Sachin Tendulkar completes 20 years in international cricket today. He made his Test debut against Pakistan at Karachi as a callow 16-year-old with a mop of fuzzy hair, a squeaky voice and a world record already under his belt.
Those with a penchant for seeing things through the prism of history might remember that this happened less than a week after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and less than three weeks before VP Singh was chosen Prime Minister of India to usher in the era of coalition politics.
In almost every which way, the world has changed for India since then, except for one constant: the sight of a 5 foot 5 inch batsman walking out with his inordinately heavy bat, doing duty for the country, carrying the burden of expectations of a billion people.
Barely a dozen players in the history of cricket have played that long but nobody has spent as many days on the field playing for his country with such remarkable consistency and virtuosity that the oft-abused definition 'genius' finds credence.
Three events early in his career convinced me of his mettle even before he had played for India. Almost 18 months before he made his international debut I went to see him bat in a school match at the Cricket Club of India in early 1988. He had by then already announced his arrival to the world with the 664 runs partnership with schoolmate Vinod Kambli, but journalists are skeptics by nature and I was seeking further vindication of his talent.
By the time I reached the ground Tendulkar was already past the three figure mark and striking the ball with gusto. To stem the flow of runs the fielding captain pushed his fielders deep prompting Tendulkar to change his tactics: from hitting lusty boundaries, he began pushing for singles and twos. When the fielding captain brought the field in again, he started hitting over the top again.
"This boy is destined for greatness,'' quipped the late Raj Singh Dungarpur, Indian cricket's eternal romantic. "Batting is about making runs, but even more about knowing how to make runs." At 15, Tendulkar seemed to know this better than those who may have played a lifetime.
Some months later he made a hundred on debut in the Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy and Irani trophy and was on everybody's short list for the impending tour of the West Indies in early 1989. But when the team was announced, his name was missing.
On the eve of the team's departure, actor Tom Alter and I were to interview skipper Dilip Vengsarkar for a sports video and thought it would be a good idea to include a section with the young cricketer too. Tendulkar was visibly chagrined at his omission in spite of his prolific run-getting in the domestic tournaments.
"The selectors wanted to protect you from Marshall and Walsh,'' Tom and I told him. This appeared to rile him even further. "I'm not afraid of pace,'' he shot back, bristling with barely concealed unhappiness. "If I am hit, I will only learn faster.''
In his first series in Pakistan, in the final Test at Sialkot, he was struck on the nose by Waqar Younis. After the bleeding was arrested, he was back in his stance with determination multiplied manifold. Waqar's next delivery was hit through the covers for a boundary. A psychological threshold had been crossed.
Over the next few years, Tendulkar was to be acknowledged the world over as a cricketer who belonged to the 'rarest of rare' categories. In the 20 odd years since I have rarely seen him relax or take his success for granted. But I will desist from discussing his batting exploits here in any detail. These are easily available everywhere — the fours, sixes, strike rate - all the stats anybody wants to know, though these are inadequate to convey the quality of his batsmanship.
Is Tendulkar the greatest batsman of all time? Since no other batsman has finished with a Test career average of even 75, leave aside 99.94, Bradman in that respect brooks no competition. Is he the best batsman of his generation? Likely, though Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting will have so many votaries that no clear conclusion is possible. Has he been better than Ranji, Trumper, Hobbs, Hammond, Hutton, the three Ws, Kanhai, Gavaskar, Border, Miandad, G Chappell - to name a few — who have illuminated the spectrum of batsmanship through the past 150 years? I suspect there will be pros and cons in this debate too.
I would say, though, that Tendulkar must rate amongst the top 10 batsmen of all time in terms of technical certitude, style and consistency. He has scored the most runs and centuries in Tests and ODIs which in itself is enough to establish a giant. He would straddle across the game's history with his greatness unquestioned in any era, and be part of any team any time. The only bleak part in a glittering career would be his nondescript captaincy.
But to measure Tendulkar's impact only through runs, centuries and average is to assess him only as a cricketer and ignore an extraordinary sociological phemonenon. In a birthday tribute in these columns last year I wrote of the indelible impact he has had on the Indian psyche:
"Like cinema and politics, cricket is wholly integrated into Indian life. Tendulkar not only filled up stadiums around the country with his dynamic batsmanship, but also filled the nation with hope. At the physical level, he was playing sport, at a subliminal level he was nurturing the ambitions of a young country that was breaking its shackles from a restrictive past.'' If anything, my belief has since become stronger.
Indeed, I dare add that if Tendulkar were not around, the match-fixing controversy could have debilitated the game in the Indian sub-continent. It was primarily because of his personal and professional credibility (and by extension, of players like Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble) that Indian cricket could emerge from that crisis relatively unaffected.
Equally remarkably, for all his phenomenal fame, all the glory and the wealth that has come his way, Tendulkar retains his humility and childlike enthusiasm for the game still. He is shy — a man of many strokes but few words — preferring to let his bat do the talking. But when he does speak or take a position, however, the world listens, as happened in the Harbhajan Singh controversy in Australia in 2008.
Tendulkar has frequently been compared to Don Bradman. This has its genesis in Bradman himself revealing in the late 90s that he saw shades of himself in Tendulkar's batting. But for me the greater similarity is in the influence they have wielded on the game and their respective countries despite the enormous pressures of public expectation.
No two wickets in the history of the game have been as coveted by opposing teams; no two wickets have meant so much for so many people for so long. Through their batting excellence, Bradman and Tendulkar not only established the identity of their respective nations but helped millions of their countrymen find their identity too.
The poet-writer CP Surendran wrote once somewhere: "Batsmen walk into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks out to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the lifelong anxiety of being India, by joining in spirit with their visored saviour.''
That, I believe, is the true essence of Sachin Tendulkar.
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