When Sachin Tendulkar plays his last and 200th Test match at the Wankhede Stadium next month, it will signal the end of an era in the history of the game. The retirement party would be something that the entire nation will participate in. I have been lucky enough to have shared some very special moments with the God of cricket, and through this column, I am able to share them with you.
When Sachin started playing for India, I was quite young, but I vividly remember the tour of Pakistan, where he started bleeding profusely on the pitch after a ball hit his nose. But he continued to bat. Imran Khan was at the other end (playing for Pakistan) it was a classic case of David vs Goliath, given the stature of both the players!
Over the next few years, I was busy with my own racing career trying to come through the ranks and looking at making it to F1 one day, something which no one else had done before. In between my races and international trips, I kept a close tab on Sachin even though I wasn’t too keen on cricket itself.
But here was an Indian who was my contemporary, someone who seemed like he would go on to transcend the game. Being a sportsperson myself, it was inspiring at many levels.
I often used to ask my parents to record Indian matches as I would be away racing somewhere and make it a point to catch up on Sachin’s innings once I got back. Before the 1992 World Cup, I remember fast-forwarding through the Australian Test series, specifically the last two games. It was quite a forgettable tour for India as a team, but then I went to the last match at Perth where Sachin scored a century in the first innings. It was a brutal pitch, but the way he handled that Australian pace attack was something else! No other Indian batsman survived and that’s when we knew he was going to be really special!
Fast-forward 10 years to 2003 and I got my first opportunity to meet the legend in person at the Autocar Awards in Mumbai. I couldn’t believe it when I came to know that he was a huge car freak and motorsport fan! I had already tested an F1 car at the time, and he had been to races as well, knowing Michael (Schumacher) and Ferrari quite closely. He is quite a driver himself, and having driven with him on several occasions in everything from go-karts to single-seaters and fast road cars, I can say that he is immensely capable behind the wheel, and that his level is quite close to that of a professional driver.
For someone gifted with incredible hand-eye coordination and reflexes required to whack 160kph deliveries, controlling a car on the limit comes somewhat naturally, but you have to be a proper enthusiast in the first place to get it right.
My debut F1 season in 2005 was the most critical period of my career. The pressure-cooker environment and carrying huge expectations of the entire nation behind me in a car was at best mid-pack and was turning out to be more difficult than I had thought. During the course of the year, Sachin visited me twice at Barcelona and Silverstone, and interacting with him gave me some valuable insights into a top sportsperson’s psyche. He was of course quite used to carrying India’s hopes with a billion people expecting him to hit a ton every time he was on the pitch, so the advice he gave during that period turned out to be invaluable in surviving the cut-throat world of Formula 1.
The first Indian Grand Prix was the one time I probably felt closest to what Sachin would have dealt with throughout his career. Driving an HRT the slowest car on the grid, I was carrying the hopes of my countrymen in our very own Grand Prix! I was smiling all along, but it was perhaps the most taxing buildup to a race I’ve ever had. I remember Sachin coming right to the back of the grid (where I was due to a penalty!), embracing me and wishing me luck for the race... it somehow helped me calm my nerves!
A lot of cricket players are gifted, but the way Sachin has delivered his talent day in and day out, for over two decades, is what makes him stand head and shoulders above the rest across any sport, anywhere in the world. His non-controversial nature, dedication and work ethic have stood the test of time while inspiring innumerable sportspersons over generations and will continue to do so in the future.
India will miss you on the pitch, my friend!