Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sachin Tendulkar - Baptism by Fire

Tomorrow, the 24th of April, is Sachin Tendulkar's 35th birthday. What follows is an essay I wrote on his 30th birthday. It's something I've been mailing every year on this day, to everyone in my address book. (With replies along the lines of, "I'm listing this as spam. Isn't this the same stupid thing you've been sending for the past 5 years?") Now that I have a blog, no more spamming.

Disclaimer:- "I detest cheap sentiment," said Margo Channing. But Tendulkar has been my hero since early childhood, and you have no greater heroes than childhood ones. And I'm probably past the age for new "heroes". So do forgive me my occasional hyperbole and cheap sentiment. One other thing. I haven't been able to verify the "successive boundaries" bit in the anecdote below. Five years is too long to remember all your sources. In case it's inaccurate, much as I hate John Ford, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" is my defense.

Baptism by fire

1989. The Indian squad, on its tour to Pakistan, had this 16-year-old kid from Bombay. This was no ordinary kid, though. For a few years prior even to this startlingly early debut, he had had the eye of senior Indian cricketers and officials on him. He began his first-class career with a bang a year earlier - centuries on debut in each of the 3 major tournaments. At the age of 15, Sachin Tendulkar was already the next big thing in Indian cricket.

And so, after barely a year of first-class cricket, it was on to Pakistan. At the age when most of us were just beginning our Plus One, Tendulkar was to face Abdul Qadir and the pace trio of Imran Khan and his young finds - Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, a pair that would go on to terrorise batting line-ups for long, and stamp their class as one of the greatest cricket has known (until injury reduced Waqar to half the bowler he once was, that is).

He got his opportunity in the first test at Karachi. Remember, this was a boy who'd not even played Ranji Trophy for much more than a year, much less faced one of the best bowling line-ups in the world. The genius was always there, but not the technical perfection that makes us call him the Little Master today. Things got bad pretty fast. In his own words, he'd never faced bowlers of such pace before. The ball, more often than not, would thud into the keeper's gloves even before he finished playing his stroke. As he admitted later on, he thought that his first match in international cricket would turn out to be his last.

From the next test on, however, he vowed to stick around and see what happened, no matter what. In the words of Wasim Akram, "He never took a backward step." In the fourth test at Sialkot, India found themselves in more than a spot of bother, with them playing for a draw and a good deal of time left in the test. And then it happened. A Waqar snorter went through the grill of Sachin's helmet and smashed into his nose, bringing down with it the boy a nation was praying for. The sight of blood on the pitch had the non-striker waving frantically towards the pavilion - the medics were out and so was the stretcher. The trouble was, the young batsman didn't want to leave. For the kid with the blood-soaked shirt, retreat was just not an option. Waqar's next ball sped to the boundary. So did the one after. Tendulkar went on to score 50 odd - more importantly, he faced 190 balls. The match was saved. Thus began the legend.

Tendulkar made his international debut when I was 7 years old. I discovered him a year later, while playing with those bubble-gum cards, in the backseat of the van, on the way home from school. My next memories are of watching match after match, praying for three quick Indian wickets, just so that the dashing #5 would walk in and play those strokes no other could play. I've had no greater hero ever since. Right through all the years of school and college - from Enid Blyton to The Hardy Boys to Alistair Maclean to Arthur C. Clarke, from wanting to be a pilot, to being a scientist (until I encountered something known as Plus-Two Physics) - my flavour-of-the-month kept changing. But Tendulkar was always at the top. Always.

It isn't difficult to see why. To watch Tendulkar bat is to... (I've never been much of a poet). But I say this. Whenever he plays one of those magical innings that only he can play, the world seems a better place. You may have failed in maths, physics and chemistry (all in the same term); you may be in bed with chicken pox (with you resembling, more or less, a dart board after a particularly tough day in the office); your cable operator may be boycotting HBO the same month they're showing "The Untouchables" and "The Godfather II" - you may be suffering from any number of physical or mental ailments, but come a Tendulkar classic, and the picture brightens. Black-and-White turns full colour. You see larks where previously vultures seemed to hover. And you sing, "What a wonderful world". If a man can do this for millions of people over a period of 14 years, what more can you ask for? And sport is "just another form of entertainment"?

