Old Trafford 21 years ago
At the beginning of the 1989 season England held the Ashes. Since their last visit in 1985 Australia had won just five Tests out of thirty, and England's record was even worse, with three wins from thirty four. Despite this there was still confidence in the England dressing room, shared by the press and public, as the old enemies locked horns again. Nobody really cared that the two sides were so far from the game's top table.
As things turned out it was thanks only to the weather that England managed to draw the third and sixth Tests of a series in which they suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat. The hosts were never in front at any stage in any of the six Tests and the following spring there were long passages of the 1990 edition of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
which most Englishmen could not face reading - in fact I could not bring myself to study that section of my copy until around September of 2005, and I doubt I was alone in that.
As a result of this I recall straying into unfamiliar Wisden territory and, in particular, reading PN Sundaresan's review of Indian cricket. The season's individual statistics were the first thing I noticed. After a hot English summer you look at the First Class averages and there are lots of batsmen who average over fifty and few bowlers under twenty. In a wet summer the reverse is true.
In India in 1988-89 two batsmen averaged over a hundred and Shantanu Sugwekar's mark was 133.80. There were another twelve men who averaged more than sixty. As my eyes travelled down the page I wondered whether any bowler would beat twenty five, let alone twenty, and was amazed to see Manoj Prabhakar sitting proudly on top of the pile with 41 wickets at 15 (in what must have been a memorable season for him he also averaged 64 with the bat). Prabhakar was not alone though, eight others recording sub-twenty averages for the season.
Had it not been for the need to seek an explanation for this apparent contradiction I might well not have read Sundaresan's accompanying narrative at all. The article did not really satisfy my curiosity, but I made a mental note of one passage .... it was the fifteen-year old Bombay schoolboy, Sachin Tendulkar, who cornered most attention .......... on his First Class debut , he struck a fluent 100 not out from 129 balls ...... and followed it with other fine innings to top the Bombay aggregate with 583 runs at an average of 64.77. Technically sound and alert to the loose ball, Tendulkar showed astounding maturity for one so young and looked to be a Test cricketer in the making
I decided to take a look at the potted scores. The debut century came against Gujerat, clearly a fairly weak side who finished second bottom in the West Zone and had neither a bowler nor a batsman in the leading averages. Reading on however I noted that 78 came in the Ranji Trophy semi-final against Prabhakar's Delhi, for whom the, in my opinion much underrated, orthodox left arm spinner Maninder Singh also plied his trade.
In the far off days of 1990 there was no internet, although it did take its first faltering steps in December of that year. There were newspapers and magazines of course, but I had not read widely enough to appreciate that by April, when I read Sundaresan's words, Tendulkar had already fulfilled the prophecy and, still not quite seventeen, was a seasoned veteran of seven Tests. He had made his debut in Pakistan that winter and in a series every bit as fiercely contested as any Ashes contest had averaged 35. It may not sound like a great start from the basic numbers but against an attack made up of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir he made runs at important times and his contributions were a significant factor in India managing to draw all four Tests. A few weeks later he went to New Zealand with an experimental Indian side. He averaged just under 30 in the three Tests, so modest figures again, but a cultured 88 in the second Test looked for some time as if it would bring him the honour of becoming the games youngest Test centurion. Veteran New Zealand journalist Dick Brittenden described him as batting with the poise of a player twice his age
Of his early opponents Abdul Qadir and Richard Hadlee were the most fulsome in their praise for the sixteen-year old prodigy. Qadir said The lad is a genius. He is going to take bowlers apart in international cricket for a very long time
. As for Hadlee his comment was that ..it is extraordinary that one so young can hold his own in the world of men and in such difficult circumstances
In 1990 India were due to visit England for a three Test series. They came in the second half of what proved to be a hot summer. Despite the anticipated helpful weather conditions there was still however a general feeling that English seamers would still find the young man wanting as far as technique and application were concerned. In the event he was the leading First Class runscorer on the tour, averaged 63, and in as many as nineteen First Class innings never failed to reach double figures, a remarkable feat of consistency. I am not one of those who advocates a case for Tendulkar being in the same league as Bradman, but even the Don never quite managed as many as twenty consecutive double figure First Class scores in England, let alone do so at 17.
Tendulkar got starts in both ODIs but did not go on to play a major innings. In the Lord's Test, in which everything was dwarfed by Graham Gooch's 333 and 123, his contributions were again modest, but at Old Trafford in the second Test an English television audience, myself included, finally saw what all the fuss was about. England won the toss and batted first with Gooch's third consecutive Test century, coupled with similar contributions from Mike Atherton and Robin Smith, seeing them post an imposing 519. India started badly, but although they recovered from the loss of three early wickets they were still in danger of failing to avoid the follow on when Tendulkar joined his captain, Mohammed Azharuddin, at 246. Watchful at first, he took almost an hour to get off the mark, but his 68 made sure that England's lead was a modest 87.
Another fine innings from Atherton, coupled with Allan Lamb's penultimate Test century meant that the carrot dangled in front of Azharuddin Dev by Gooch was 408 in a minimum of 88 overs. In fairness to India they went for the runs but there were some rash strokes from the senior batsmen and, at 183-6, the tourists were looking down the barrel when Prabhakar joined Tendulkar with two and a half hours left to play. This was no walk in the park for Tendulkar. Gooch crowded the bat and regularly changed his bowlers on a wearing wicket but in an innings of patience and class, which brought inevitable comparisons with Sunil Gavaskar, a pair of whose pads he was wearing Tendulkar, ably supported by Prabhakar remained at the crease until, with just two of the final twenty overs left, Gooch finally gave up and the draw was conceded.
Watching Tendulkar at the crease I, like others I have quoted above, was struck by the maturity that he showed. He gave a chance early on, off spinner Eddie Hemmings failing to hold on to what was not the most difficult caught and bowled when Tendulkar was just 10, but once he was set he looked immovable. I dare say things were said to him by the England close fielders, of whom there were several, but he never looked perturbed and he was just dilatory enough in his habits to frustrate the England bowlers and fielders, while not coming to the attention of the umpires for time wasting. A rueful Gooch paid him a great compliment after the game, He played like an old pro
At the end of the series Tendulkar averaged over 60 which, by the lofty standards he has stuck to, is just about average for him, and he has certainly had better series against England, but the die was cast for me that day at Old Trafford, and none of Tendulkar's many subsequent glories has come as any surprise.
The most striking thing for me about Tendulkar is not, however, anything directly to do with his batting. On the Saturday of the Old Trafford Test in 1990 my baby daughter was christened. This year we celebrate her 21st birthday, and India are here again for the second half of the summer. The now 38 year old Tendulkar will be with them too of course, with no suggestion yet as far as I am aware that he has any plans for an imminent retirement. It seems his appetite for runs is as yet far from satisfied, and let us not forget that at a comparable age Sir Jack Hobbs had scored but 88 of the 199 (or 197 if you prefer traditional figures) First Class centuries he was to end up with - perhaps Sachin will still be batting when my first grandchild has his or her christening - if so I am hoping he will be pretty close to Hobbs' record by the time he finally leaves the arena where he has been so at home for so long.