SACHIN TENDULKAR began to make a name for himself on the international stage before his first cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 1992. After debuting against Pakistan in 1989 at 16, Tendulkar progressed well. Ahead of the premier cricketing contest, he scored two centuries in the Test series in Australia and was still a few months short of his 19th birthday when he found himself rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest names in the game. It might have been an intimidating moment, but one that contained the seeds of future greatness that would redefine the modern-day game.
Indeed, the 1992 World Cup marked a changeover. Tendulkar later recalled the pre-tournament gala as an “unbelievable experience” with the greats of the 1980s gathered under one roof. England’s Ian Botham, Graham Gooch and Allan Lamb; Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram from Pakistan; Desmond Haynes, Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose from the West Indies; Allan Border, Mark and Steve Waugh from Australia; and Kiwi titans Martin Crowe and Mark Greatbatch. Then there was Brian Lara, Allan Donald and Jonty Rhodes who, along with Tendulkar, heralded a new and vibrant force in world cricket.
Tendulkar’s recollections of the star ensemble are tinged with wonderment but the occasion did not overawe him. “There were some real big names and some of the world’s top all-rounders. One thing I feel happy about is that I played against all of them: Richard Hadlee, Malcolm Marshall,
Clive Rice, Imran Khan and Ian Botham. They were the best all-rounders the game had produced,” he told icc-cricket.com. In the match against England which India lost narrowly, Tendulkar fell to the guiles of Botham after scoring 35 but not before he showed flashes of special talent. He ended the tournament averaging 47 and being Man of the Match in the only two matches India won.
As India and the cricket-playing world celebrate the cricketing wizard’s 50th birthday, it is easy to run out of words. Hardly any sporting career has been so closely scrutinised and commented on with the advent of year-round telecasts capturing every glittering moment on video. Always a somewhat reticent figure who opens up in close company and among friends, Tendulkar has kept a low profile since he retired in 2013 after a farewell Test in Mumbai, and apart from featuring in advertisements—a testament to his popularity—has not been much in the news. Yet, the embarrassment of riches Indian cricket experiences today is in good measure because of the conviction he planted in a million hearts and the grand spectacle he provided to a nation beset with insecurities in the 1990s when India’s rise looked far from certain.
In his lengthy stay at the crease, Tendulkar shared the limelight with some extraordinary talents. Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are all legends of the modern game. But there was something about Tendulkar that was just electric, with stadiums resounding with chants of “Saaachin! Saaachin!!” every time he batted. In fact, India’s love affair with Tendulkar was instantaneous. The fresh-faced teen with a mop of curly hair was everyone’s favourite. From youthful enthusiasts to dedicated cricket bugs to middle-aged uncles to venerable matrons, they all became his devotees. When he scored against bowlers almost twice his age, he was hailed as an all-conquering genius. When he struggled against a wily veteran, audiences gathered in front of TVs or bunched around radios, agreed that his youth must surely be taken into account. “Abhi to baccha hai! (He’s still a kid),” they would say. His essays at the wicket were incandescent displays of power and elegance, a joyous self-expression that offered not just an escape from a prosaic present but were evidence of all that was probable and possible. If Tendulkar’s prodigious skills and middle-class work ethic could open doors to national and international fame, it could work for others too. It was hardly a surprise to see kids in remote parts of India running around wearing Sachin masks (astutely marketed by cold drink makers) and shouting that is who they wanted to be.
Sachin shared the limelight with some extraordinary talents. Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are all legends of the modern game. But there was something about Tendulkar that was just electric, with stadiums resounding with chants of ‘Saaachin! Saaachin!!’
