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On a Wing and a Player

Recent form would suggest that India do not have the firepower to defeat the top teams.
But with Tendulkar back in the side the Indian challenge gets the edge.


Sachin TendulkarFail?
No, you can't. We insist. Open the dictionary, look under F, find the word, rip out the page.
Tendulkar doesn't fail. He can't. Not now.

Still to be sure, we've been down on our knees, said our prayers, crossed our fingers,
bought a rabbit's foot, not washed that lucky T-shirt since his last century.
Please God, anyone else, not him.

They say in sport that it is the walk of men that reveals their character. That in just the buoyancy of a stride or the hesitancy in a step the depths of a man's sporting soul can be laid bare to read. If that is so then the Indian team's walk in Sharjah last month told us a disheartening tale: of a team confronted with their frailties and embarrassed in their inability to respond. A nation sighed and then a girl, 16, a stranger nothing more, sent a message down the Internet to the absent Sachin Tendulkar. It was a wail, a short, simple echo of a national yearning. She wrote: "Teri yaad aa rahi hai, teri yaad aa rahi hai ..."

It has come to the unreasonable point that if Tendulkar, whose injured back threatened to displace Jayalalitha from the headlines, were not there when India opens against South Africa this coming Saturday, there might have been a national movement to recall the team. It is both a measure and an exaggeration of one man's perceived influence. It is also an indictment of a team that resembles a congregation of wimps but has a 1998 record that suggests otherwise.

Lounging in his Delhi hotel room a month or so ago, a recent biography of Michael Jordan resting on his bedside table, Rahul Dravid was asked if India could win without Tendulkar. He paused, then said, "Well like the Chicago Bulls couldn't win without Jordan, Jordan couldn't win without the Bulls." Tendulkar, he knows, is the battery that runs this team. In the 23 matches India won since January last year, Tendulkar scored 26.54 per cent of the runs.

But it is not just skill, it is more. Ajay Jadeja, who says "Tendulkar is beyond comparison", feels India can win if Tendulkar does not play well. So does Saurav Ganguly pointing at India's wins in New Zealand and the January 1998 Independence Cup in Dhaka where other men stepped forward. But Tendulkar must be there, on the field, for he gives the team psychological muscle, a cultivated arrogance. Out of the 38 matches he played last year, India won 23, a winning percentage of 60.52; of the 17 matches he did not play, India won eight, a winning percentage of 47.02. Great players have presence, identified easily by the halo above their head and the way a sudden violence stirs in the heads of opposing bowlers. It is an aura so commanding that it envelopes an entire team. As Dravid continues, "Even if he doesn't bat well, he'll get three wickets." It means at the World Cup the Indian team could have a different walk.

Tendulkar is rich, Tendulkar is famous, Tendulkar has a job not one Indian in a billion wants. Imagine this: in the last World Cup he scored a record 523 runs at an average of 87.17. It was not enough. How much will be this time?

What pressures must be resting in the mind of a 26-year-old man? He knows greatness has but a singular measure: winning. When he's grey and retired to his rocking chair and World Cups are played out in distant lands, they will recall his imitations of Attila the Hun with a bat, his grim interrogation of bowlers, but once the film has ended they will ask, did he win? He knows too, without peering at the mirror, that he will bat at this World Cup with a bull's-eye tattooed on his forehead. Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga is a known flirter with overstatement, yet ask him about Tendulkar and he says, "If we get him out, 50 per cent of our work is done." Tendulkar is only a man, surely fear rides in his bloodstream.

"No," he told India Today. "If I fail at the World Cup, I fail. As long as I know from the bottom of my heart I have tried my best."

But isn't the pressure too much?

"I'm not really thinking about it. I have to focus on what I have to do. My job is to score runs and make important breakthroughs in bowling."

So did you prepare differently?

"No, the same way, I don't want to treat this (the World Cup) as something more."

Tendulkar's enforced rest -- he confirms his back is fine and will use the same heavy bat -- was like a reward for a cricketer frazzled by touring. "I finally got some time to be with my family," he confesses. Yet, do not believe he was sitting still -- he is a man in pursuit of perfection, a relentless polisher of his craft.

As he once said, "If I feel I have a flaw I will work on it the same evening or in the room."

You pick up a bat and practise in front of the mirror?

"No, not even a bat. I just visualise."

For this World Cup, he did more than that, sweating at his workshop, the nets. In England the ball will swing, attacking batsmen may perish. Questions, questions, but for lesser men. As his legendary coach Ramakant Achrekar says, "Sachin evolves by the minute. His is a learning curve that keeps moving. At times I have trouble believing what I see."

Tendulkar himself promises that he will dominate the conditions, not the other way round. "The ball is going to swing not just in the early overs, it may swing for 50 overs. I will stick to my game. Plans can change but not the game."

Yes, but can you win this Cup on your own?

"No, it's certainly not possible. The support has to be there."

Will it?

In 1986, Martin Johnson wrote in The Independent of the English team touring Australia, "There are only three things wrong with this team. 'Can't bat, can't bowl, can't field'." Sounds familiar? India (just going by Sharjah that is) have batsmen who think application is just a form to be filled out, fielders who should never be asked to carry babies and bowlers who ... well, praise the Lord for the bowlers. There is more. Like men before them, the moment they fly over oceans their stylish bravado in the subcontinent seems to disintegrate in foreign lands.

It is not the eyes, the hands, the strokes that is the issue, for in every man surges a stream of talent. It is the stomach where courage is said to rest, it is the mind where self-belief is manufactured, it is the heart where passion flows from -- it is here where India's river sometimes runs dry and it is here where the Cup will be won or lost.

From Sharjah comes the story of a young player, just selected, who was hit with the virus that afflicted the team. Yet even when recovered, was cleared by the doctor and offered a place in the team, he said "I'm not feeling well" and excused himself. If this attitude arrives on the field then, perhaps, like the recent soft-drink advertisement where a young man runs away with the Cup, Mohammed Azharuddin will be left shouting, "Arre, arre, kahan le ja raha hai?"

Yet in the hysteria over India's recent poor form the good these men have done, to paraphrase Shakespeare, has been interred. They are not the rabbits we think they are who freeze in the headlights of adversity; how else would they have won four out of five tournaments they played last year? If they pool their substantial gifts together, there is no finish line to possibility.

They know they must surprise. As Tendulkar says, "My opening place is open to discussion. Initially I will open but the strategy might change to surprise the opposition. We should be unpredictable, so that opponents don't get a chance to plan for us."

They know they must seize the moment. As Jadeja says, "If it was all planning then CEOs with MBAs would be playing. It has to be played on the field."

They know their technique will be tested. Says Dravid: "We don't play quality fast bowling as we should. You watch the ball and instinctively play a shot. There's no time to think. It's an instinct developed by practice, it's part of your muscle-memory. Then you have to do the opposite, it's not easy. How many of us play someone like Shoaib Akhtar at the nets?"

But most of all this team knows that on television, in print, in drawing rooms and bars, they have been stamped on, sneered at and dismissed. Azhar knows this is his last World Cup, perhaps too for other men who have worn their India cap with pride. Men with bruised egos and others whose sun promises to set are known to acquire a sudden spirit. Beware a team with a point to prove.