Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tendulkar's journey to pole position

Sachin Tendulkar debuted as a 16-year-old in November 1989 and recently became just the fifth player to participate in Test cricket in five different decades. In his second Test he became the youngest batsman to make a Test half-century and a legend was born.

He narrow missed becoming the youngest Test centurion when he fell for 88 against New Zealand at Napier in early 1990 but came of age later that summer when he hit an exhilarating century against England at Old Trafford. Twenty years on he is still scoring Test centuries and is back at the top of the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test batsmen. So how has his career progressed Rankings-wise in both formats of the game?

His unbeaten innings in Manchester saw him rise into the top fifty in the batting table for the first time, and he enjoyed a steady climb over the next few years as he established himself in the Indian middle-order alongside captain Mohammed Azharuddin.

A century and two fifties in the 'spinwash' tour by England in early 1993 saw him enter the world's top ten at a time when Graham Gooch and Richie Richardson were swapping the top position between themselves. Further successes at home to the West Indies the following year enabled him to displace Brian Lara at the top of the batting tree. At the age of 21 years, 7 months he became the youngest man to ever reach the number one position, surpassing Garry Sobers' previous record which was set back in 1958.

However, his stay at the top was relatively short due to the astonishing run of form of West Indies' Jimmy Adams who moved above Tendulkar three months later as the Indian suffered a relatively lean couple of years.

This coincided with Steve Waugh's rise to the top of his game and it was the Australia batsman who enjoyed most of 1996 and 1997 at number one. Not to be outdone, the India maestro roared back into form with six centuries in ten Tests which saw him once again reach top spot in March 1998. For the next four years he was never out of the top three, positions which were almost exclusively occupied by Tendulkar, Lara and Waugh. However, once 2003 dawned it was a different story as his five Tests in that calendar year brought him just one fifty and a batting average of 17.

In 2004 came his highest Test score - an unbeaten 248 against Bangladesh at Dhaka, during the course of which he shared in an Indian record partnership of 133 for the tenth wicket with Zaheer Khan.

Injuries had started to catch up with him though, and the next two years brought only one century as he plummeted to number 22 - his lowest position for fourteen years. Some people questioned whether he would be able to continue to be a productive member of the Indian middle-order powerhouse which also featured Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.

His climb back to the top can perhaps be traced from his match-winning unbeaten century in the fourth innings of the Chennai Test against England in December 2008, when India successfully chased 387 to win the match - a record for a Test on the subcontinent. Since then he hasn't looked back as his subsequent 16 Tests have brought him a further 8 centuries and 7 fifties.

All this has been good enough to take him back to the top spot, a position he last occupied in August 2002. His current tally of 891 points has put him within touching distance of becoming just the second Indian batsman to reach the magical barrier of 900 points, after his boyhood hero Sunil Gavaskar.

With his return to the top, Tendulkar has now spent a total of 126 Tests at number one, a total only surpassed by 3 men - Garry Sobers, Viv Richards and Brian Lara.

His first ODI appearance came just a month after his Test debut. It was an inauspicious start as both his first two innings ended in second ball ducks - courtesy of Waqar Younis and Shane Thomson. He reached double figures in each of his next six matches, but finally made his first half-century against Sri Lanka at Pune in December 1990, becoming the youngest at the time to score an ODI half-century.

A tally of eleven fifties in his first 40 matches saw him rise as high as number three at a time when Dean Jones was ruling the roost in the shorter format of the game.

However, he was unable to take that next step - either to reach three figures or to reach the number one position. It may sound strange now - especially with his current tally of 46 centuries in ODI cricket, but his first century did not come until his 79th match. He finally made the breakthrough with an innings of 110 against Australia at Colombo in September 1994.

Once the first one came, the floodgates were opened for good.

He became the youngest player to top the ODI Batting Ratings as a 22-year-old on Leap Year Day in 1996 and celebrated by hammering a run-a-ball 137 against Sri Lanka at Delhi. But his initial stay at the top was brief as Brian Lara was in the middle of a superb run of form which saw him own the number one position for most of the next three years.

While not quite reaching the heights of his West Indies counterpart, Tendulkar was able to maintain his position in the top three for the majority of that time. He did manage a one-point lead over Lara for two months thanks to two undefeated centuries in a week against Zimbabwe at Sharjah.

Australia batsman Michael Bevan dominated most of the following three and a half years, but Tendulkar was never far behind him, even managing to sneak ahead of him on a few brief occasions. A surge in form in England in 2002 saw him move ahead of him for good and he enjoyed a three-month stay as number one in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for ODI batsmen. Over the next two years it was a tussle for the top spot between a number of players - Ricky Ponting, Marcus Trescothick, Adam Gilchrist and Chris Gayle all enjoying extended stays as well as Tendulkar.

Fans were wondering whether they had seen the end of the little master as a tennis elbow injury laid him low soon after he had surrendered the number one position to Jacques Kallis in September 2004. The following couple of years were a struggle as he dropped as low as number 26 soon after ICC Champions Trophy 2006. However, an undefeated century against the West Indies at Vadodara in January 2007 saw him turn the corner.

He was unfortunate to be dismissed in the nineties four times in nine matches on the tour of the British Isles that summer, but when he finally made it to three figures - against Australia at Sydney in March 2008 - it was enough to push him above Ponting and back to the number one position.

Alas it was only for ten days as South Africa's Graeme Smith edged ahead of him, but with an average of more than a hundred over his last eight matches - including his memorable, world record 200 not out against South Africa at Gwalior, his time at the top may not be done. He will be hoping to add to his 112 ODIs at number one - good enough for ninth on that particular list.