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There’s something about Sachin

Indian sport’s first global brand, Tendulkar is the generation-straddling poster boy of a sport that defines the world’s most populous democracy. Soumya Bhattacharya tells more.

entertainment Updated: Jul 14, 2010 19:06 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya


From Archives of

Brunch

for 5th Anniversary Special



Take a deep breath. And think about this. When Sachin Tendulkar first played for India in November 1989, the Babri Masjid was intact; the Berlin Wall had just about fallen; Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK; Nirvana was two years away from recording Smells Like Teen Spirit; Steffi Graf was Wimbledon champion; and Mahendra Singh Dhoni was eight years old.



That is how long he has been around. Long enough for the world to have changed beyond recognition. Think about this again. What was your life like in 1989? Tendulkar – prodigious, peerless, generation-straddling poster boy of a sport that defines the world’s most populous democracy – is still at it, doing what he used to 19 years ago. Small wonder that an entire nation should be so much in his thrall.



For close to two decades, Tendulkar has dominated India’s collective consciousness in a way no other sportsperson (well, no other person) has. He has more than bound a nation. He has bridged the generation gap. Remember that ad in which a grandmother was seen praying for his success, her rosary beads clattering to the floor as Tendulkar smashed one out of the ground? Well, grandmothers do love him. And fathers and sons are united for once – in their devotion to him. When Tendulkar bats against Pakistan, Ramachandra Guha tells us In a Corner of a Foreign Field, India’s television audience exceeds the population of Europe.



SachinIf Sourav Ganguly was Indian cricket’s Rolling Stones – iconoclastic, snarling, sneering, getting up the opposition’s nose – Tendulkar is our Beatles – universally loved and lovable. Longevity, of course, is merely one of the reasons for the sort of hold Tendulkar has over us. What he has done in those 19 years is another: he has dominated his sport in a manner no other Indian – and almost no other sportsperson in the world – has ever done. It is convenient to get the facts out of the way first. Tendulkar has made 39 centuries in 152 Test matches; he has scored 12,037 runs; he has 42 hundreds in 417 one-day internationals; in them, he has made 16,361 runs at the rate of 86 scored for every 100 balls faced. (Just try scoring 81 hundreds – the number of international centuries Tendulkar has made – while playing with your child in your living room. You are likely to find it terribly hard.)

Some weeks ago, he broke Brian Lara’s record to become the man who has scored more runs than anyone else in Test cricket history. In the innings in which he reached the landmark – an uninhibited, almost flawless innings – he was out for 88. We groaned with disappointment. He didn’t get a hundred, did he? He ought to have. Whatever he gives us, what we want from his is always, unfairly, that much more. It’s inhuman, the burden of expectation the man has had to shoulder. Since this is not a cricket magazine (and since this is merely a fan’s eye view of things, rather than a quote-filled article from a hardworking journalist who is obliged to report on cricket for a living, and can illustrate this piece with a fantastically illuminating Tendulkar quote such as, “I always do the best I can for my country”), it is worthwhile to cut through the jungle of numbers and say it in an unambiguous sentence: Tendulkar has made more runs and more centuries than any other cricketer in the history of international cricket. He is now 35 years old. The story is by no means over. But the statistics are not the whole story either. Tendulkar is unarguably the most successful Indian cricketer ever, but merely the success does not explain the adulation that he continues to inspire.

In a way, his career – and the tale of how he acquired his frenzied, worshipping masses of admirers – has something to do with when he came along, and how his life became entwined with contemporary India’s story of growth, hope and change, and its newfound and desperate need for self-congratulation and chestthumping. As always with Tendulkar, timing is critical. And he could not have chosen to arrive in international cricket at a more appropriate moment. The protectionist economy was being opened up, and India was beginning its journey towards becoming a global economic powerhouse. “Greed,” Gordon Gekko told us in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street, “is good.” It wasn’t, not yet in India, not quite, when Tendulkar made his debut, but over the course of his remarkable career, it would get there. Or at least being wealthy, outrageously wealthy, and not apologetic about it, would become acceptable as India sloughed off its old diffidence about money and ostentation. When he appeared, India was beginning to give birth to a new, affluent, urban middle class – and a new meritocracy. Tendulkar, 16 years old then, more boy than man, exceptionally gifted and incredibly mature for his age, very quickly began to embody all the qualities that this new class treasured.


He was a world-beater, a global citizen; he was smart, he dressed well, he drove sexy cars; he was, above all, a self-made man. And the money he earned: huge sums, unthinkable ones, more than anyone had ever made before him. He was Indian sport’s first global brand.

As cultural critic and author Mike Marqusee has suggested: “The intensity of the Tendulkar cult is about much more than just cricket. Unwittingly and unwillingly, he has found himself at the epicentre of a rapidly evolving popular culture shaped by the intertwined growth of a consumerist middle class and an increasingly aggressive form of national identity. National aspirations and national frustrations are poured by millions into his every performance.”

And yet he appears to exemplify certain cherished Indian values: humility, deference to elders, and a zealously guarded private life. Respect for all the things that ought to be respected. With Tendulkar, we can have it both ways, and are delighted about that: he typifies the best of both worlds that we think we strive to inhabit. And what of the play? What – as the know-all-but-know-nothing marketing managers with no expertise of their own, love to call it – what of the area of core competence?

In that, too, we have got the best of both worlds from Tendulkar. On the field, he is safe as houses; yet he is as destructive as a battle tank. He is a fantasy combination of Sunil Gavaskar and Viv Richards.

