense of being the man it can do least without. The match in Centurion left little doubt about who that is: the left-arm quick bowler Zaheer Khan.

While South Africa’s pacemen made the pitch there look lethal, India’s equivalents, shorn of their injured leader, were ineffective and allowed the Proteas to pile up 620 runs for four wickets. With Zaheer, India will just about pass muster in bowling, his presence taking the pressure off the other players. His teammates benefit from the pressure that his speed and movement place on opposing batsmen. Without him, India is way short of what a No. 1 team needs.

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