A life for cricket

Print edition : December 13, 2013

Tendulkar walks off the field after his dismissal on Day 2 of his final Test match. Photo: PTI

Sachin Tendulkar at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on November 16, with his family and teammates. The Test match against the West Indies was Sachin's 200th and last. Photo: K_R_DEEPAK;THE HINDU

Salutations to the home turf. Photo: PTI

After his maiden test 100, against England at Old Trafford in August 1990. Photo: Ben Radford/Getty Images

At his marauding best: 143 off 134 balls, against Australia, in the 1998 Coca-Cola Cup league match in Sharjah. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

One of his best Test innings: On his way to his 18th Test century, at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai in January 1999. He made 136, but India lost the match. Photo: THE HINDU

For 24 years, Sachin Tendulkar was the most dominant player of the game and an artist and a genius throughout. He represented the hopes and dreams of millions of Indians and yet carried the burden lightly.

HE was the closest to batting perfection. When Sunil Gavaskar gives such insight into the wonderful world of Sachin Tendulkar, the batsman, there can be little doubt that this phenomenon was indeed unique in structure and character. If Don Bradman was the epitome of correct batsmanship, Sachin was the modern replica of that image. True, comparisons can be odious, but not in this case. Bradman saw his own reflection in Sachin’s way of dealing with the bowlers in the middle. Old-timers say there was little to differentiate between the two since both added immense value to cricket with their lofty deeds on the field. And the Indian, now bestowed with Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest civilian award, lived up to the early promise that Gavaskar had recognised when Sachin was still playing school cricket.

Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar was born to enrich the game. A champion, he inspired young minds to play the game that he so loved and promoted all over the world. There is this anecdote that Navjot Singh Sidhu is never tired of narrating. He was once asked by an elderly person in his native village in Punjab, “What do you do for a living?” Sidhu replied proudly, “I play cricket.” The old man nodded, “Oh, that Tendulkar game.” Cricket, not just for that old man, had come to be associated with Sachin, as if it was his domain. To a large extent, it was.

“[I have] not known a player who played the game with such grace,” Bishen Singh Bedi had once remarked. Grace, dignity, discipline, integrity and commitment were the qualities that adorned his cricket. “Never known Sachin reporting late for practice,” remembered close friend Sameer Dighe. There were occasions when Sachin would arrive in Mumbai in the early hours and still turn up at the Wankhede Stadium before his teammates did.

The genius takes over

Gavaskar was the original merchant of selling cricket dreams in India. Taking on the best of fast bowlers, Gavaskar came to signify the essence of brave and technically compact batsmanship. India’s hopes rose and sunk with Gavaskar’s fortunes. His departure in 1987 left a huge void which was so stirringly filled barely two years after his retirement. One icon had passed on the mantle to another and Indian cricket appeared in safe hands. Actually, it was in the safest of hands as Sachin, slowly but firmly, assumed the role of a facilitator. Soon, he emerged as the epitome of consistency on the cricket field.

When former Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) president Raj Singh Dungarpur asked Kapil Dev to test a 16-year-old in the Mumbai ‘nets’, it was a pleasant precursor. Kapil realised quickly that he was bowling to a genius. The world discovered this sensation subsequently when he conquered fiery attacks in foreign lands. “His first century [at Old Trafford in 1990] and the one at Perth [in 1992] convinced the cricket world that here was a great artist at work,” remembered Kapil.

Sachin’s presence on the field would transform the mood of the nation. Unemployed youth saved money to buy a ticket to a game just to see their hero in flesh. Housewives packed off their kids to school and husbands to work, finishing the kitchen chores in time to take their coveted seats in front of the television if India was batting first. Such passionate following for the most passionate cricketer was stuff of folklore. His appeal was universal. “I can’t miss his batting,” V.V.S. Laxman would gush. Often, Virender Sehwag had the best seat in the stadium, as he stood at the other end of the batting crease and watched the master’s craft unfold in all its glory.

Sachin was a team man and cricket is a team game. But often individuals lose their perspective and objectivity when dealing with the challenges in the middle. Selfish interests cloud a player’s approach in times of distress but Sachin was above such thoughts. The team always came ahead of his personal gains. “I have seen him take on the pressure on himself so that the younger guys in the team could play their natural game. The keenness to share his experience and knowledge was an amazing quality,” Laxman said of his long-time colleague.

Cricketers were Sachin’s fans. The likes of Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly, who commanded a dedicated following because of their aggressive style of batting, would stop their work and watch him dominate in the middle. “He had a way. Nothing perturbed him, nothing. He made batting look so easy,” observed Sehwag, a batsman who revels in destroying attacks. He was an unabashed fan of Sachin. “I played cricket because of him,” he said.

Sachin was a habit, the nation prayed for him, fasted for his success. It will be hard to imagine him as a former cricketer. Cricket had come to be identified with Sachin. His contributions can never be measured in terms of runs and victories, or mere statistics. He was not a man for records. They happened because of his longevity. How many sportsmen would last 24 years with the same zeal and enthusiasm that marked his first appearance at Mumbai in 1988 when he scored a century on first-class debut?

“Once in a lifetime experience,” is how Laxman described Sachin’s cricket journey. We were blessed to have grown up watching a cricketer who played the game as it ought to have. He loved cricket, worshipped and tended it so caringly, setting new benchmarks, a process that took the game to such great heights. When Sachin batted, the bowlers too revelled. It was an education to bowl at him and it was a feat to celebrate when they snared him. There was no shame in suffering at the hands of a master, many bowlers would confess happily.

