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By Suresh Menon
In the midst of the usual (and expected) over-the-top comments that the IPL generates, Ricky Ponting's plainspeak has come as relief. What he said was commonplace, almost banal – he merely pointed out that neither he nor Sachin Tendulkar, his opening partner at Mumbai Indians had been performing to par. “The two guys at the top of the order haven't done the job required of them by the team,” he said at the end of the team's fifth match, against Rajasthan Royals. It was a simple statement of fact, but simple statements of fact are not what the IPL is known for.
The accepted technique is to overstate the merely adequate, and ignore the bad. Had any of the television commentators, for example, been in Ponting's place, he would have raved about the two innings where the opening pair put on over 50 runs, and pretended that all those other early dismissals didn't happen.
Yet there is something depressing about watching two of the game's greatest batsmen struggle in a format where the journeymen players appear so comfortable. It seems so long ago now, but it was just over a fortnight back that Tendulkar and Ponting walked out to open against Royal Challengers Bangalore amidst enormous anticipation. That simple act – walking out together – had already made the game memorable for the spectators, the runs were merely a bonus. Yet, they batted (even if less fluently than they have been known to) with purpose if not style, and seemed to be in real danger only when they ran between the wickets. Tendulkar fell as he had threatened to do, run out, and you could put down the huge cheer that rent the air when the third umpire confirmed it to the fact that he was now 'opposition'. Never before has a Tendulkar dismissal been so universally welcomed in an Indian stadium.
But that's the obverse side of the 'loyalty' coin. If the IPL is meant to whip up support for local franchises, it is only fair to expect that opposing players will find little support in large stadiums.
Ponting is perhaps the first active player to suggest that Tendulkar is out of touch, and that alone made the post-match press conference significant. Tendulkar has been criticised by the media, by former players and by letter-writers who have often hidden behind their anonymity, but current players (although strictly Ponting does not count as one, having retired from international cricket) have decided that discretion is the better part of valour.
Some followers of the IPL might get a perverse pleasure in seeing the Mumbai Indians struggle so. They have spent the most money, attracted the most expensive players and coaches and are yet to play to potential in the IPL. To the neutral observer, it generates the kind of emotion that watching a Rolls Royce stalled on the road would. Or a Charlie Chaplin slipping on a banana peel.
Ponting also spoke of 'mixing and matching' the batting order which probably means that one, if not both openers, will go down the order when Mumbai take on Delhi in their next match. Ajit Chandila, the off spinner who claimed both their wickets in the Rajasthan match cannot be unaware of the fact that he was assisted by the batsmen – Tendulkar's somewhat predetermined sweep lobbing up round the corner and Ponting popping up a return catch. Both are capable of shrugging off the recent past and dipping into the form-reviving pleasures of a past when they were lords of all they surveyed.
For Tendulkar, the current run – poor scores, low expectations, the possible throwing in of the towel – might be a precursor to his magnificent run as possibly the greatest international batsman of all time. Nobody likes a hero to go out with a whimper.