It was a chilly, wintry evening in Una, a shabby, dusty town in Himachal Pradesh. To keep ourselves warm we were sipping tea at a roadside stall. At a handshaking distance from us two boys, still in their teens, were indulging in a similar exercise. We were told to have a good look at one of them.
He was just an under-15 aspiring cricketer who had come to this unknown town to play a zonal one-day match. But that was not the reason why he was special. His prodigious batting skills, even at that age, had made experts predict great things for him. “You better meet him and shake his hand. You will cherish this day many years later and be able to tell the world you knew the man when he was a nobody,” was the advice given to us.
Today, when Sachin Tendulkar has scaled the highest summit in Test cricket, memories of that day flashed before my eyes.Two decades have elapsed, but the cherubic face, the mischievous eyes and the calm demeanor, the three characteristics that had left an impression that day, come throbbing back to life, every time Tendulkar passes a milestone.
Each time you watch, you marvel at the dignified manner in which he has withstood the scrutiny of the media, the pressure of his own expectations and the unbearable pressure placed by his fans. Even more admirable is the way he has remained rooted and avoided all the trappings of stardom. Lesser mortals with modest achievements have found fame and wealth dangerous temptations and have lost their bearings.
What makes him the man he is? His reserve, which at times gets misinterpreted as arrogance, has kept him sane and his passion for batting, or shall we say obsession with his craft, has kept him insulated from the outside world, which wants him to score a hundred every time he goes out to bat.
Eight years into his international career and already an iconic figure, he had talked about the pressure he goes through, his all-consuming passion for his batting and the toll it could take on his mind and body.
In 1997 he was leading India in the West Indies and the series had not gone off well for the team and even him. “I still can’t sleep at night, especially if I have to bat the next day,” he was to say. He was aware the pressure he put on himself was not good in the long run. “But I can’t help it. This is the way I am,” he had said.
To the question that a time may come when he could get bored with the game, he had replied, “Yes, I know, I could. There are times when, even now, I lose my focus while batting, but those moments are rare.”
Had he remained captain, his career may have got truncated as the pressure of handling a side was, by his own admission, so tedious and burdensome that he possibly could not have been able to concentrate on his batting as much as he wanted to.
The loss of focus he had talked about ten years ago had more to do with the responsibilities of captaincy than any boredom with his batting.
Over the years now, he has faced a lot of criticism from unforgiving fans. Ailments have scarred his body and age has dulled his razor-sharp reflexes.
It was around the start of the new millennium, that he became a cautious accumulator of runs from an adventurous striker of the ball, whose greatness lay in flirting with danger, challenging the best of bowlers and still succeeding.
The change from a tear away sprinter to a measured, calculating marathon runner came at a time when his physical prowess had started to decline, the first symptoms of which was his back problem followed by a few other career threatening injuries. A lesser man would have given up but Tendulkar reinvented himself. It gave his batting greater solidity, helped him in the longevity race, but it also took away that aspect of his skill which had thrilled and excited the world.
One could see a glimpse of that changed world in 2000. It was almost a shock to see him in his hotel room late at night, preparing to sleep on the floor while the cushioned bed had not been even touched. In the room itself, all one could see was a framed picture of Sai Baba and a VCD recorder. It was almost like being in the room of a monk, who had given up worldly pleasures for the love of God. In Tendulkar’s case the God obviously was his obsession with cricket.
As if reading my mind, he smiled and said, “That is what life is all about.”
Tendulkar today has gone beyond anyone before him and in the course of his journey he may have altered his route, but the destination never changed.
He no longer may be the dominant, domineering batsman of yore, but to have lasted 20 years and broken every conceivable record possible in all forms of the game, is an achievement mere mortals can only dream of. Only someone of Tendulkar’s genius can go out there and turn that dream into a reality.