Tendulkar’s mastery at Port of Spain – A hidden gem amid a chest full of treasures

Sachin Tendulkar after 2011 WC win
Sachin Tendulkar after 2011 WC win (Photo: ICC Cricket World Cup)

The starting point for any narrative surrounding Sachin Tendulkar would likely be his believe-it-or-not achievement of 100 international hundreds. So, when almost everything about Tendulkar’s career is twinkling in gold, it is next to impossible to pick that one knock which stands out like an incandescent light. But among all of Tendulkar’s trail of memorable footprints, there is largely one hidden gem: His 44 in a 50-over game at Port of Spain in 1997. It was an innings that didn’t last long, but for a brief period, Tendulkar threaded the gaps in the field akin to a visionary designer.

It has to be mentioned that the conditions on display were quite treacherous. Probably, there were a few cracks underneath, coupled with some moisture. It was a tacky pitch, where the ball misbehaved more than enough times. In 1997, the West Indies still had a formidable pace attack comprising Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Franklyn Rose. Among the foursome, Ambrose and the in-form Rose were the two major threats.

Ambrose, in particular, was close to being unplayable in such climes. Ambrose didn’t just have an extra gear of pace when needed, but he also consistently hit the bat high up on the splice from a very high release. Even Tendulkar, one of the finest batters the game has ever seen, had to show respect while facing Ambrose. It was a battle of two gladiators, where the conditions were clearly in favour of the giant pace bowler from Antigua.

The first ball of the innings itself gave an indicator about what was in store for the Indian batters – It pitched around short of a length and seamed away a country mile. More importantly, it kicked extra from that length. Thankfully for Tendulkar, the line was wide of off-stump and the umpire had to stretch his hands to signal an extra.

Sachin Tendulkar with Sudhir Gautam
Sachin Tendulkar with Sudhir Gautam (PC: X)

One of the heavy artillery weapons of Ambrose, especially on surfaces with uneven bounce, was the nip-backer. Plenty of batters from Australia and England would testify that as a fact. Just three years earlier, Michael Atherton and Robin Smith had succumbed to Ambrose’s trusted weapon at the same ground.

Tendulkar had an inkling of what was to come as he took a long stride forward, with his front foot moving across the off-stump. In order to survive, he basically allowed a vicious nip-backer to rap his front pad. The ball was clearly missing the off-stump and the muted appeal for an LBW was turned down. The relentless Ambrose was at it again as he followed it up with another of those deliveries that darted back in sharply. Tendulkar somehow dug it out with a front-foot defence. The great cricketer’s survival instincts, blended with his wisdom of experience, shone brightly.

Ambrose duly decided to pull his length back and clonked Tendulkar’s gloves a couple of times. In-between, the legendary batter attempted two pull shots, and was successful in nailing one of them. The action at the other end seemed to be from a different planet. Tendulkar had made up his mind that Walsh and Bishop had to be targeted. Even though Bishop too smashed Tendulkar’s gloves once, he was the bowler who came under severe pressure.

In a single over, the Trinidadian was thumped for four boundaries in front of his home crowd. When Bishop pitched it fuller, Tendulkar skipped down the deck to crack one over the in-field. Even when Bishop bowled it shorter, Tendulkar somehow manufactured room and lofted the pacer through the off-side. When Walsh or Bishop drifted a few down the leg-side, Tendulkar flicked the duo with a touch of swagger.

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Sachin Tendulkar
Sachin Tendulkar (PC: X)

From Bishop’s point of view, he wasn’t the same bowler of yore. After suffering stress fractures of the back, he had remodelled his action. As a result, he was having issues with overstepping, alongside the ball slipping out of his hand. However, it once more showcased Tendulkar’s acumen. On a dicey track, he largely respected the bowler who seemed most likely to dismiss him and crunched a volley of shots with his razor-blade versus the rest of them.

All good things have to come to an end. After essaying 10 picture-perfect shots, Tendulkar was dislodged by a snorter from Ambrose. In a trademark fashion, Ambrose hit the pitch hard on a short of a length. The resultant outcome was it bounced awkwardly and snaked away from the batter. For a moment, it also seemed have taken the edge of Tendulkar’s willow to the ‘keeper.

The replays, though, suggested that it had come off the shoulder. Tendulkar even indicated that it had touched his shoulders to the umpire, but Eddie Nicholls ruled him out. The replay also captured the essence of how Tendulkar’s feet, eyes and hands were all perfectly in sync with his well-oiled craft. The willow was tucked inside the line and Tendulkar stood tall at the crease. He mostly kept his eyes on the ball and the bottom hand was also off the handle. Just that the umpire wrongly adjudged him caught behind.

For yours truly, it was time to switch off the TV. After a long bus journey that lasted 400 km, it was time for some sleep. And more importantly, it was a phase of Indian cricket where India’s fortunes seemed to depend on one man. So, in those tough conditions, there was next to no chance for the rest of the Indian batting unit to paddle through incisive spells from Ambrose and Rose.

The above-mentioned line also explains the phenomenon of the Master Blaster: The raw emotions of an Indian cricket fan and Tendulkar travelled together for more than two decades. When Tendulkar was playing an array of strokes, he was adored and worshiped. As soon as he was dismissed, there was a sense of sadness and anguish. Millions and millions seemed to hold their collective breath as Tendulkar stood calm at the crease to face the next ball. It would have been no different that night.

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