His defence is textbook perfect; so is his attack. His inventiveness and improvisation according to the pitch and the state of the game have left us breathless again and again. And for many of us, he was the first Indian batsman who could score mountains of runs, and score them with a sort of murderous intent.

I shouldn’t really get started on the sporting memories he has given us: the blitzkrieg of a century on a brutally quick Perth pitch when he was 19 years old; the century in Bloemfontein in South Africa in 2001 when he turned the spooned shot over third man into a potent, attacking stroke; the innings amid the dust stormin Sharjah against Australia; that plunder against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup.

No, the list is too long, and it is pointless to go on. It is probably simpler to go back to a few numbers. He has scored 23 Test hundreds abroad – always the true test of class for an international player. And, just to give you a sense of how much he had achieved so unbelievably early, he had scored six hundreds in four countries by the time he was 19 years old.

But Tendulkar isn’t 19 years old any longer, a fact we tend to seem to forget. He was once the son that every father wanted. Now, with two grown children of his own, he is the father that every son or daughter would rather have. His iconography has appropriately changed: he now endorses life insurance.

It would be stupid to expect his game to not have altered as he has got older, as his body has become weary and has slowed down, and the opposition has had more and more of a chance to study, analyse and dissect his game and make plans for him. Tendulkar has adapted. And often adapted when the going has not been good. It took him 18 months (from April 2004 to December 2005) to go from Century Number 33 to Century Number 35, but he did get there. And well beyond.

He endured 2003, his injury-hit, worst year in international cricket, in which he scored 153 runs in five Tests at an average of 17. (His career average still stands at 54.) Coming off that year, in January 2004 against Australia in Sydney, he scored 241 not out: an unlovely innings of awesome rigour and concentration, shrinking his repertoire by refusing to play at all the shot that had got him out previously. He showed us, that if he really put his mind to it, he simply would not be dismissed.

It was monumental. It was riveting. “At Sydney, I just decided when I walked out to bat that I wasn’t going to get out,” he told wisden.com afterwards. “No matter how long I batted, I wasn’t going to get out.”

He didn’t actually, remaining not out on 60 in the second innings. That resolve to hang in there and accumulate runs sounded unfamiliar to us. But the self-confidence that allows a batsman to make a promise like that to himself – and to keep it – did not. That was very like Tendulkar. That is the sort of response to crises that the man has shown in the autumn of his extraordinary career. He takes fewer risks now; at the same time, he is harder to get out once he gets going. (In 2004, for instance, his smallest hundred was 194 not out.)

It is this dogged, grimly determined Tendulkar that some of his fans seem to mind. He has compromised swashbuckle for solidity. He has gone from being hunter to gatherer. When he opens his shoulders and loses his inhibitions even nowadays, he can show us the beautiful savagery that we associated with him of old. Yet we tend to sometimes regret that the sense of thrilling possibility (the idea that anything, really, could happen when he was there) that he once brought with him to the crease no longer hovers in the air when he comes out to bat.

Tendulkar is playing for records, some of his detractors love to say. I don’t think it’s true. I think Tendulkar is playing a low-risk game that will give him – and his team – maximum benefit at this stage of his career. The comparison with one of Tendulkar’s idols, Richards, has been made over and over again. Richards never changed, he never tempered his savagery. But, as Sambit Bal explains in an essay on cricinfo: “His last three years fetched Richards only 978 runs, from 19 Tests, at an average of 36.22, with only one century. Richards was too proud to defend, but he was a lesser player for it during his last years.” It is hard to tell how long Tendulkar will go on. Certainly, it is just as hard to imagine cricket without Tendulkar as it is to imagine Tendulkar without cricket.

Here is another staggering fact: he has spent more years of his life playing international cricket than he has not. (And he yet retains, people close to him say, the inimitable, indefatigable quality that coaches and senior found so endearing in him when he was a teenager: he still just loves to bat and bat.)

It strikes me that there is a whole generation of Indian cricket fans who are, say, in their mid- or late-20s, and recall no Indian cricket other than that dominated by Tendulkar. They will, once he goes, realize the strangeness of not having him there. They will deal with the awful vacuum. And they shall speak to future generations of what it was like to have him around.

We do know this, all of us: we shall not see the likes of him. Ever again. And what of fans like me, the ones slouching towards 40, the ones who had cricketing heroes like Gundappa Viswanath and Kapil Dev before Tendulkar burst on to our consciousness and the world’s?

“I believe that heroes,” wrote the poet, critic and cricket fan, Alan Ross, “are necessary to children and that as we grow up it becomes more difficult to establish them in the increasingly unresponsive soil of our individual mythology. Occasionally, the adult imagination is caught and sometimes it is held; but the image rarely takes root.”

Tendulkar’s magic has been that his image has taken root in the adult imagination. He was the first sporting hero I had who was younger than me. When he first played, he was 16, and I 20.

He has made men past adolescence discover again the joys of hero worship. Even the cynics amongst us, those of us ever wary of idolatry, become like awed, star-struck children when he is at the crease. God (if there was one, we think), on a good day, would do well to match his genius. As our lives grow more complicated and burdensome, Tendulkar – piercing four men on the off side with that breathtaking cover drive – shows us that sudden, heart-lurching delirium still has a place in our lives. When he takes guard, our stomachs churn, and our hands feel clammy. Even those of us who believe in neither a god nor a devil find ourselves praying (to whom exactly?) that he sticks around long enough to give us an innings (another one) to cherish. Here is Ross again. “Heroes die with one’s youth. They are pinned like butterflies to the setting board of early memories.” Far more effectively than cosmetic surgery, Tendulkar has made us all young again.

From Archives of Brunch for 5th Anniversary Special