Tendulkar’s last burden

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Shivnarine Chanderpaul
Shivnarine Chanderpaul

Kolkata:  On November 2 – Diwali weekend – India worked desperately hard to defend 383 against Australia in Bangalore. Next morning, nine bleary-eyed India cricketers were on a long flight to Kolkata for a Test series that would begin in fewer than 72 hours. Luckily for them the flight wasn’t heavily booked, and the logistics manager could arrange for Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli to move to the first-class section so that MS Dhoni could spread himself out on three seats and get some sleep.

There were to be a total of two training sessions before this series against West Indies. The Tests were arranged because the BCCI reportedly wanted to punish CSA for appointing a CEO it didn’t like, and at the same time couldn’t have its players sit at home during peak season. So onwards we went towards a series with no build-up or context or duration. Two training sessions before the two Tests each, and boom, in two weeks the series is over. Although, on the duration front it might be as good as it gets with the BCCI: India’s next three series are two Tests each.

Down in Kolkata, though, ground reality has changed. This, you see, happens to be Sachin Tendulkar’s last international series. One thousand people lined up to welcome him at the Kolkata airport, and hundreds waited outside Eden Gardens on a work day to catch a glimpse of Tendulkar after one of the two practice sessions. This series is one last burden for Tendulkar, one last thing for him to carry on his shoulders alone, like the Indian team of the ’90s.

This series has sprung up so randomly that there cannot be any other storyline. Time is central to Test cricket. The fan needs time to build up anticipation for a Test series, to think of possible contests, to play them out in the mind, to follow the form of the visitors in the practice games, to start thinking of match XIs as the first Test comes around. This series has had none of it. It’s more like, “Pleased to meet you, now heads or tails?”

Or rather, Tendulkar or Eden? For that’s what the sides of the coin for the toss will be. And you can only hope that once the toss has happened the quality of cricket makes up for this series – well – being there. There is no better way to classify its existence. Put the Tendulkar retirement aside, and it’s just there.

The cricket better be good because it is always going to be compared to what would have happened had West Indies not been the only team free in the world at this time of the year. The opportunity cost will always crop up. West Indies would have chilled, and India would have been preparing for a proper tour of South Africa, and not starting a Test series three days after finishing an ODI runathon against Australia.

Now that the series is here, it is time to look beyond Tendulkar too. He remains a fascinating story even without the retirement. His last Test century came in 2010-11 in Cape Town, after which he has played some good innings – against West Indies in the chase in Delhi, in Melbourne and Sydney, in Chennai against Australia, a fighting 76 against England right here in Kolkata – but he has failed to turn them into big ones. Even if he hadn’t been retiring, Tendulkar would have made for interesting viewing.

Beyond Tendulkar is another milestone man, the quiet Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who will play his 150th Test in Mumbai. Surely no one has challenged the cricket-is-a-side-on-game tenet for longer and with better results? He is also a known India slayer. Well, slaying is too violent a term for what Chanderpaul does, but you get the idea, with a fourth of his 28 Test centuries coming against India in just 23 Tests out of 148. He averages 66 against his favourite opposition, compared to 52 overall. And unlike Tendulkar, he doesn’t seem to have plans of retiring anytime soon.

There is an upside to this, though. Players from both sides will know that performances in this series will not go forgotten. Everyone will remember the bloke who scored a hundred in Tendulkar’s last Test, no Indian fan will forget the man who gets Shivnarine Chanderpaul early in his 150th, and glory is his who can be the modern Eric Hollies.

Despite there being precious little to recommend this series by, apart from Tendulkar and Chanderpaul, what it has going for it is the relief it will bring after the batting pornography that played out in India over the last month. There will be consequence attached to big shots here. The ball will swing more, turn more, and reverse when it ages. Chanderpaul and Cheteshwar and anyone who puts a price on his wicket will be welcome sights. R Ashwin can go back to working batsmen out as opposed to finding ways to concede as few sixes as possible; Kemar Roach’s pace will be respected and not flayed. Chris Gayle and Shikhar Dhawan might want to upset the pace a bit, but they will do so after weighing up the massive consequences of an early wicket in a Test match.

And if it doesn’t go to plan, you can always wear the Tendulkar mask you will be given on the first day, reminisce, enjoy his farewell, and put the burden of this series on his shoulders.

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