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His success is entwined with contemporary India’s story of growth

One hundred international hundreds. Say it aloud. Slowly. And then think of where it puts Sachin Tendulkar — prodigious, peerless, generation-straddling poster boy of a sport that defines the world's most populous democracy — in cricket's pantheon. Soumya Bhattacharya writes. A-Z of Tendulkar

india Updated: Mar 17, 2012 01:15 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Master-Blaster-Sachin-Tendulkar-raises-his-bat-after-scoring-his-100th-hundred-AP-Photo
Master-Blaster-Sachin-Tendulkar-raises-his-bat-after-scoring-his-100th-hundred-AP-Photo

One hundred international hundreds. Say it aloud. Slowly. And then think of where it puts Sachin Tendulkar — prodigious, peerless, generation-straddling poster boy of a sport that defines the world's most populous democracy — in cricket's pantheon.

No one, in the highly competitive cauldron of international cricket, has been remotely near where Tendulkar has now reached. Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis, two legends of the modern game, are his closest pursuers. Ponting has 71 international hundreds; Kallis has 59. It is safe to say that neither will be able to overtake Tendulkar. This record --- like Sir Don Bradman's Test average of 99.94 --- is one that will remain unconquered for as long as the game is played.

One can argue that the hundredth international hundred is a mere statistic; that Tendulkar's greatness is in no way staked on it (as Bradman's wasn't on achieving a Test average of 100). But it's not merely about this particular record. This feat has just as much to do with who Tendulkar is, and what he means to India.

With Tendulkar, timing has been important. In a way, his career 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 recent and desperate need for self-congratulation and chest-thumping. He arrived in international cricket as the economy was being opened up, and India was beginning its journey towards becoming a global economic powerhouse. When he appeared, India was beginning to give birth to a new, affluent, urban middle class. Tendulkar, 16 years old at the time, exceptionally gifted and incredibly mature, quickly began to embody all the qualities that this new class treasured.

A SELF-MADE MAN

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 written: "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."

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 command respect. With Tendulkar, we can have it both ways, and we are delighted about that: on the face of it, he typifies the best of both worlds that we think we strive to inhabit. And then, of course, there is his play. The unbridled ferocity --- rooted in exemplary defence --- of his early years was what won us over 99 hundreds ago. We cherish the pomp and pageantry of his display in 1998 --- the year in which he scored 2541 international runs, the most he has scored in any calendar year. No Indian cricket fan will forget his back-to-back ODI centuries in Sharjah, one interrupted by a dust storm in which, as other players scurried for shelter, Tendulkar stood motionless, not so much as taking off his helmet.

INJURY SETBACKS

We wince when we think of how 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. Coming off that year, in January 2004 against Australia in Sydney, he scored 241 not out: an innings of superhuman rigour and concentration, shrinking his repertoire by refusing to play at all the cover drive that had got him out previously. It was monumental. It was riveting.

Injury nearly finished him in 2006, and by the time he played the World Cup in 2007, many of us were convinced that it would be his last. Tendulkar wasn't.

In November 2009, he scored 175 in an ODI against Australia in Hyderabad. The century came from 81 balls, and the innings was informed by the sort of unabated savagery that we associated with the teenaged Tendulkar whom we had so adored.

For some years, Tendulkar had made it seem that the hunter in him had been subsumed into the gatherer. That night, the hunter unveiled his old arsenal. And we saw that nothing had been lost. That innings represented a sort of turning point, a magnificent late efflorescence in the autumn of a unique career.

In 2010, his twenty-second year in international cricket, Tendulkar was named the ICC's Cricketer of the Year. He returned to the Number 1 spot in the ICC's Test rankings. In 16 international games, he scored 1766 runs with eight centuries at an average of 84.09. He scored the first — and, as yet, only Virender Sehwag has emulated him — double century in the history of ODIs, when he made an unbeaten 200 against South Africa in Gwalior. At the age of 37, Tendulkar, who had scored six hundreds in four countries by the time he was 19 years old, was only getting better.

The past 12 months, the tours to England and Australia, have been odd. Tendulkar has endured 33 international innings without a century. He has often seemed fluent and full of intent, but has then not gone on. On occasions, he has floundered. As his reaction to the century on Friday showed, he is only human, and the statistic had been a burden. By scoring it, he showed us again how long and how heavy a burden he has borne for most of his life.

It is futile to compare Bradman with Tendulkar. It is a question that will never find an unequivocal answer. Bradman played on uncovered pitches and without protective gear. Tendulkar's career has taken place in the theatre of a maddeningly taxing international calendar and the demands — and adjustments required — of both Tests and ODIs.

Let this be said unambiguously: In their own ways, they are both incomparable. And both have scaled peaks that no one ever will.

(All That You Can't Leave Behind, Soumya Bhattacharya's book about cricket and India, is published by Penguin)