What Tendulkar taught the Proteas

11 October 2013

“South Africa was readmitted into international cricket 20 years ago. Since then everything has changed: the flag, the national anthem, the name of the team. But, in all the years since readmission, there has been one constant: Sachin Tendulkar.

“When you play Tendulkar, you’re a living part of cricket’s best traditions. A hundred against you isn’t a setback, it’s a war story to be treasured. When you dismiss him, it’s not just a cricketing triumph, but rather one of the truest, finest moments of success you will ever experience in your life. In all, South Africa has played against the Little Master for almost as long as the country was out of international cricket …”

The greatest batsman since Sir Donald Bradman announced his imminent retirement this week. Writer and journalist Tom Eaton takes an-depth look at the history of South African cricket’s relationship with Tendulkar in a 10 000-word e-book that can be purchased via online publisher Mampoer, who have kindly given permission for SAinfo to publish the following extract from Full Circle: what the Proteas learned from Sachin Tendulkar.

The Wanderers, Friday, 27 Nov 1992

By Tom Eaton

It’s a mercy killing, really. Ravi Shastri has taken over an hour to crawl to 7. The inevitable nick might have come sooner if South Africa had had a fit pace battery, but Meyrick Pringle has gone to hospital after top-edging Manoj Prabhakar into his eye in the first innings. Still, India is hardly running away with this. They’ve barely kept out Brian McMillan’s medium-quick splice-bangers, and they haven’t got Craig Matthews off the square. No, that’s not fair: Ravi just got him off the square, all the way to slip. And Allan Donald, well… if they were better against pace they might have come close to edging a couple more, but so far they’ve been half a second and six inches away from anything resembling a confident shot.

So, here we are. 27 for 1, the Bullring roaring, Test cricket back at the Wanderers after twenty-two years, Nelson Mandela somewhere up in the VIP boxes. But there’s no time for historical musings because Big Mac has just banged into Ajay Jadeja’s knee-roll and that’s 27 for 2. Maybe one day you’ll get more blase about wickets, but for now, three Tests into your career and South Africa’s return to international cricket, you’ll dish out the high-fives like a whooping fool.

Jadeja reckons it was a rough call and he’s walking off as slowly as he can, so you’re back at slip by the time the new kid steps onto the field. At this distance he looks far younger than 19, more a lost 15-year-old, a weedy little cherub strapped into his dad’s pads. Apparently those pads once belonged to Sunil Gavaskar. You never saw Sunny play, but you’ve heard the stories from the old South Africa pros who played on the county circuit, and you can’t help thinking the comparisons with this shrimp might be overblown.

To be fair, he made a pretty half-century when you and the rest of the South Africans made your international debuts at Calcutta a year ago. Gutsy innings it was, coming in at 3 for 2 and scoring a third of India’s runs. And the Aussie media are still going ape-shit over the 148 not out he made at Sydney in January this year, off Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes, no less. Not that the rest of the attack sounded up too much, mind you: this new Aussie leg-spinner sounds like complete rubbish. Took 1 for 150 and got klapped all over the place by Shastri. Shane something-or-other. In a nutshell, none of you are exactly overawed.

Big Mac is breathing hard, fingering the ball in his giant paw, but has enough breath to point out to the cordon that this kid is barely taller than the stumps. As he turns to take guard, we see that those ridiculous pads are being held on by a prehistoric arrangement of calf-strangling straps and buckles. Don’t they have velcro in India?

He’s scratching out his mark now and doing a decent impression of an imperious little Napoleon, but he can’t hide the anxiety in his body language as he looks around to find Jonty Rhodes. Two weeks ago he ran himself into the history books and out of the first Test at Durban, playing tip-and-run with Shastri. Ravi has been around long enough to know a suicide single when he sees one, and by the time the kid had been sent back, Jonty had teleported himself around from backward point and whipped it in low and flat to Andrew Hudson at short leg. Kepler blocked your line of sight, but Hudders seemed convinced, and if Hudders says it’s out, you can carve it in stone as the Eleventh Commandment. So you joined the choir howling at Cyril Mitchley at square leg, and Cyril got that yep-that’s-almost-good-enough-for-me look, and then referred it “upstairs’ to Karl Liebenberg. The first batsman to be given out by someone watching TV. Go figure.

They might rate this kid, but it was a grubby end to a forgettable little innings. Then again, that whole Test was pretty grim. Apparently only 30 000 people came in over the five days. You can’t blame them: India took 134 overs to crawl to 277. Champagne cricket it wasn’t.