How did he maintain his focus? “I know nothing else. Cricket is my life,” was his simple response. Cricket was indeed his life. It was an undying delight for the legions of his fans. Interests rose and perished with his figure on the field. He attracted thousands of lovers of the game to the cricket arena for years. His dismissal would trigger an exodus from the stadium. “It could be embarrassing for the rest but the fact remains that Sachin was the central figure who brought people to the stadium. He was the main actor. The rest were mere sidekicks,” was Harbhajan Singh’s little ode.

Some of Sachin’s best innings were reserved for the best occasions. The most memorable came in Sharjah in 1998 when India had to not only win but also beat the Australians in run rate. A dust storm halted play and the Australians felt relieved, but only for a while. When the contest resumed, a storm in the form of Sachin Tendulkar hit the venue. He batted like a man possessed, smote the bowlers in a defining style and carved a win that kept India in the reckoning. In a team game, an individual had played the decisive part.

The team stood to a man and applauded that stunning show, which coach, Anshuman Gaekwad, claimed, was planned and promised even before Sachin had taken strike. “I will win you this match,” he had assured Gaekwad. When I met Sachin the morning after the match, his face glowed with the pride of a grand conquest. “Hope you enjoyed?” the smile on his face radiating his inner delight.

In terms of technical excellence, Sachin was a supreme example of perfection. His balance—the stance, head still, relaxed frame, the confident tapping of the bat—was a lasting image. With time, he learnt to add and discard shots but never compromised on his vocation. Runs were made with such dedication that even his opponents came to admire his consistency and passion to serve the game.

Sachin was a complete package. He batted No.4 in Tests and opened the innings in One-Dayers—different challenges but his goal was common. He had to dominate. His early years in international cricket were marked by aggressive batting when he wasted little time in trying to dominate the attack. “He was always keen to take the initiative,” was Ravi Shastri’s assessment of the period when Sachin would play that back-foot punch with such authority. That particular shot would confirm his form and intent.

There was an air of confidence in the dressing room as long as Sachin was in the middle. Many contests were decided by his presence because it motivated his partners. “I will miss him at mid-on and mid-off. His reading of the game was amazing. He would quickly give a suggestion which would invariably fetch me a wicket,” recalled left-arm fast bowler Zaheer Khan.

Versatile player

Sachin excelled not just as a batsman. He had a strong arm and was an energetic figure on the field, ready to take any position, from close in to deep. His childlike streak when bowling—setting his field to the minutest detail, making constant changes to irritate the batsmen, and then delivering the blow—was a joy to watch. Two striking examples that come to mind are his spells at Kolkata in 2001 and Adelaide in 2003. In that epic at Eden Gardens against Australia, where Laxman made 281, Sachin struck thrice on the last day to set up India’s grand victory. His victims were Mathew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne—all trapped leg-before. At Adelaide, he trapped Damien Martyn and Steve Waugh, both splendid players against spin. Sachin bowled leg-spin, off-spin and seam up to leave the batsmen in a tangle.

Cricket was lit up by Sachin at every level he played. His commitment stood out when it came to promoting the game. He served cricket with distinction and dignity, rarely inviting the displeasure of the umpires with an act of dissent. “I have seen hundreds of players in hundreds of matches but Sachin’s behaviour and work ethics stood out. He showed utmost respect to the umpires and never forgot to thank them at the end of the match. His patience in dealing with difficult situations was exemplary,” said veteran umpire S.K. Bansal.

He was a role model for the young generation and made an impact on the minds of those who looked for salvation in times of anguish. Talking of commitment, here is an anecdote from 1994. Having appeared in Sunil Valson’s benefit match in Silchar, he flew to Kolkata and took a connecting flight to Delhi from where he drove to Agra to represent Sungrace Mafatlal in the Shaheed Smriti tournament. He reached the hotel past midnight and found the entire team waiting. A dinner, followed by a small cricket discussion, and Sachin was ready. The pitch was a minefield and the asking rate was over ten. He finished the contest with a good five overs to spare.

Some of the greats of the game accepted him as a divine gift to cricket. Pakistani great Hanif Mohammad, the original little master of the subcontinent, wrote: “There is no other cricketer whose career I have followed with such fascination and interest and I think Indian cricket owes a lot to him. India should thank Tendulkar for inspiring a new generation of great talent. To have dominated the cricket arena for 24 years speaks volumes of his passion for the game and his dedication. He is a true role model for the younger generation not only for his cricketing exploits but also for his conduct off the field. I must confess that when Tendulkar walked out for his farewell Test match in Mumbai and after having seen the love, respect and adulation showered on him, I was moved to tears.”

In a poignant speech at the Wankhede Stadium, Sachin sketched his career and life and left many in tears. “My life, between 22 yards for 24 years, it is hard to believe that that wonderful journey has come to an end. I know I have met so many guys who have fasted for me, prayed for me, done so much for me. Without that life wouldn't have been like this for me. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, and also say that time has flown by rather quickly, but the memories you have left with me will always be with me forever and ever, especially ‘Sachin, Sachin’ which will reverberate in my ears till I stop breathing. Thank you very much.”

Thank you Sachin for giving us some beautiful cricket memories that have become part of our life too! Cricket history, from now, will be divided in two parts, before and after Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.