Saint Sachin

2008-10-17 00:00

Some time during the Test match under way in the Punjab, Sachin Tendulkar will surely collect the 15 runs needed to become Test cricket’s highest scorer.

Ordinarily, the number of runs a player scores is not regarded as definitive. Apart from skill, the amassing of vast career tallies requires an ability to avoid injury, war and whim. But runs are hard earned in Test cricket, besides which longevity can be as much a bane as a boon. All the more reason to respect this record for it tells a tale of many things; the boy who grew up before our eyes, the batsman who survived everything the bowlers or life could send his way.

It has not been as easy as it may appear. A hush goes around the ground whenever the second Indian wicket falls in a home Test match. It is not a mark of disrespect towards the departing batsman, but a sign of the excitement felt about the imminent emergence of his replacement.

As Tendulkar steps on to the field, a roar erupts that could shake trees, and does not abate till he has taken guard. Another deathly quiet falls over the ground when Tendulkar is removed cheaply. Shock came over the faces of spectators when he lost his wicket in Bangalore. India rides a tide of emotion every time its chosen one enters the arena. A power has been put in Tendulkar’s hands that could easily be misused.

But it has not all been idolatry. Tendulkar’s mistake in the second innings in Bangalore provoked fury among locals convinced he has failed too often at critical moments. Never mind that he had almost saved the match. Critics point towards a flaw in his temperament, an inability to rise to the occasion. They yearn for a Viv Richards to strut his stuff in the glorious hour, or a Brian Lara to take a match by the scruff of its neck. Perhaps he has lacked the strength to impose himself at telling times. But a man must be taken as a whole.

Ever since he first appeared as a precocious tousle-haired teenager, Tendulkar has known nothing except exorbitant expectations. It is no small thing to become public property at 16. Nor has there been any hiding place. Not for sportsman the luxury of private studios. Every time he leaves his home it is an appearance; he loves swanky cars, but can drive only in the dead of night. It is against this background that his career must be judged. It is not an achievement. It is a miracle.

Remarkably, Tendulkar has managed to retain his health and reputation through it all. His body might be complaining, but his spirit endures and he seems immune to sickness. During the course of his tumultuous career, Don Bradman suffered several serious setbacks. Tendulkar has even managed to retain a semblance of normality in his life — a wife, children who tease him and egg him on, friends. Although their records are almost as impressive, Rahul Dravid or Virender Sehwag do not attract remotely as much attention.

Throughout there has been something in Tendulkar that sets him apart. No matter how much he has immersed himself in the team, he has been treated as a special case. Partly it is the purity of his style. From the outset, as another child practising as dawn broke over Shivaji Park, he could bat in the classical way. Coaches insist he was not taught the game; it came from within, like an underground spring. From the outset, it has merely been a matter of correcting the bad habits that creep in the moment the brain sleeps.

His strokes are played with a bat somehow broader and straighter than any other, and his feet seem to move effortlessly into position. It is enough to watch him defend. Yet he does not disdain flourish, rejoices in the sudden crack past point or the nonchalant flick off his pads.

But it goes beyond facts and figures, style and sportsmanship or else others could join him in his acclaim. Tendulkar has been the hero his country needed. Indians spend billions of dollars every year trying to lighten their skins. Advertisements for the appropriate creams are shown between overs. India knows that its film stars have not crossed cultural lines. Booker Prize winners cannot inspire a nation half as well as the sight of a brown boy repeatedly cracking feared bowling around.

And he has been untarnished by scandal. Read the papers in India, it is all about corruption and communal agitation and political disputes. Impoverished India yearns for a champion. Its gods are exotic, its films are escapist and its batsman is a conqueror. Affluent India is another matter, and might one day put cricket in its place.

Tendulkar has uplifted lives. Supporters cherish his introductory masterpieces, daring and almost cheeky, his hundreds scored in adversity and his later more restrained efforts. It is idiotic to expect a man to be the same at 36 as at 16. Maturity has a beauty of its own. They remember his superb strokes, resounding straight drives, hooks and the back foot punches past point that tells him everything is in its proper place, and his duels with great bowlers.

All things considered, Tendulkar stands above his contemporaries. For all his fortitude, Steve Waugh was in a lower league. Lara was dazzling, but also destructive. Vanity and selfishness lingered too long in his character. Richards was explosive, but also erratic. Brilliant in his twenties, he did not age as well as the Indian. It’s too early to place Kevin Pietersen.

Tendulkar may be in decline, but he has been a constant champion for 20 years. He has had more on his shoulders than any contemporary and has managed to remain intact. That is his measure. Oh yes, and he has also scored a few runs.

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