Mac is ready at the top of his run. The Bullring is slow-clapping. The kid is startlingly still: if he’s still nervous, he’s not showing it. Mac bustles in, pigeon-toed and grumpy, the ball entirely enveloped in his meaty mitt. Then he’s delivering, twitching seismographs all over Joburg, and the kid is forward, neatly. The ball appears outside his edge, then reappears in Dave Richardson’s gloves. A play and miss. He’s human. Lots of chat here in the cordon.

He might have all the shots, but he’s not using them. Five minutes later he’s still on his duck. Make that ten minutes. Nice footwork, sending those pads flopping this way and that – he seems to be a good judge of length – but a fat lot of good it’s all doing him. Eighteen deliveries and yet to score. And Allan Donald’s got murder in his eyes. AD has been bowling beautifully, scything it away past the off-stump and getting the odd one to lift viciously at their ribs, but the edges haven’t come. Sometimes it makes him fret and get ragged. Not this time. AD means business.

He cruises in, all beautiful rhythm and animal intent, and you can see from his wrist and gather that it’s going to be full. You don’t know how you know, you just know. And it is. Very full, too full, a bit wide and swinging wider. The kid has waited long enough. He’s had a go, down on one knee with a full flow of the bat; but he’s squeezed it off a thick edge, and its shot past third slip and skimmed away for four. Chatter turns to crowing: oh dear laddie, a bit quick and nasty here among the grownups, is it? He ignores us, fusses with the tops of those pads, checks the field. AD turns at his mark, accelerates, slips into his rhythm. Everybody at the Wanderers knows it’s going to be short. AD bangs it in halfway down the track, but it’s a touch wide again, and the kid is standing tall trying to smash it square, another huge shot; and again he’s cocked it up and got away with it: the top edge screams high over the gap between you and Dave Richardson. Any time now, boys. The kid is a show-pony. Lots of flash, no application.

A few minutes later, heartbreak. The kid is on 10, still looking out of his depth. AD bounces him again, but it doesn’t get up. The youngster is short, so doesn’t feel the need to duck. Instead, he sways back, dropping his hands, but the delivery tracks back and pings straight off the face of the bat. Like slip-catching practice. Except it dies on third slipper Matthews, and he’s left diving and groping to his left, grassing it. AD dies a thousand deaths, and the kid gets a life.

It’s about then that the slip cordon starts going quiet. Big Mac is getting grumpy, banging them in short and wide, and twice he’s been spanked away with cuts so uppish and dismissive that we’ve felt offended on his behalf. But it’s a shot off Matthews that makes us realise the slips might be starting to become redundant. Craig bangs it short of a length, straight at middle stump, and the kid stands up as if to defend. But he isn’t defending. He’s waiting. And waiting. And now he’s straightening his back, his front elbow going up and up, and there’s the sweetest crack of willow-wood, and he’s played the best on-drive you’ve ever seen in your life, the hardest stroke in the book, as if Matthews was chucking pies. Oh, and he’s just become the youngest bloke to score 1 000 Test runs. At this rate, he might make six or seven thousand in his career.

Not that you’re worried. A few overs later Matthews and Mac have each struck again, and AD has finally found an outside edge: India is 127 for 6. But by now any doubts you had about the kid have evaporated. Durban and that scratchy 11 are forgotten. Even this match seems weirdly out of kilter. He’s not playing in the same game as the guys at the other end. He’s in a bubble, breathing his own air, selecting shots with all the time of a master librarian going through a box of index cards. Short ball, Mr Donald? Yes, certainly, that’ll be here, under Back Foot Shots, subsection Outside Off Stump, and there’s your square cut in front of point, sir. Bang. Filed. Put away. It’s his patience that’s so startling: true patience, contented watchfulness, not like the attritional paralysis that’s infected his teammates. They’ve scored 46 runs off 36 overs and dug themselves into a hole. He’s simply waiting, and then timing deliveries to the boundary. Three-quarters of his runs are coming in boundaries, shots that are not so much strokes as statements. You watched Peter Kirsten in his prime and you even saw the end of Pollock’s career, but you don’t think you’ve seen the ball cut so late and so deftly. Mac swears the last one was an edge, and AD snarls and glares as if he’s been robbed, but you all saw it; nothing more than flexing of his wrists; nothing short of genius. Forget Sunny Gavaskar. This kid could mean business.

(Extract from Full Circle: what the Proteas learned from Sachin Tendulkar by Tom Eaton. Mampoer’s mini-books, at US$2.99 a “shot”, are downloadable from www.mampoer.co.za and readable on iPads or Android tablets, Kobo, Kindle, Gobii, smart phones, Macs or PCs. Or on paper, if you still prefer it that way.)