By Ashish Magotra

Sachin Tendulkar changed the way India and the world perceived the game. He did it through his cricket first and then by showing cricket its true worth.

“Switch off the TV set.”

The last thing you want to associate with a player is having to turn off the TV, but whether we admit it or not, most Indians who followed cricket in ’90s have all been guilty of switching off the television set or, at least mentally switching off, as soon as Sachin Tendulkar has been dismissed.

This wasn’t because Indian fans didn’t want their team to win. It was a simple and accurate reflection of how we all felt about cricket during the era when Tendulkar was at his peak. It was Sachin, or nothing.

The era began, fittingly, against India’s great rivals, Pakistan. In 1987, Imran Khan’s team had returned with a Test series victory in India, and two years later, won the six-nation Nehru Cup ODI tournament on Indian soil. Now, in 1989-90, India were back for what broadcasters called a “revenge” series though there really wasn’t any hope for one.

Two out of five members of India’s selection committee were reluctant to include a youngster barely out of school in the squad to face the deadly pace and swing of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and the up and coming Waqar Younis. But the verdict went in favour of Tendulkar by a slim 3-2 margin. The doubt was not because they thought he wasn’t talented enough, but whether it was too early to throw him into the deep end.

Soon, the sight of a 16-year-old taking on Imran, Wasim and Waqar -- names that instilled fear in opposing batsmen and fans alike -- by simply standing his ground even after being hit on the helmet was enough to not only get India to unabashedly fall in love with him, but Pakistani fans couldn’t help but be enamoured either.

Sachin’s feats in school cricket and the Ranji Trophy had caught everyone’s eye in Mumbai; this was proof, real proof, that a star of blinding proportions was about to arrive. The thought of what he might become when he would mature was enough to make us all pay attention. For a sports fan, there is nothing more exciting than to set eyes on a genius starting early, and then watching them make their way to the promised land. When Sachin arrived, the stage was set for India and the rest of the world to follow this story unfold -- live TV, new channels erupting, the cusp of high-quality broadcast amid a media boom -- unlike how things were when Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were starting out in the 1970s.

On the flip side, the weight of the world was on Tenduklar’s young shoulders. It can be a hard journey, one that not everyone makes successfully, and that added to the allure. For, many start well, then stutter; many others never really get going, showing just glimpses of what they are capable of; and many simply find the stage too intimidating.

But some, like Sachin, just fit. They make the stage their own. They become the stage. Evidence of what the boy wonder was capable of emerged during that tour of Pakistan. The official match of the Festival Cup at Peshawar -- a city that is the Wild West in every sense -- was turned into a 20-over exhibition match because of bad light. Tendulkar was batting against leg-spinner Abdul Qadir -- after he had already smashed a very young Mushtaq Ahmed early in his short innings. The experienced Qadir, ever the provocateur, wasn’t about to let the youngster have his way. So he let loose a few words, “Bachchon ko kyon mar rahe ho? Hamein bhi maar dikhao.” As far as sledging goes, it was extremely polite but the words served to fire up Tendulkar.

In the grainy footage above, you can see the response that has become part of Tendulkar’s origin story. It was immediate; it was brutal; and it was of the kind that the commentators had never seen Gavaskar or even the maverick Kris Srikkanth pull off. Twenty-seven runs were scored off the over. India could see that here was a teenager who relished rising to the challenge. Put him in a fight and he would not back down. India fell short in that match by four runs but it really didn’t matter. They had gained something far greater.

Tendulkar holds the Ranji Trophy as the victorious Bombay captain.

The rise

In his first four years in international cricket (1989 to 1992), Tendulkar played 20 Tests. He scored 1,085 runs at an average of 37.41 During the same period, he also played 47 ODIs, scoring 1,360 runs at an average of 33.17. These numbers, when viewed in isolation, didn’t paint a great picture. Statistics can tell you a lot about a player, but they can also leave out a lot too. So much of what we make of a batter is based on what we see -- how comfortable he looks in the middle; the sound his bat makes when it hits the ball; his assuredness in defence; the way his feet move to spinners; and how much time he seems to have while playing the quicker bowlers. Tendulkar kept ticking all those parameters.

The initial period allowed him to settle in. There were the odd sparkling knock, accompanied with the caveat that he was still in his teens, as he got stronger and more comfortable in his skin.

Then, from 1993, he slowly started to cut loose.

The defining moment was perhaps when he opened the batting for the first time in Eden Park, Auckland. Navjot Singh complained of a stiff neck and Tendulkar pleaded with manager Ajit Wadekar to let him open the innings.

