There is so much in common between the careers of Viswanathan Anand and Sachin Tendulkar, India’s best sportsmen in the last 50 years. Both are 40-plus. Both are still performing. And both have made significant adjustments to their game/technique at different points in time.
Coincidentally, both were impetuous and aggressive when they started out. They just wanted to destroy the opposition. If Tendulkar took on the world at 16, Anand was consuming foreign Grandmasters with super-fast moves when he was 18.
Interestingly, both have had admirably long careers. Grandmaster RB Ramesh says it is difficult to prolong one’s career in a physical sport (cricket) and, in that sense, Tendulkar deserves a lot of praise. But he is quick to add that cricket is a team game and so Tendulkar did get support from his mates.
Ramesh, by his own admission, took to chess accidentally. He wanted to be a cricketer. His brother, GB Prakash, was already a good junior chess player. A head injury at the age of 11 forced him to give up cricket. “You see, as school students, we were always looking for idols. We had Viswanathan Anand in 1988 and Tendulkar in 1989,” says Ramesh.
Ramesh adds Anand and Tendulkar have always been exceptionally motivated. “When we thought Tendulkar was going to suffer after his injury in the mid-2000s, he came back and changed his aggressive style to start a new innings,” says Ramesh.
The tennis elbow prompted Tendulkar to curtail his stroke-play, but the master that he is, Tendulkar overcame the hurdle, adopted a different approach and scored runs in tons in both forms of cricket. In fact, he fared better after that injury.
The free-flowing strokes gave way to the more productive and practical accumulation of runs with less spectacular flicks and nudges. His appetite for runs increased in the second half of his career, and he played on for well over two decades.
Remarkably, Anand showed the same appetite in his mid-30s. Having won his first world title in 2000 at 31, Anand did not have any special targets because of the uncertainties in world chess.
Garry Kasparov had just lost to Vladimir Kramnik in a rival world championship and there was no unified competition. Anand was winning tournaments like before, but had to live with the criticism that he had not beaten the strong players of his generation in a long match.
And by the time the unification took place in 2007, he was already 38. And with a second world title under his belt, Anand was ready for his next challenge. This is when he, like Tendulkar, showed admirable motivation. He thought he had to stop wagging tongues. He worked hard with a team that was to stay with him for five years. Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and Boris Gelfand, all disappeared into history as Anand made light of his age.
It was really a challenge for Anand to get used to the intricacies of match play. He was no longer the quick, rapid-play master he was in the 1990s and early 2000s. He took all his time to find moves over the board and a became totally different player altogether.
Arvind Aaron, who had played with Anand at the junior level and travelled with him extensively, finds a rare ability in both the chess champion and the cricket maestro. “Both of them are not tired of trying new things,” says Aaron.
“It may be a shot in Tendulkar’s repertoire. In Anand’s case, I have first-hand experience because when he accepted a challenge to play six computers in a simultaneous exhibition in 1997 in The Hague, I asked him why he took up such a dangerous task. He said he liked to look at things differently and wanted different challenges,” Aaron adds.
Deep Blue had just beaten Kasparov and Aaron’s concern was that Anand was facing a six-pack computer. As it turned out, Anand won three of them and drew three, winning the match 4.5-1.5.
“I watched that match and the most interesting aspect was that Anand was sipping coffee regularly while the machines were thinking. It was a funny sight,” Aaron recounts.
One of the oft-quoted comments of both Tendulkar and Anand is, “I would continue to play as long as I enjoy the game.” Tendulkar will no longer play competitive cricket after November 18, but Anand will probably continue to play on, looking for more challenges.