Genius, though, is not without its pitfalls. You're often judged by standards impossibly high - standards applicable to no one else. How else would you explain the labelling of a man who has an average of 51 (his career average being 44) in the grand finals of all tournaments he's played in (as shown in "Taking Guard" on the morning of the World Cup final) as somebody "who doesn't perform when the team needs him"? Wasn't it Harsha Bhogle's comment that if you woke up Tendulkar in the middle of the night on an overseas tour, he'd wake up asking, "Is it 20 for 2, or 30 for 2?" Yet, he has an overseas test average in the 50s, when an overall average in the 40s is considered a sign of a very good player. What about having top scored in no less than 2 World Cups, and also the distinction of being the player with the most number of "Man of the Matches" ever?

It isn't just about statistics. Things are changing for the better now, but was it that long ago when he carried the entire batting of this nation of a billion people on his shoulders; when he was India's "One-Man Army;" when people switched off television sets the moment he got out; when the opposition considered the match as good as won at the fall of the great one? The quality of any sportsman is best appreciated by his opponents, for it is they who meet him in battle and pit their talents against his. And it is here that Tendulkar can count some of his biggest admirers. The great bowlers of this generation - from Wasim Akram to Allan Donald to Shane Warne - have only one name to mention, when asked that question they've probably grown weary of, "Who's the best batsman you've ever bowled to?"

So carry on, Sachin. Delight us, entertain us, awe us. Craft ever so elegantly even more reasons for people to carry signs like this to cricket grounds all over the world, "Commit all your crimes when Sachin Tendulkar is at the crease, for even the Lord has eyes just for him." But the day must come when the great man scores his last run for India, and that thought is nothing less than terrifying. For a whole generation, introduced to the game by the Little Master, "Cricket" and "Tendulkar" are synonyms, and it is to him, and him alone, that Number Four in the Indian line-up belongs to. An Indian batting line-up without Tendulkar? To be two-down and watch a mere mortal walk in to what had once been the abode of a God? Unthinkable! "Where have you gone, Sachin Tendulkar? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Rahul Dravid once said, "On the off-side, first there is God, then there is Ganguly." And we all know who that God is - on the off-side, on-side, behind the wicket, straight down the ground; any damn spot on the cricket field. As a fan put it, "Who says there's no God? I've seen him. He bats at Number Four in the Indian test team." To those who know me, soak up all these references to the divine, for this is as religious as I'll ever get. Worshipping others' petty tools for power is not something I have time for, but a real God is an altogether different matter - and that is what Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is.


Anonymous said...

Good to know you have started blogging. I had no idea. Pleasure reading. :)

--Shyam (UDL, its a very common name, as I found recently).

Rohan said...

Thank you, kind sir.

You're still the only Shyam I know! :D

don'thaveaclue said...

dude, one of the best posts i've seen on the man. (i say 'one of' coz i still like to think the best will be the one i type about him :). saw your comment on my blog. cheers!

Rohan said...

Thank you! I'll be on the edge of my seat, waiting for that post! :D

Pavi!!!! said...

oh my God ! George! ur loyalty remains!

n BTW...i thot of u and this speech on Tendulkar's B'day :)

So how have u been?

Rohan said...

Well, if it was me and my constant harping that made you remember his birthday, I'll say I haven't done a half bad job, Pavi. :)

vishal said...

Great to read such a beautiful article about 'the god' of cricket. great work done george.
Will be pleased if i wud get all the emails as well, which u used to send before u got this blog.(Ofcouse about sachin only :-) )

Rohan said...

Thanks you, Vishal. Ah, those mails. They were mostly marked as spam and deleted by whoever got them! :D