There are very few instances of ‘what-ifs’ during Sachin Tendulkar’s illustrious career. He has managed to lift accomplish great feats and has reached milestones that could well be beyond the comprehension of most batsmen. He scored centuries for fun and dominated bowlers across eras in a 24-year career, spanning 663 international games.
Tendulkar may well be the greatest to have walked out with a bat in the international arena. What about his bowling, though? As a teenager, he was advised by pace legend Dennis Lillee to concentrate on his batting. The Australian’s words would change the life of the Mumbai lad.
What if... Tendulkar was from a nation that didn’t demand a century from him every time he stepped out to bat? What if ... his bowling was taken a little more seriously? If so, would he have ended up in the pantheon of great all-rounders too, a la Garry Sobers or Jacques Kallis?
Tendulkar’s mastery over several disciplines could compare to Sobers. There was very little that the Master Blaster couldn’t do with the ball. He could bowl seam-ups that would either stem the flow of runs or break a partnership. On occasions, Tendulkar could get the ball to swing both ways as well.
But he was a lot happier jogging in to bowl spin, finger and wrist. While attacking around the stumps, there have been times when batsmen have been deceived by his googly or simply beaten by the turn. Against Pakistan, he had the measure of star batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq. But, sticking faithfully to script, Tendulkar’s best bowling effort too, came against Australia during a summer he’d give nightmares to Steve Waugh and Co with the bat.
Breaking records came easily to Tendulkar. There were several moments of genius as he ended up with 200 international wickets. He, to this day, is the youngest Indian man to take an ODI wicket, and the only bowler to defend six or fewer runs twice in the last over.
Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, it was a fairly regular sight to see Tendulkar being handed the ball. A debilitating tennis elbow, which threatened to cut his career short, also meant that the former Indian captain was consciously kept away from bowling duties during his final years of cricket.
Another former captain, Anil Kumble, may have got close to a thousand wickets to his name but was left amazed by the huge spin that Tendulkar could extract.
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“I played 122 Tests alongside Sachin, I never threatened his place as a batsman but he threatened mine as a bowler,” said Kumble.
Inadvertently, Tendulkar’s abilities almost undermined his premier pacer at the time, Javagal Srinath.
“After a knock, he would pick up the ball and bowl according to the conditions,” Srinath said.
“If it was a green track, he would take new ball and bowl seam-ups. On turning tracks, it would be leg-spin or off-spin.
“He was demanding as a captain in 1996. He would stand at slip and say, ‘bowl outside off.’ I would say ‘I can’t’ but he would then do it in the nets and ask me why I can’t. The next time he became captain, he was a lot better as he realised the abilities of his players.”
Here are some of his memorable moments as a bowler:
Hero Cup vs South Africa (1993)
The year is 1993 and Tendulkar’s best efforts at the time had come in Test cricket. He didn’t even have an ODI century to his name at the time.
“When in Kolkata we used joke: “Pehle do wicket lelo, baki ke aath wickets crowd le leta hai [Take the first two wickets, the crowd will take care of the rest],” Tendulkar said, looking back at the Hero Cup semi-final in 1993.
Kolkata was the setting with nearly 100,000 people packed inside the stadium. India could only manage 195 in the first essay. Some tidy bowling from the hosts meant that we had a last-over thriller on our hands. Frontline pacers Kapil Dev, Srinath and Manoj Prabhakar still had overs in their kitty.
The Proteas needed five from the last over and following a lengthy meeting, captain Mohammed Azharuddin handed the ball to Tendulkar, a left-field move that surprised onlookers. Could this fresh-faced 20-year-old pull this off?
And deliver Tendulkar did. India edged it out by two runs to send the Eden Gardens into delirium. A panic-stricken South African side lost two wickets (both run-outs), and set batsman Brian McMillan was stranded at the other end as Tendulkar managed to squeeze out three dot balls while No 11 Allan Donald was on strike.
Tendulkar was Azhar’s go-to man in the final against West Indies as well, castling a set Brian Lara. Kumble took care of the rest with a six-wicket haul.
Tri-series - Five-for vs Australia (1998)
On a scorching summer’s day in 1998, all roads in Kerala led to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi. Tendulkar had missed out with with the bat but India seemed to have the measure of the Australians after posting a commanding 309. Being deducted an over during the chase hardly mattered for the opening duo of Mark Waugh and Adam Gilchrist, who had a blazed away to 102 in just 11 overs.
Srinath and debutant Ajit Agarkar removed Mark Waugh and Gilchrist. Tendulkar’s wizardry was saved for the second half of the the Australian innings. Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan, building a steady partnership for the fourth wicket, still had the match in their grasp. Azhar had to act quickly.
The formidable Australian middle-order had no answers to Tendulkar. He either had them caught in the deep, lured them with flight and kept a leash on them. Desperate for quick runs, the Aussies fell in a heap to lose by 41 runs. Tendulkar accounted for the wickets of Steve Waugh, Bevan, Darren Lehmann, Tom Moody and Damien Martyn. It was a long-time coming but Tendulkar’s first international five-wicket haul, just like many of his other landmarks, had to come against Australia.
Bilateral series - Five-wickets against Pakistan
Surely, the fans in Kochi couldn’t have been this fortunate. What if someone over there mistook Tendulkar to be a frontline bowler, not a part-time option? Seven years after his first five-wicket haul, Pakistan were on the receiving end as Tendulkar bagged his second.
Just like the Australia encounter in 1998, there were no fireworks from his bat. Indian pacers had done well to restrict Pakistan’s chase of 282 to start off the innings. Once again, Tendulkar had a field day mixing up his off-breaks and leg-breaks. Inzamam stood at the crease, dazed after he was bowled and that triggered a collapse.
Mohammad Hafeez, Abdul Razzaq, Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Sami were his other victims, and finished with 5/50. Despite being up against big-hitting batsmen, Tendulkar was not afraid to toss the ball up. He did go for a few but enticed his opponents into making mistakes.
Tendulkar the bowler came to India’s rescue once again. As time passes by, one still wonders if a great bowler slipped through Indian cricket’s grasp during a manic quest to get 100 hundreds.