Monday, December 7, 2009


After living in the hearts of over a billion people since his teenage days, can he yearn for anything else? Can there still be a void in his life, really, something more to be accomplished in this ephemeral world?

Well, Sachin Tendulkar is a man of possibilities, of the unthinkable: in his quest for perfection, if not greatness, he has shattered stereotypes and smothered barriers; indeed, he has dignified so many records that even history books rise in ovation.

Yet, Sachin might feel he is still an incomplete epic, an unfinished masterpiece: he cannot, and won’t, rest on his laurels until the World Cup too snuggles into his teeming trophy chest. For that, of course, he has to wait two more years; and yet, cruelly, there’s no guarantee that the dream will be fulfilled.

Today, he will complete 20 years at the pinnacle of the sport. One has seen many Sachin gems during his voyage, right from Old Trafford in Manchester to Newlands in Cape Town, to SCG in Sydney to Basin Reserve in Wellington; one has seen many more dangerous-looking deliveries too disintegrate from his presence, bedazzled by his sparkling strokeplay.

The personal favourite, however, is from lower climes, from the Ranji stratosphere: the 1991 final against Kapil Dev’s Haryana. It’s not for sentimental reasons though: it was the first time one saw him bat in flesh[although not me], blood and with gay abandon; it was love at first sight, of course.

Chasing an impossible 355 on the last day, Mumbai were quickly reduced to 34 for three. And then Sachin arrived. The script, as it would happen many times later, immediately changed on its head: it was an innings of pure genius, almost blasphemous to even think possible from a lanky lad’s seemingly too-heavy willow.

That is when one first witnessed the Sachin Tendulkar phenomenon too: with each boundary, the monstrous Wankhede seemed to get smaller and smaller, and noisier and noisier; by the evening, it was nearly full, and the ambience inside had turned electric. Amazingly though, his shots could be heard even over this aching din.

Later, when he would make the progression to live television, the country regularly came to a stop when he got going, and got going only when he stopped, or indeed when an insolent delivery stopped him.

It was the first imprint in the mind of a glorious, free-flowing Sachin: commanding and yet so humble, regal yet so simple. With him, it’s usually a matter of time before the assault reaches a crescendo; every stroke is a high point, every drive the climax.

Alas, however, Mumbai lost by a mere two runs: he was, of course, heroic in defeat, and calm and assured even in the face of imminent doom; that evening, as time stood still, even a veteran like Vengsarkar could only cry like a child.

In many ways, that near-victory heralded a pattern, a vignette for the future: he would be dominant yet remain vulnerable; he would seem all-conquering yet be susceptible. How many times has he been reduced to that little boy on the burning deck? How many times has the team crumbled, and the players become distraught enough to give up the fight after his fall?

Only he knows how many tears he shed each time India spurned a victory; only he knows how many times sleep evaded him after seeing the taunting face of defeat.

In a merciless country, not too surprisingly, that is one of the grouses against him: oh, he hasn’t helped India win many matches; oh, he hasn’t delivered in the big ones. As wicked as that might be, not to forget how untrue as well, nobody seems to notice the mountains on his shoulders when he comes in to bat; one just has to look into his eye to understand that even sleep had run away in fear the previous night.

How many people can withstand this kind of pressure, this size of expectation? Tendulkar doesn’t face just the fury of one bowler, or the cunning of a team; he faces the anxiety of an entire country each time he pads up for India: one false stroke, indeed one good delivery, can wipe out a million smiles faster than a tsunami.

Is it really possible to see the ball through such a crowd? Can the feet move in such a throng? Can the mind communicate its command to the body in such deafening silence? It’s a miracle, really, that Sachin can even walk into the cauldron of a World Cup final; yet he goes in, erases the million pleading eyes, tames the demons and comes back unscathed for another mauling, for another day.

Sachin, the captain

If Sachin was born to bat, Tendulkar was clearly ordained to lead: after all, there is no nuance of the game that escapes his eye. He catches the tiniest weakness in each batsman and unravels the shrewdest and most-guarded secret of every bowler; he has Plan A and Plan Z, and a million ideas in between.

Yet, somehow Sachin has never been a successful captain; more damningly, there’s hardly been a great batsman who has not gone on to become a great captain, with or without the resources.

Sachin’s record shrieks mainly because he is almost always ahead of the game; it may be only into its first over, but he is already thinking of the fifth, the tenth or possibly the fiftieth. His mind is processing data, nay tactics, at the speed of a dual core; sadly, it’s impossible for the lesser mortals to keep up with him. More significantly, perhaps, they may have found it difficult to execute his plans; at the peak of his own batting, of course, India were hardly a bowling side either: his attack was never good enough to account for 20 wickets. What could he do?

Sachin could only despair as his pacers tired, his spinners flagged and other shoulders sagged; as for him, even in defeat he never had to hunt for enthusiasm or energy. Only his body language betrayed the grief, and the quiver in his voice the trauma.

Actually, Tendulkar the captain needed ten other Sachin s to make India the most formidable side in the world.

The moment he realized it was an untenable dream, he gave up captaincy; he dedicated the rest of his life to other captains, in pursuit of the same goal. For Sachin, the planning never ceases, the plotting (of the rival batsman’s downfall) is an unending process.

Indeed, he remains the biggest cog in the think-tank; not a single stratagem is devised without a little finetuning by him, not a single match has been won without a particularly sweet coup from him. Sachin has always been the captain of the team without officially being one.

He is not Sachin

As the advancing years slowly rendered him back to mortality, he encounters a new charge: he is not the same batsman anymore; he doesn’t bat like he used to. True, this is not Sachin at all; this is some other imposter batting in his frame, scoring the same number of runs but in a much, much more human way.

Those who have seen the real thing up close, of course, will lament in hope; those who have heard the crack of his rasping shots will continue to long for the vintage little boy: the others can only snigger and make crude remarks about his role in the team.

Luckily, just a couple of weeks ago, Hyderabad happened, the 175 materialized; let us, however, be assured that it was an accident, that we may not see it again, at least not in a hurry; but yes, it very clearly showed that the old little Sachin still resides in Tendulkar’s body.

The bitter truth, however, is that it’s not the same body any longer. In fact, it has probably been dissected more than even his own batting; there isn’t a single part inside which hasn’t seen an injury or met a surgeon. He has gone through so much pain that it’s a marvel that he can even walk, forget run or play.

Indeed, there came a time when he couldn’t even lift a spoon with his left hand; the tennis elbow was so excruciating and humbling that he actually thought he could never wield a bat again. In his mind, the end had already etched in big, bold letters. Yet, Sachin didn’t give up; he had come on a mission to this planet and he would finish it.

Eventually, through true grit and a numbing fitness regime, he got his elbow back on its feet. He was tempted to use a lighter bat but he gave up the idea almost the next instant; now THAT wouldn’t be Sachin: he subtracted a few dynamic strokes, including the stunning lofted drive over mid-on against pacers, and added a few pedestrian ones.

Runs started coming from behind the wicket, rather than from the front; the booming cover-drives and cascading straight-drives are a distant dream now. Why, he seems to have even lost that special ability to read the ball before it was delivered, or be in position to play before it reached him. Yet, the hundreds keep coming almost as if out of their own will.

What else could one want? What else could one ask of him? Well, how about turning back the clock and becoming that precocious kid all over again? Yes, we want the little Sachin, just one more time. For ever.