“Gentlemen, Tendulkar never fails”, said the elderly selector. This wasn’t uttered after Sachin Tendulkar had captured the imagination of a cricket-crazy nation or after the finest leg spin bowler to play the game admitted to having nightmares because of Tendulkar. It was on the eve of the Indian national team selection to the tour of West Indies in 1989. Tendulkar wasn’t 16 yet. The selector was responding to doubts from other gentlemen in the selection panel about exposing a 15-year old to the might of Ambrose and Walsh.
I was 13. I had to look up the meaning of the word “wunderkid” in a dictionary, as it had recently entered my vocabulary through the several articles on newspapers and magazines praising this precocious batting talent coming out of the Bombay cricket scene. He was lighting up scoreboards at every level he played and was destined to take over the mantle of the next great Indian batsman from Sunil Gavaskar.
With a mop of curly hair peeking out from the sides of his grill-less helmet, a boy amongst men took the first steps of an international career not showing signs of slowing down even 22 years later in Pakistan. My family did not have a television set at that time and I had to imagine the ambience that Tendulkar must’ve walked out to at Karachi from radio commentary and newspaper reports the next day. My school mates and I gushed about the gumption in this little boy-man to halt the senior Pakistani bowler in his run up so that he could have everything just the way he wanted it - perfect. The legend was born when he was dealt a bloody nose in his debut test but refused medical attention to prove a point to everyone around him that, despite his teenybopper looks, he belonged on the stage where men went at each other’s throats.
Old habits die hard. I was back in India after a gap of 9 years. There was a test series going on between the top two sides in the world – India and South Africa and the World Number One ranking was at stake. The match was interestingly poised - but then Tendulkar got out. My brother, nearly 20 years my senior – I learned my cricket from him – got up, turned the TV off and walked away. I was a bit distracted and had missed the dismissal. When I inquired, pat came the response: “Tendulkar is out. What is left to watch?” This wasn't an unusual scene in the 90’s but I was a bit surprised to see it in 2010, even after the successes the Indian team has had and the team's ability to forge towards wins without overly relying on contribution from Tendulkar.
Greg Baum once wrote in The Age, “I was on a night train winding down from Simla to Kalka that stopped halfway for refreshments at a station lit by flaming torches. On a small television screen wreathed in cigarette smoke in the corner of the dining room Tendulkar was batting in a match in Mumbai. No one moved or spoke or looked away. The train was delayed by 20 minutes. Not until Tendulkar was out could the world resume its normal timetables and rhythms.”
Every thing stopped in India for Tendulkar and Tendulkar moved everything for India.
This is what Tendulkar continues to represent for a large part of the country’s population. He burst onto the cricket arena, captured the nation’s collective imagination and people saw in him and his battles on the field a reflection of their own struggles in their day-to-day lives. When he waged battles, single-handedly willing India to improbable victories, he began to personify the hopes and dreams of millions of Indians.
The last 15 years Indian cricket has seen four of the best middle order batsmen, perhaps even the game has ever seen. Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar. Each of these batsmen brought their own inimitable styles to the game and cricket is richer for it. The studious, bloody-mindedness of Dravid, the elegance of Ganguly and the lazy ease and fabulous wrist work of Laxman – you can’t go wrong with any of them as your favorite cricketer, but Tendulkar was all that and some.
A perfectly balanced stance, the pure arc of the bat, the still head, nimble feet, swift transfer of weight made Tendulkar a delight to watch. No wonder The Don thought of Tendulkar to be the closest in batting style to him.
When he began his international career he played with the sort of flair and flamboyance only the fearlessness of youth can bring. He played the most audacious shots against the toughest of the bowlers. He was wont to play shots “on the up” to the quickest of the bowlers as he picked the length very early. Ian Healy is known to have said the century that Tendulkar scored at lightning quick WACA in 1992 was the best display of cuts and pulls he has seen from a batsman from outside of Australia. In the same tour, Merv Hughes is reputed to have told the then Australian captain Allan Border, “This little prick is gonna end up making a lot more runs than you A.B.” How prescient of Hughes that was.
Not only has Tendulkar gone ahead of Border but he has smashed the record books in to smithereens and has set an almost impossible benchmark for greatness and longevity. You know all the stats and the records, so there's little point in me regurgitating them for you here.
There is a video of the young school boy Tendulkar being interviewed. Give it a whirl. I’ll wait.
Welcome back. Did you hear the part when he was asked whether he would like to face the Malcolm Marshalls of the world? His response: “I prefer facing pacemen as the ball would come on to the bat”. So matter of fact. So Tendulkar. That’s a boy not even 16 yet. If not a batting genius, what else?
He is the pride of India. Everybody wants him. Everybody wants to be him. He was the first mega-star of the cricket world in terms of revenues from commercials. When he said, “Boost is the secret of my energy”, we believed him. When the dark clouds of match-fixing robbed us of our innocence in 2000. When Tendulkar said, “We will get through this”, We believed him. Whenever he stepped on to the field, we believed in him.
When, after hitting the winning runs in Chennai, he said of the terrible tragedy that befell his hometown Mumbai in 2008 “It's not only for the people of Mumbai, it's for all of us. We're Indians and that is how I look at it and I'd like to dedicate this hundred to all the people who have gone through such terrible times”, we shed tears of joy and sorrow.
When he was carried on the shoulders of his teammates for a victory lap at his homeground of Wankhede earlier this year after grabbing the one trophy that had eluded him and young Virat Kohli said, “He has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years and it’s about time we carried him”, we felt our hearts fill with joy for this dedicated servant of Indian cricket. You may not be a fan of the Indian cricket team, but at that moment, I am sure you felt unconditional happiness for this player who has for so long filled our consciousness with so many batting masterpieces.
We have seen many geniuses fall. History is littered with the remnants of athletes that seemed almost super-human. Tiger Woods comes to mind immediately. Even Shane Warne. Even with a billion pairs of prying eyes watching his every move, Tendulkar has pretty much lived a scandal free life. He is humble and defers to the people that came before him. Every kid who has picked up a bat since 1989 probably wanted to be like Sachin: some of those kids actually play alongside him for India. But every parent in India wants their kids to be like Sachin the way he was off the cricket field and that’s the best compliment one can ever receive: A good, decent human being, a good husband and a father.