The year was 1989. I had just celebrated my 12th birthday and the teens were beckoning. Another teenager, only a few years older than me, was making his debut in a game which, for over half a century, has been perhaps the most prominent unifying factor in a fantastically diverse country. That man has announced his retirement today from all forms of the game. What a journey it has been!
It was not immediately apparent though in the 1989 series against Pakistan, in which Sachin Tendulkar made his debut, that the journey would be this long, this satisfying and this inspiring.
Cricket statistics from that series, which later literally became "Tendulkarstics", do not testify to it either. To compare, Sunil Gavaskar, in his debut series against West Indies in 1970-71, scored 774 runs from 4 Test matches, at an average of 154.80. In the 8 innings he played, Gavaskar scored 4 centuries and 3 half centuries. It was this that started the legend of Gavaskar.
Tendulkar's debut was, however, much more modest - a total of 215 runs from 4 matches at an average of 35.83. No centuries and just two half centuries. By contrast, Sanjay Manjrekar had, in the same series, scored 569 runs at an average of 94.83 and even had a strike rate better than Tendulkar's.
The entire Indian media was gushing at the arrival of the new batting sensation - not Manjrekar but Tendulkar. I remember asking my father about this apparent injustice to Manjrekar and was it not based on exuberance of a mere one inning by Tendulkar, albeit scintillating inning, against Abdul Qadir's guile? The response of my father has stayed with me - this is the peak of Manjrekar while no one will ever be able to measure Tendulkar's peak!
Of course the rest of the Tendulkar story, in terms of his cricketing exploits, is too familiar to bear any repetition. It is some of the moments associated with this journey that I wish to recount.
24th November 1993, the day India played against South Africa in the semi final of Hero Cup, was also a day when a close family friend was getting engaged. While present at the engagement venue, I was missing from all the functions, safely ensconced in room with a TV, watching the match. No one was amused at my anti-social behaviour. As Tendulkar bowled that last over, snatching the ball away from Azharuddin and a hesitant Kapil Dev, I had miraculously turned into a star, having watched the entire match and thus being able to narrate the highlights.
In the latter half of the nineties, I joined an engineering college. The common room of all hostels had a small TV set. At most times, there would hardly be a handful of students watching TV. During cricket matches, in which India was playing, it would be almost impossible to stand, as almost 200 people wanted a view from that small TV. On days when Tendulkar, who was by now opening in ODIs, would get out early, three-fourths of this crowd would walk back into the pavilion along with him. Soon there was a conundrum to which no one ever had an answer - should they hope for an early Tendulkar wicket so that there would at least be space to sit and watch the match?
The second edition of the Sahara Cup, between India and Pakistan, was held in September 1997. Tendulkar was now Captain of India. Doordarshan, the only channel available in the hostel, was not telecasting the matches which were being played in Canada and hence meant India midnight and later timings. The odd timings also meant the students could not even request some of the friendly teachers to let them watch the matches at their home. Some ingenious students found a solution - a popular book shop, in a market at least a few kilometers away from the institute campus, and which students used to patronise, had a TV set. The owner of the shop was cajoled to keep the shop open till the end on match days. There it was, at 2 am in the morning, a solitary shop open in a desolate market, with students standing or sitting on benches, cheering Tendulkar as he scored an overseas ODI series victory under his captaincy. The institute administration was so scandalised when they heard about this that they immediate ordered cable TV in all hostels!
For most Tendulkar fans, it is the year 1998 which is permanently etched in their memory and none of the later failures of Tendulkar have been able to wipe away the exploits of that magical year. Apart from decimating Shane Warne in Test Matches that year, Tendulkar scored a record 9 ODI centuries in a mere 34 matches. To put it in context, the all-time record at that time was 17 centuries by Desmond Haynes, and the only playing cricketer ahead of Tendulkar before beginning of 1998 was Saeed Anwar at 14. Sir Vivian Richards, one of the all-time greatest, had scored just 11 centuries in his career of 187 matches.
The Tendulkar phenomenon is at two levels. While his records are always talked about, it is the manner of his surpassing them that sets him apart. Cricket records are meant to be broken. However, most other cricketers, who surpassed previous record holders, have only just bettered them by the end of their careers. Kapil Dev finished at 434 wickets, 3 better than previous record holder Hadlee. Muralitharan finished at 800 wickets, 92 ahead of Warne. Allan Border ended his Test career approximately a thousand runs ahead of Gavaskar's record, Lara less than a thousand runs ahead of Border. Contrast this with Tendulkar's achievements: 49 centuries in ODIs, 32 ahead of Haynes at 17; a minimum 51 centuries in Tests, 17 ahead of Gavaskar's 34; 18,426 runs in ODIs, almost ten thousand runs ahead of Haynes and will be approximately four thousand runs ahead of Lara in Tests when he finally hangs his boots. Other numbers are equally staggering.
As I analyse now, the other level of the Tendulkar phenomenon, his social impact, is closely linked to his astonishing record establishing abilities. Tendulkar came in full bloom during the 1991-92 India-Australia series. This was also the time when India was liberalising and letting the hitherto chained energies of Indians free. Unwittingly, Tendulkar became a role model for the generation that was just being set free - here was a man who could, through sheer merit, be the best in the world. And he was an Indian. He needed no short cuts and no helping hand. If he could do it in his endeavour, why not others in theirs? And he did this while living by Indian middle class values. To me, it is essentially this dynamic of Tendulkar that made him an unquestioned icon for almost two decades - he embodied the great Indian middle class dream.
As Tendulkar announces his retirement from all forms of the game, we, who were inspired by him and grew in our lives almost parallel to his, can only say, #ThankYouSachin.
(Akhilesh Mishra is a marketing man by profession, a cricket enthusiast by passion, and a Tendulkar cult believer by conviction.)