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It can easily be conceded that no player is perfect, but criticism that Tendulkar’s runs were never made in a winning cause, or that his powers evaporated in the second or later innings, is an apt example of a Nobel-winning economist’s trite observation that “if you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything.” The suggestion that Tendulkar might have played for himself—the implied point behind his alleged ‘underperformance’ in the second innings—is a distraction. Before him, another Mumbai batter, Sunil Gavaskar, had faced similar charges even though he often offered single-handed resistance to some of the fiercest fast bowling attacks without the assistance of modern safety gear. A scrutiny of what India’s second innings totals would be if Tendulkar’s scores were subtracted exposes the fallacy of such analysis. Tendulkar has scored the most first and second innings centuries and tops the table for second and third innings centuries. Tendulkar himself was keenly aware that scoring in the first innings was not enough. Having pulled India out of trouble with a century in Ahmedabad in 2001, he was quick to say his second innings would be more important. To just pick out fourth innings scores, that too without taking note of the match situation, is motivated myopia. No one has scored more than Tendulkar’s 48 centuries in the first three innings of a Test, writes Umang Pabari, a mechanical engineer and cricket enthusiast, in a well-researched article in Sportskeeda. It is hardly a surprise Tendulkar leads in most career runs in the fourth innings even if his average is lower (not unlike most of his peers).
Selective discussions, often made by writers keen on venting biases, could not begin to dent the adulation heaped on Tendulkar. His fans chose to rely on the testimony of their own eyes. Tendullkar’s first century helped India to an unlikely draw as he stitched a 160-run partnership in the second innings with Manoj Prabhakar against England, displaying remarkable poise for a 17-year-old. A Guardian report recalls that on a lightening quick WACA pitch, in a series India lost 4-0, he cut and drove his way to a masterful century in 1992, standing tall amid ruins. Indian fans across the world who switched on TV, or reached bars and pubs to watch the 2003 World Cup, were gratified the moment Tendulkar dismissed Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar for a flat six at the Centurion that left Virender Sehwag grinning from ear to ear at the other end. India lost the 1999 Chennai Test to Pakistan by 12 runs but not before Tendulkar almost pulled off the impossible battling a sore back, riding on sheer will power. His century against England in the final innings in Chennai in 2008 lifted India to a win, recording one of the highest run chases in Test cricket. In the 2004 Sydney Test, Tendulkar decided to sidestep the 7:2 offside field Steve Waugh had set for him, abjuring his trademark cuts and cover drives. “In a master class of self-control, concentration and skill, Tendulkar stuck solid to this method for more than 10 hours of batting that yielded 241 runs and dismissed any notion that the champ was in a slump,” wrote well-regarded cricket writer Martin Smith on cricket.com.au. While his batting was often free-spirited, it did not mean he lacked the grit to grind it out if that was what was needed.
Tendulkar’s iridescent career needs neither vindication nor defenders. His was a key presence on or off the field, whether in negotiating the tricky “Monkeygate” controversy, or taking the time to visit an ailing Yuvraj Singh in London to tell him he was not alone in his fight against cancer. He led the way, throwing himself about the field in a manner previous greats never did. The Indian sides that toured in the 1970s had world-beating spinners who bowled in their throws to ‘preserve’ their shoulders while seniors parked themselves in the slips. Once, while preparing for a tour of Australia, Tendulkar despaired that the team needed to throw harder, exclaiming that boundaries Down Under are 80 metres. There was never a moment when he did not give anything less than 100 per cent. Considering the physical toll, his longevity was remarkable. Cricket god Don Bradman once said Tendulkar reminded him most of himself. Sachin’s response was to accept the compliment and resolve to push himself harder. Tendulkar returned the affection and trust of the nation in full measure: setting the bar higher after every success.
From his earliest cricketing days, Tendulkar’s predominant instinct was to dictate and command, and not be led. His natural aggression was not marked by meanness though. Barring the odd slanging match, he allowed his cricket to do the talking. The radiance and ebullience with which he went about his merry way was the rarest of revelations, a seat at a banquet usually reserved for the gods, a starlit odyssey that transported the entranced beholder to a world of magic. The elf in Tendulkar never left him, complemented by a restless self that chafed at the constraints on human experience. In believing in himself, he helped a nation believe in itself. And for that his country owes him a debt of gratitude. Thank you, Sachin!.