How bold, imaginative strategy of a 21-year-old Sachin Tendulkar changed the way white ball cricket was played

It is tempting to look for a specific inflexion point in the journey of an individual in a sport, that moment when the spotlight of greatness is switched on. For Tendulkar, it had to be 27 March 1994 — that fateful day at Auckland.

Anindya Dutta March 27, 2021 11:43:51 IST
How bold, imaginative strategy of a 21-year-old Sachin Tendulkar changed the way white ball cricket was played

File Photo/NW18

In 'Nostalgia Drive', Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history.

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Auckland, 27 March 1994. A day that marked a decisive shift in how Indian teams would approach the limited overs game in the years to come. A day that began with a pain in the neck.

New Zealand has always been one of the toughest countries in the world to win an away series, whether it be Test cricket or the limited overs formats. When Mohd Azharuddin led his side to the southernmost cricketing outpost of the world for a relatively short tour, he had his work cut out.

It was a decade-and-a-half since the last Indian team had won a Test series there. On that occasion, the current manager of the side, Ajit Wadekar, had been a mere stripling of a lad. This time there was only one Test match, and once that had ended with honours even, the teams could get down to the serious business at hand — a set of four One Day Internationals.

In the first match played at Napier, the hosts proved too good for the Indians, romping home by 28 runs. Making his debut with a stunning knock of 90, was a young left handed batsman who would redefine the future of New Zealand cricket — Stephen Fleming.

Then the teams came to Auckland.

The Strategy that Changed Limited Overs Cricket

In 1994, Navjot Singh Sidhu owned exclusive rights to one of the opening slots in the Indian side, his partners constantly changing. Currently that designate was the man for all seasons — Ajay Jadeja, at ease wherever he was slotted — opener one day, finisher the next.

On this particular day however, Mohammad Azharuddin had a dilemma — Sidhu had a pain in the neck and was ruled out of the match. The captain was staring out of the window considering how to shuffle his batting order when the barely audible voice of his 21-year-old vice-captain piped up from next to him...‘Let me open. If I fail, I won’t come after you again,’ it said.

‘I thought I could go upfront and take the opposition bowlers on. I had the ability to attack bowlers and play shots from the word go, and in the one-day game, the key was to take advantage of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs. I was sure that I just needed a chance to prove myself. But I had to beg and plead to please give me a chance,’ Sachin Tendulkar would later say.

His captain was less than enamoured with the idea in the beginning, the reluctance understandable — before this match Tendulkar had averaged 30.84 in 69 ODIs. For the average batsman it was just about par for the course, but for a man of Tendulkar’s talent, calling it underwhelming was an act of kindness.

What Azhar liked about the idea however, was  Tendulkar’s suggestion that the team use the first few overs to launch a blitzkrieg against the opposition. It was a tactic still in its infancy, but using which, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana would take opposition bowling attacks by their throats over the next few years and in the process bring home a World Cup. But that was two years and a lifetime away.

Tendulkar’s strategy, as he explained to his captain that day in Auckland, was slightly different. He believed that for India, reckless hitting was not the answer. Given the orthodoxy of most Indian batsmen, the best strategy was sustained aggression employing normal cricketing shots. Once the captain had given his assent, on Tendulkar’s young shoulders lay the responsibility of showing the way.

Emboldened by the result at Napier, Ken Rutherford elected to bat after winning the toss. At 34 for 5 it looked a less prescient decision. Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath and Salil Ankola were all moving the ball around prodigiously on a pitch tailor made for the Kiwi bowlers. It was thanks to some dogged resistance from Chris Harris and Adam Parore (and despite a late masterclass in spin from Rajesh Chauhan), that the final score read 142.

When Ajay Jadeja and Sachin Tendulkar strode out to bat, the Kiwis had little idea what was in store for them. Danny Morrison’s 6 overs went for 46 runs and Chris Pringle only fared marginally better giving away 41 in his 6. Jadeja’s departure with the team score at 61 brought little cheer to the Kiwis with Tendulkar’s assault in full swing on the shell shocked bowlers. Almost unnoticed, his long standing partner-in-crime within the 22-yards, Vinod Kambli, walked in.

By the time Tendulkar miscued a drive back into the hands of left-arm spinner Matthew Hart, the Kiwis had surrendered themselves to the inevitable. India’s total read 117 and Tendulkar had scored 82 of them. More importantly he had taken a mere 49 deliveries to do so, with 15 fours, two sixes, the innings clocked at a strike-rate of 167.34.

Tendulkar’s strategy had been tested and found to be a sound one. It would change the way most teams in the world approached limited overs cricket in the years to come.

The Impact of Sachin Tendulkar

It is tempting to look for a specific inflexion point in the journey of an individual in a sport, that moment when the spotlight of greatness is switched on. For Tendulkar, it had to be that fateful day at Auckland.

Before Auckland he had played 69 ODIs. His average was 30.84, boasting a high score of 84 among his 1758 runs. Post-Auckland he would appear in a further 344 matches, scoring another 15310 runs at 48.29.

Let’s think about this. In those 344 matches he opened the innings with Sourav Ganguly 136 times. In those instances, Tendulkar’s average was even more impressive at 49.32. Ganguly’s ODI average as an opener was 41.37. So on average India’s opening pair was putting on over 100 runs of the team’s total.

With Sehwag, Tendulkar opened 93 times. Sehwag’s average was 36.50 as opener and Tendulkar averaged 42.13 in those matches. So when the two walked out to bat at the start of the innings, India could expect on average about 79 runs from their partnership.

So on at least 229 occasions, India piled on between 78 and 101 runs on average before the other nine were required to bat. These are pretty staggering numbers when during the period ODI scores were below 300.

Despite this, the real story of Tendulkar’s batting at the top of the order in ODI’s was not in the number of runs he and his partners scored, but in the fact that his success at the top of the order resulted in the best batsmen in most teams moving up the order from No.3 and 4.

The simple genius of the strategy lay in giving the best batsmen the chance of batting the most deliveries and if the player stayed in the middle, the scoring accelerated without undue risks being taken by these naturally aggressive batsmen.

This in turn forced international teams to rethink their bowling strategy on how they approached the first phase of a limited overs game. Eventually, how a team managed their resources during the fielding restrictions would go beyond the ODI space and impact the T20 format as well.

Having dramatically changed the way limited overs cricket was played, Tendulkar proceeded to do what he did best — score runs. In the 344 ODIs that he played from that fateful day at Auckland, his heavy blade splayed the ball around the park for 15310 runs, raising his bat during the course of his career for 49 tons and 96 half centuries in the process. As if that wasn’t enough, he also became the first man to score a double century in the 50-over format.

As we let out collective gasps at the audacity and scoring prowess of T20 and ODI openers in the power play today, it is staggering to think that it was a pain in the neck combined with the bold and imaginative strategy of a 21-year-old genius, that on an autumn day of 1994, forever changed the way white ball cricket was played.

Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India’s Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019.

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