The Long Room was out of bounds at lunchtime even for Sachin Tendulkar yesterday, as it hosted a 90th birthday party for the Duke of Edinburgh, a former the President of the MCC. The Duke and the Little Master: one renowned not for his deeds but his words; the other for achieving everything the game has to offer, but saying little.
Has any cricketer ever been so defined by his actions as Tendulkar? As if to reinforce the point, the first sighting yesterday was of him in full batting kit: helmeted, padded and ready to practice. Along with Rahul Dravid, he was the first into the nets and he remained there long after Dravid had left, seeing off the next man in, Gautam Gambhir, too. There are no shortcuts to greatness.
Tendulkar did not look like a man on the verge of one of the greatest achievements in this or any other sport. He looked neither burdened nor preoccupied with the hundredth international hundred, which must surely come at some point on this tour. His practice session was languid and unhurried. If he was concerned about the threat offered by England’s tall, pace attack, he gave no clue and he asked for no special measures. He looked a little creaky at first but by the end his movements were smoother, as if some beneficial oil had been applied.
Afterwards he stood around, still fully padded, chatting amiably to practice bowlers and the kind of faceless officials who always seem to appear whenever India are playing- and watching his left-handed son, Arjun, practice in the artificial nets with two young friends. It was Arjun, grip low on the bat just like dad, who did most of the batting.
Tendulkar obviously feels at home at Lord’s, which makes his previous failures here all the more puzzling. He has a house in the vicinity and has said in the past how he looks forward to spending time in relative anonymity in St John’s Wood and Regents Park. In recent weeks, in preparation for this game, he has often been spotted in the nets. Yet his performances here have been poor: he has a highest Test score of 37 and averages a paltry 21.28. Will these failures or the proximity of his hundredth international hundred prey on his mind? He once explained how he managed not to waste his energies focussing on the wrong things, on the immense achievements of his past (and the odd failure) and of what is to come. ‘The mind always wants to be in the past or the future,’ he has said, ‘it never wants to be in the present. My best batting is when my mind is in the present. It doesn’t happen naturally. You have to take yourself there.’
It is for those of us watching, perhaps, to reminisce. It was twenty-one years ago, almost to the week, that Tendulkar first came to notice on this ground when he took a startling running one-handed catch near the long-off boundary. The next Test match in Manchester saw him notch the first of those ninety-nine hundreds and, in reminiscing, if there is one secret to his success that springs to mind it is how little his game has changed in the meantime.
Twenty-one years is a long time. Think how much the game itself has changed in that time: there was no Twenty20 then, no DRS, no neutral umpires, no television replays. The desire to fiddle, change, tinker and adapt is strong within most batsmen but Tendulkar’s game has not changed- at least not obviously. In the nets yesterday, he was a little thicker around the waist, and the sponsors’ logos were different, but other than that it was like watching the elfin figure who took a hundred of us in a drawn match at Manchester all those years ago. The sideways stance, the low grip, the slight bend of the knee as the bowler begins his run, bat held slightly off the ground and the serenity and stillness until the ball is released. Simple.
The interesting thing about great men in any walk of life is not how they go about things but how others react to them. The level of deference shown to Tendulkar is remarkable and reflects the enduring standards he has set for himself in a sometimes sordid game. Yesterday, the England captain called him a ‘great ambassador’; his opposite number, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, seemed still unable to believe that he occupies the same changing room as a player he revered as a schoolboy and evidently still does.
And so it is with outsiders. As Tendulkar and Dravid walked into the nets, a small crowd of spectators and photographers gathered around Tendulkar, leaving Dravid to practice alone. Nobody wanted to watch Dravid, a man who was practising with a little more intensity, if truth be told, and who has scored 12,220 Test runs, at an average of 52.45. Dravid has never scored a hundred at Lord’s, either.
The rain eventually curtailed India’s practice and it was back to the changing rooms, avoiding the toasts to the Duke in the Long Room, for Tendulkar and his team-mates. To get there he could have gone the back route which would have taken him past his own portrait in the museum- a corporate photographic portrait which throws little light on the man himself.
There has been another portrait done, a pencil drawing by the famous artist Stuart Pearson Wright, which sits in the top drawer of the curator’s ante-room, awaiting further instruction. The artist has the habit of exaggerating his subject’s features, and it is the lower half of Tendulkar’s face- the nose, the flare of his nostrils and the lips- that have been emphasised giving Tendulkar a stern, determined look. But the overriding impression of what has been exaggerated is his ordinariness: an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent for maximising his immense cricketing gifts.
It is often left to those who do not follow the road-show on a daily basis to best glimpse the true nature of a cricketer. The artist, who sat with Tendulkar in his house in Mumbai and witnessed the kind of hysteria that accompanies him on a daily basis, had this to say: ‘there was nothing particularly interesting or compelling about him, just the circumstances. He is just a normal bloke, except he is trapped in his own life and there is nothing he can do to escape- a victim of his own talent.’ His fame will be taken to another level this week if he can reach his hundredth international hundred in the hundredth Test between these two countries in the 2000th Test match at the home of cricket.
There was a definite whiff of something at the old ground yesterday. In a week when the predominant odour has been of scandal, illegality, hypocrisy, conflicts of interest and self-preservation it was good to sniff something a little more pleasant. Lord’s felt like a place on the eve of a great occasion. The smell was of anticipation- of great events and a great cricketer.