Symphony of Destruction (Sports Illustrated India)

Published in Sports Illustrated India, Nov 2009 issue

That over is indelible from the memories of Indian and Pakistani cricket fans. Indelibly exhilarating to the Indians and horrifyingly so to the Pakistanis. A doppelganger of the fateful last over in Sharjah, 1986. In the breathless span of those three deliveries, aggression, intent and artistry were so emphatically communicated, that in hindsight, the eventual result had an aura of inevitability about it.

When Sachin Tendulkar reached out to the errant thunderbolt from Shoaib Akhtar at Supersport Park, Centurion, in the second over of the World Cup 2003 tie, and flayed it into the stands over third-man, time didn’t stop. It exploded into a delirious frenzy that enveloped anyone who was lucky enough to witness what was to ensue. That six was the exclamation mark and then the rest of the text followed, a riveting screenplay laid out in reverse. The next ball raised the fever-pitch to a crescendo. A gorgeous flick off a fullish delivery, all élan, wrists whirling it away to the square leg boundary.

But the third one…

That is one shot that defies a deserving description and succeeds only in provoking memories of the speechless ecstasy it had invoked. An apparently respectful, defensive meeting of a straight bat to a good length ball on the stumps. Everything in perfect harmony, everything perfectly balanced, feet up on tiptoe. Freeze that frame and put it into the coaching manual: in the chapter on defensive techniques. An innocuous trickle down the track towards the stumps at the other end was the ball’s telegraphed path. Or so it seemed. Even to Waqar Younis fielding at mid-on. Who discovered to his horror and amazement that the ball was already past him and on its way to the long-on boundary. Picking up speed all the time and delegating his belated chase to the bin of futility.

A batsman’s timing reaches its pinnacle when the bat makes contact with the ball directly under the chin and eyebrows. When this occurs, everything is in resonance: the head, body, arms, feet and hands; all in symphony. When the bat optimizes its transfer of momentum to the ball on impact. In that startling shot lay the secret and a perfect illustration of a resplendent aspect of Sachin’s batting over the past two decades: his impeccable timing. A closer look at that freeze-frame reveals that at the instant of contact with the ball, a vertical line drawn from the top of his straight bat would disappear up his nostrils. He is upright, almost sniffing at the ball, wearing his bat like a necktie, bat and ball renewing their acquaintance at the sweetest of spots. A minimalist’s brush stroke.

Not many sights scramble the senses more in cricket than one of a batsman on his toes, meeting a ball from a fast bowler on the rise and smashing it through the offside. The first over of the match bowled by Wasim Akram had already provided this and intoxicated. Sachin’s bat frozen in time and space a split-second after he had laced it to the cover boundary – again, the spatial perfection of the point of impact: located precisely under his chin. For twenty years and counting, cricket watchers have marveled at such artistry and purity of technique, coupled with the inherent aggression in his strokeplay. Yet, all along, it has been his balance and the timing of his strokes that has provided the clearest indication of his outrageous talents.

Hark back to Nagpur in 1994, and his twinkle-toed brilliance scorching Courtney Walsh. Think Cape Town in 1997 and see him pirouetting on his toes, smashing Alan Donald off the backfoot through cover point. Chennai in 1999 and his tiptoeing coverdrives off Akram. Melbourne, 1999 and his manhandling of Brett Lee (“waving his bat around like a toothpick” said Lee). Chennai in 2001 and the statuesque drives off McGrath, shots that left Pigeon muttering to himself like a mad scientist. Each a coruscating memory, rife with shots of precision timing.

It is also fascinating to remember two fast bowlers who uniquely hampered him from a timing standpoint: Waqar Younis and Curtly Ambrose. Not surprising, for they each possessed a skill that tended to put Sachin’s decisiveness in getting into perfect position under severe stress: Waqar with his consistent ability to swing the ball really late at furious pace and Ambrose, with his powers of extracting disconcerting and unexpected bounce off the pitch.

“This little prick’s going to get more runs than you, AB” was Merv Hughes’ pithy prediction to Allan Border at the WACA in Perth in 1992 after Sachin’s century, one that well and truly opened the eyes and dropped the jaws of the cricketing world. On that day, on a vicious and lightning-fast pitch, that baby-faced elfin figure had hypnotized with an assault on Craig McDermott and Hughes. Even then, amidst the dazzle of his “creamy elegance” (to quote David Frith), it was startling to see the exceptional timing of his shots, as a mélange of front and backfoot strokes scythed up the turf. And even then, most of his precocious shots burst into life directly under that cherubic chin.

Aaah Merv, you prophet, you prescient one! The “little prick” did go on to score more runs than your mate AB. And he scored them right under the fire-breathing noses (moustache, in your case) of some of the greatest bowlers the sport has ever seen.

Right under their noses, but always under his own chin.

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