Where were you on November 15, 1989? I know where I was: glued to the TV watching a 16-year-old boy with curls and rosy cheeks take on Pakistan’s fast bowlers. Twenty years later, the locks are showing a hint of grey but Sachin Tendulkar is still doing what he does best: score runs for India. Much has changed in the world around us in the last 20 years. One thing hasn’t: the presence of Tendulkar on the cricket crease.
Remember 1989? It was the year that the Berlin Wall fell, Rajiv Gandhi lost the general elections and V.P. Singh was transformed into a middle-class hero. It was the year that the militant’s gun first echoed in the Kashmir Valley while the bugle of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was sounded in Ayodhya. In 1989, $500 was your forex limit, Manmohan Singh was far from being the finance minister, there were no private TV news channels and India was still struggling with the Hindu rate of growth. To many Indians of my generation, there is only one link between then and now: the batsmanship of Tendulkar.
Forget the runs and the records. That is for historians and statisticians. For the genuine cricket fan, Tendulkar has always been much more than a run machine: he has played the game the way it was meant to be played — with passion, unbridled enthusiasm and, above all, dignity. It’s true that the gay abandon with which he lit into Abdul Qadir on his first tour to Pakistan has given way to a more methodical approach to batting. Yet, as he showed in Hyderabad, the core of his being is still in playing attacking cricket. Incredibly, even towards the end of his epic, he was running faster than his partners who were almost half his age.
It can’t have been easy. Cricket’s history is littered with stories of prodigies who never quite made the transition to the big league. Not only did Tendulkar make the great leap, but he did it in the span of less than two years. Lesser men would have simply buckled under when hit on the face as he was in the first series by a Waqar bouncer. But he didn’t. In that one fleeting moment, when he dusted himself up, a teenager became a man.
We all have our favourite Tendulkar moment: was it the sliced cut off Shoaib Akhtar for a six in the 2003 world cup? Maybe, it was the emotional century within a week of his father’s death? Or was it his demolition of Shane Warne in Chennai? Or the Sharjah innings that remains his signature one-day knock? Or the double century in Sydney? Or the match-winning innings last year against England within weeks of the 26/11 terror? When you’ve scored a staggering 87 international centuries, then picking a single cricketing achievement isn’t easy.
But his real achievement is beyond the boundary. We live in an age of instant stardom and mini-celebrities, where fame is an intoxicant that can easily consume the best of us. Sachin, remarkably, has been almost untouched by the fact that he is contemporary India’s biggest icon, arguably bigger than even an Amitabh Bachchan or a Shah Rukh Khan. As Khan revealed in an interview, at a party there was a big noise when Big B entered. Then, Sachin entered the hall and Bachchan was leading the queue to grab hold of the cricket champion!
Through the many highs and a few lows, Tendulkar’s balance has never wavered both on and off the field, driven by a single-minded devotion to the game. He has avoided controversy, remaining a private individual. He may not have gone to college, but life has perhaps taught him more than he could have ever learnt there. He is aware of his commercial value but his badge of identity is that he is the Maharashtrian middle-class boy who has remained true to his roots. He may lack the gravitas of Sunil Gavaskar, but on cricketing matters he can be just as articulate.
In a sense, the passing of the baton from Gavaskar to Tendulkar represents the coming of age of Indian cricket and a new India. Gavaskar was the architect, who built every innings with a clinical precision, that perhaps was symbolic of a Nehruvian India when neither Indian cricket nor the country could afford any form of extravagance. Tendulkar is the free-spirited artist who bats with the freedom of an India unshackled of its socialist baggage, where cricket is now part of a lucrative entertainment industry.
So, how much longer will Tendulkar continue? Sir Don Bradman, statistically the greatest-ever batsman, played for Australia for 20 years, interrupted by war and benefiting from the fact that cricket was then a seasonal sport. Sachin, whom the great Don likened to himself, has been playing virtually non-stop for two decades in the most high-pressure environment that modern sport can throw up. Maybe, the body is creaking a little, but the mind doesn’t seem to have given up yet. Maybe, the goal of the 2011 World Cup is still the ultimate motivation. Of course, he will retire one day, but till he does, we must savour the magic. A banner in Sharjah once said it all, “I will see God when I die, but till then I will see Sachin!” Amen.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief , IBN Network
The views expressed by the author are personal