Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tendulkar: genius captured in 19 seconds

It was 2007. We were at Trent Bridge. The veteran cricket photographer Patrick Eagar was covering his 300th Test. He was kind enough to spare a few minutes for a chat, a wide-ranging discussion on cricket photography. At the end of the interview I asked him to name a cricketer who was tough to shoot. He considered the question for a few seconds. Here’s his response:
“I find Tendulkar quite difficult to photograph. That’s probably because I’ve seen more of Lara in the one-day situation than Tendulkar. You have to admire some of the inventiveness in some of Lara’s shots. I’ve seen Tendulkar in a slightly more passive mould. I find it very difficult to take a picture of Tendulkar that has people saying, ‘What a good batsman!’ I don’t know why; need to work it out.’
I thought of Eagar’s statement yesterday when Mahesh (@cornerd) pointed me to a Tendulkar six off Albie Morkel in the opening match of the IPL. It was the third over of the run-chase. He had struck Morkel for a four through extra-cover. Then he was beaten by a snorter that took off from a good length. Then he took strike for the fourth ball. And did this:
In my farewell post to Rahul Dravid I had complained about how future generations would find it hard to understand his essence. They could watch his clips on YouTube, I had said, but would never understand his waiting game, his immaculate construction of an innings that underscored his greatness.
Here is an instance when I can’t thank YouTube enough. An outstanding cameraman has zoomed into Tendulkar’s technical genius. What stands out in this video is the replay. I watched from the seventh second, freezing every second to see the progression of the shot.
:07 – Tendulkar takes a few steps forward. Feet in line. High back lift.
:08 – Front leg half in the air, facing extra cover. Back leg turning parallel to the ground. Bat wound up.
In backyard parlance this shot – at least at this point – would be termed a slog. Tendulkar needs to reach for the ball. He’s too far away. He’s gone against the famous coaching maxim: get as close to the ball as possible. Now he needs to manufacture the shot rather than flow with it.
:09 – Front leg almost back on the ground, faces extra cover. Back leg rooted parallel to the ground. Bat reaching for the ball.
:09 – His body then lunges further to the right. The weight of the back leg is shifting to his toes. The head continues to be still.
:10 – The bat is way away from the body. The back foot weight is now on his toes. The front leg is rooted. The head continues to remain still.
At this particular freeze-frame, Tendulkar’s stroke is bordering on the ungainly. He has committed to a shot and has decided to finish it through. The effort in reaching for the ball is apparent.
:11 – The back leg is flat on the ground. The front foot has remained rooted. And the bat has got much closer to his body. His balance is back. By the end of the second, he looks as if he’s played a cover-drive.
In less than one second,  Tendulkar has converted a potentially ugly shot into a luminous one. He has actually reversed the natural flow of the stroke – striking a six with a monstrous bat before commanding his whole system to change direction in less than a second.
The rest is an orgasm. As the weight transfers from his back foot to the front foot, you feel an electricity shoot through you. The bodily movement is so natural, so innately graceful. I realized that the final few seconds of the video had more of an effect on me than the six itself. It’s the follow-through that helps the intoxication set in.
One of my coaches once saw me play an ugly hoick and said: “I don’t care where the shot starts as long as it ends in a correct way”. Tendulkar started by charging down the track to a ball that was away from his body. He then struck the ball away from his body. He finished as if he had creamed a text-book perfect cover-drive. All in less than five seconds.
Gideon Haigh recently spoke about Tendulkar’s technique. He said Tendulkar was a batsman who seems to have not been taught how to bat but rather intuited his technique from first principles. I agree. No batsman can be taught to bat this way. No batsman can be made to look so beautiful even when he is actually doing something that’s against the textbook.
These are the kind of shots that make Tendulkar such a good batsman across all formats. He can be inventive and audacious, yet he eventually works around the basics. He is not a batsman flouting the fundamentals. His genius lies in the fact that he’s found a way to use the basics even when he’s going against the rules.

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