“I went up to Azhar and our manager Ajit Wadekar, a former Indian captain and a leading batsman of his time, and pleaded with them to give me an opportunity at the top of the order,” Tendulkar wrote in his autobiography Playing It My Way.

He added: “Why did I think I should open? Well, I had the ability to attack bowlers and play shots from the word go, and in the one-day game, the key was to take advantage of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs. I was sure that I just needed a chance to prove myself.” And prove himself, he did. After India bowled out the hosts for just 142, Tendulkar smashed 82 off just 49 and helped India win by seven wickets. He hit 15 fours and two sixes in his innings and showed that he was pretty much born to take on the new ball.

Between the start of 1993 and end of 1999, Sachin played 53 Test matches and averaged 64.27 for his 4,756 runs. In 182 ODIs during the period, 7,211 runs were scored at an average of 45.35. The hundreds started rolling in and so did the plaudits.

The numbers were starting to match his potential. But even then, it was the way he made his runs that left a mark on all those watching, including the great Don Bradman. This is what the Don said of Tendulkar in 1998: “In matters of stroke production and shot selection, Sachin Tendulkar is the player who most reminds me of the way I myself used to play.”

Big money

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is now the world’s richest cricket body. But, in 1992, it had a deficit of $150,000 and they would actually pay Doordarshan 5 lakh to broadcast cricket matches. In 1997, the International Cricket Council (ICC), the apex body for world cricket, wasn’t in the red, but it had just $25,000 to show for its 90-year history.

But that was about to change, and it was in no small measure because the rise of Tendulkar coincided with a newly liberalised India that needed someone to put on the pedestal of consumerist heaven. Everyone who took up cricket in India was watching Sachin, and everyone who followed cricket around the world was watching Sachin.

WorldTel boss Mark Mascarenhas, who lived in the US, was one of those who was enticed after he watched a Tendulkar century on television, then met the batter in 1995 through Ravi Shastri, and wasted no time in signing him up for a five-year contract, guaranteeing him 30 crore.

“I chose to promote Sachin Tendulkar because I have never seen (Donald) Bradman play; never saw (Garry) Sobers play; I saw Viv (Richards), but he couldn’t figure out (Bhagwat) Chandrashekhar on his debut. And then I saw Sachin. I had never seen anyone like this,” Mascarenhas later told in May 2000.

Mascarenhas would later give Sachin an eye-popping, hitherto unprecedented 100-crore deal in 2001.

During this time, Sachin’s batting started becoming a stroke-filled trademark that didn’t seem to be wanting on any front. The on-the-toes straight drive was a punchy staccato. The cover drive, if it came out early, was a sign of how he was feeling about his game on a day. The right-wrist-over-left flick did not make your jaw drop -- as perhaps Azhar’s did -- but it worked every time despite his heavy bat. The pull shot showed how quickly he picked up the length of the delivery. And the cuts and the slashes stayed hit when he struck them.

The role of inspiration

Over the years, Tendulkar’s focus never wavered though the money kept rolling in, and TV ads continued to project him as a demigod. He became captain, but that experiment didn’t work. When the match-fixing scandal shook the nation, Sachin chose to stay silent (though many wanted him to speak). And he suffered a spate of injuries and went though a host of surgeries. But every time he found himself facing adversity, Sachin simply went to the basics and found solace in the thing he loved the most – batting.

Sachin’s great Test knocks simply roll off the tongue – an unbeaten 119 against England in 1990, the counter-attacking 169 off 253 balls against South Africa in 1996-97, the heartbreaking 136 against Pakistan in 1998-99 that didn’t prove enough, and the spellbinding 155* off 191 against Australia in 1997-98 when Shane Warne’s bowling figures read 30-7-122-1.

And there were the great ODI knocks as well. The “Desert Storm” – take 1 and take 2 – against Australia in 1998 at Sharjah. The 523 runs during the 1996 World Cup included two 100s and three 50s. His 118 against Sri Lanka in 1996 helped India go past the 300-run mark for the first time. The 186* against New Zealand in 1999 helped him become the then holder of the highest individual score by an Indian in ODIs. The 140 scored against Kenya in 1999 World Cup came just a few days after he lost his father.

For much of his early years, it seemed like Sachin was fighting a lone battle. From 1989 to 1999, India won just one of 47 Tests away from home. The ODI record was better but no major trophies were won. It was clear that Sachin needed some support.

And in a way, that is where he came to his own rescue. Sachin’s performances over the years inspired so many others to take up the game, and as the ’90s came to an end, Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, and then Virender Sehwag started to emerge from the pack.

Cricketing fandom became slightly more democratized after that. But the ’90s era was peak Tendulkar. And it will forever be remembered by one chant that rang louder than any other -- “Sachin, Saaaachin!”

1989 - 2000