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During an ODI against New Zealand at Christchurch on March 9, 2009, Sachin Tendulkar turned back the clock with an innings straight out of the '90s. He charged down the pitch to slog pacers over long on, launched into overpitched balls with fierce power, pulled the short balls murderously. There was a distinct possibility that he would reach 200.
That's when an abdomen muscle twitched and Tendulkar retired hurt, unbeaten on 163 with five overs to go. As Tendulkar walked back to the pavilion in pain, the '200 dream' seemed to be finished. No man had reached the mark in the 50-over game. Fans wondered if he was physically capable of becoming the first to do so.
That innings was an aberration in terms of the way Tendulkar had been playing his cricket of late.
Early in his career, Tendulkar had put his signature on the no-holds-barred pull, the straight-bat lofted shot aimed at the sight screen, the whipped flick through mid-wicket off length balls, the booming cover drive, and that famous straight punch past the stumps.
In the final third of his career, Tendulkar was maintaining a shortened backlift with a minimal follow-through, using the power-packed strokes of old judiciously or tweaking them slightly, concentrating more on placement and less on power. Earlier, he might have whipped straight balls forcefully off his legs; now, Tendulkar merely guided them. The low backlift reduced the force on the wrists, allowing him to time the ball to perfection. Similarly, on the off-side, he didn't quite launch into thumping drives, but let the deliveries slide off the face of his bat. Short balls aimed at the throat were nonchalantly directed over the slips and while facing spinners, he rarely went for the fierce sweep, opting instead for the fine paddle.
Batting like this, he could make big runs in Test cricket, and conserve his energy while motoring along at close to a run a ball in coloured clothing. But was it possible for him to score as quickly as he had done in Christchurch and maintain that tempo over 50 overs? Was he capable of getting to that elusive 200 mark?
Within eight months, Tendulkar got close to that unconquered peak again. Playing against Australia in Hyderabad, he was batting on 158 with 10 overs to go.
But at the start of the 48th over, by which time he had reached 175, Tendulkar realised that there was a thin line that separated the cheeky from the over-smart. While trying to paddle-scoop pacer Clint McKay to the vacant fine leg area, Tendulkar top-edged to short square leg.
This time, the heartbreak didn't result in Tendulkar changing his approach. Three months later, he had achieved the hitherto unattainable feat, against a South African attack led by Dale Steyn.
During his 200* in Gwalior, Tendulkar hardly played a shot that could be categorised as a slog. Steyn was at the receiving end of Tendulkar's subtle touch. He was dispatched for seven fours by Tendulkar that evening, but the one shot that showcased his restrained aggression came after he had passed the three-figure mark. After missing a couple of balls outside off-stump, Tendulkar moved sideways to flick a yorker-length ball to the square-leg fence.
In terms of physical effort expended, the batsman and bowler involved in this contest were miles apart. Steyn had run in hard, bent his back, and ended the final thrust of his broad shoulders with a grunt. Tendulkar had taken a small step across his crease and performed a subtle roll of his wrists. The result was a boundary and heartbreak for the fast man.
In the same innings, he scored heavily through the point region as well. He didn't play the big drive or the slash but repeatedly glided deliveries on the off-stump from Wayne Parnell between point and third man.
That cricket has been increasingly unfair to bowlers isn't a secret, but the latter-day Tendulkar made this blatantly obvious. By using the pace of the bowlers, Tendulkar evolved a fresh, energy-efficient approach to batting that accommodated an ageing body that had endured countless X-rays and MRI scans.
That double century was to be Tendulkar's last one-day innings of the year. Tendulkar would now take a sabbatical from the shorter forms of the game, all the way until the 2011 World Cup. The move was to ensure that his sole focus remained on Test matches, in a year when India were to play as many as 14 long-format games, including contests against the Australians at home and the South Africans away. But the subtle, controlled destruction of his 200* at Gwalior would carry over into the white-flannelled format, where he ill-treated the likes of Steyn and Morne Morkel all over again with two heavy duty tons on South African shores.
In 2010, at the age of 37, Tendulkar witnessed his greatest year in Test cricket, with 1,562 runs including two double centuries in his seven three-figure scores, the last of which saw him reach 50 Test hundreds.
The year after that, Tendulkar did what he couldn't in five previous attempts - he won the World Cup, scoring two centuries on the way. Converting the liability of a fragile frame and growing years into an asset, he had not only extended his stay on the field without compromising on his strike rate, but also increased his longevity in the shorter versions of the game.
But finally, it all became too much for him. Maybe he still had it in him to take the pressure and innovate to score runs. But it was very clear from the scratchy knocks and tame dismissals of his last two years that the limbs couldn't consistently obey the orders of his mind. During the IPL this year, he got injured again. Another surgery would keep him away from training. The off-season was wasted. The man who for years had believed in sweating it out at the nets wasn't prepared. And with a chance to end his career where it had all begun, Tendulkar decided not to torture his body any more.
The ramp shot: Where he would have once gone for the hook or the fierce slash over point, Tendulkar 2.0 preferred to guide the ball over the keeper and slips. Playing the delivery well after it had gone past him, Tendulkar connected more often than not.
The glides square of the wicket: Tendulkar used the pace to guide length balls from fast bowlers behind point or square leg, depending on the line they'd bowled.
The paddle sweep: One of the enduring images of Tendulkar's battles against Warne are his down-on-a-knee slog-sweeps, picking up the leggie from the rough outside leg-stump to dispatch him over mid-wicket. In his mature years, he played the paddle sweep more often.