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Following the Arch of His Bandaged Bat

By: Ajay Vishwanathan Email By: Ajay Vishwanathan
February 2011
Following the Arch of His Bandaged Bat While watching the game on television in his living room, Sir Don Bradman called his wife, Jessie, and asked her to check out a young man who was batting—diminutive, stocky, compact, and confident. With the ball cannoning off his heavy bat, the man, said Bradman, reminded him of himself. It is this comparison that has set off a lifetime of passionate debates. Gorging on this comparison by the legendary Bradman himself, people made careers, TV channels bumped up their ratings, magazines sold copies, and bloggers found food.

One person who remained unfazed, almost serene, at least publicly, in this frenzy was that young man on Bradman’s television screen, India’s Sachin Tendulkar. He was twenty-three.  At that age, such a comparison should have brought humility to its knees and struck sanity under the belt. The BBC noted, “It might have destroyed a lesser man.” It didn’t. Fourteen years later, the man still scores with overwhelming brilliance.       

Last month Sachin became the first man to score fifty Test centuries (as I write this, he has just scored his fifty-first). And in celebration, I thank my Indian education system. Not because it allows me understand all the profound adjectives used to elevate him, but because it is the stress of that very system that Sachin was trying to beat by escaping to the playgrounds. While boys his age were busy preparing for their public exams, Sachin was training to foil the fire of Imran Khan, Waqar Younis, and Wasim Akram. I know, because I was one of those boys caught up in feverish studies.

While I did quite decently in the tenth standard exams of that year, 1989, I would have gladly traded my marks sheet for the score sheet that said, “Debut at age sixteen, 215 runs in four tests, two fifties,” with a side note: main khelega—his two-word response while refusing medical attention after getting rocked by a Younis bouncer, and continuing to bat with a bloody nose.

Sachin’s batting skills are hardly believable—hence the profusion of references to his super-human capabilities on the crease. He maintains that he would like to be known as a simple human being, not “God who must never fail” [Mark Waugh], or “God who bats at number four for India” [Matthew Hayden]. I’m not surprised that people chase superlatives while talking about Sachin. Why, they even gloat over meaningless or accidental associations with the man. I still proudly point out that in 1989, my school, Don Bosco, played Shardashram Vidyamandir, his alma mater, even though he wasn’t on the team that day.

The boy next door

For me, what is most inspiring about the man is his relatability, something that almost an entire nation will admit: a middle-class childhood, an unimposing, almost apologetic personality (and voice), his fierce protection of familial privacy, and that-guy-on-the-local-train demeanor.

Little tales from his past are as delightful as they’re unpretentious, so simple they could have happened to you. During nets, his coach Achrekar used to place a one-rupee coin on a stump and ask the bowlers to claim it by getting him out. If they failed, Sachin got the coin. Today in Sachin’s collection are thirteen of those coins that he has no plans of spending.

Equally moving is the memory of his century in Bristol against Kenya during the 1999 World Cup. His father had expired and for the first time, Sachin had lost interest in the game he dearly loved. But he took to the field for the man he had loved more. The look on his face and those eyes raised heavenwards stirred every observer that day.

Tendulkar the Terminator

Before Sachin arrived, we Indians craved cricketing dominance, even if it lasted for just a ball. We had players who managed to guard their wickets, protect their bodies. Once in a while we bathed in a short-lived exhilaration—when Kapil Dev would lash out at a bowler, or the time when Krishnamachari Srikkanth opened a one-day inning with a four and a six off the much-feared Malcolm Marshall. Looking at foreign bowlers and batsmen tower over our players, physically and mentally, we wished we had someone who would make the opponents wish they were somewhere else.

Then, into our yearning lives walked a five-foot-five-inch steamroller named Sachin Tendulkar; he arrived when we needed an Indian great to take on the world, not a nudger, not an artist who weaves his bat like a brush, but a powerhouse who bludgeons, a swashbuckler who takes on the furious Pakistanis, the bullying Australians, the intimidating West Indians, and the condescending English. Mercifully, he was not a one-over assault but a blitz battery that relentlessly pummeled the opposition into submission.

A closer look at the little Champion's road to cricketing immortality reveals phases marked by differences not only in the way Sachin approached the game but also in the way his audience perceived his role. A teenage Sachin, surrounded by stalwarts like Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri, enjoyed an image-free chapter where, like a raw, injury-unmindful gymnast showing off his moves, he dazzled his audience.

By the early to mid-1990s, the veterans around him started fading away, new recruits like Sanjay Manjrekar and Vinod Kambli failed to live up to their promise, and the bats around him—including Navjot Sidhu and Mohammad Azharuddin—grew unreliable. In order to beat India, especially in the ODIs, teams started focusing on Sachin's wicket. Remarked Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga, “Getting Sachin out is like half the battle won against India.” Sachin had to work his magic even with the ball: when captain Azharuddin wondered who should step in for the final over to prevent South Africa from scoring six runs in the 1993 Hero Cup, Sachin grabbed the ball and bowled one of one-day cricket's most memorable overs, taking India to victory.

The dark days

This was followed by arguably the darkest stage in Indian, and perhaps world cricket, the match-fixing scandal that implicated several big names and shattered the hearts of millions, some of whom never took cricket seriously again. When the haze subsided, Sachin stood untouched. But like fresh, new shoots in a gutted forest, the team came out cleaner and meaner, with young bowlers willing to jostle and batsmen willing to unload. With aggressors like Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag, then M. S. Dhoni, on the team, Sachin transformed into the less flamboyant accumulator that he is now, but still dominating.

That was until 2003 came along, which turned out his worst year in Test cricket, marked by niggling injuries from his back to his elbow, mid-field cramps and even surgeries. Like a wounded animal that brooded most of the time, snapping back once in a while, Sachin’s game languished, with an odd sparkle here and there. Murmurs started picking up about the unthinkable—retirement.

The little gun’s batting during those years lacked the teeth to hush these murmurs. From the end of 2005 to the beginning of 2007 Sachin scored no centuries, then eked out two against minnows Bangladesh.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, this was also the time Greg Chappell took over as national coach, and for unknown reasons, envenomed the dressing room enough to make everyone insecure about how they felt and performed. India tumbled out of the 2007 World Cup with an almost obscene display that lacked everything from energy and spine to the willingness to play for a coach who talked less to them, more to the media. One of the hardest hit was Sachin, not from media panning but from having lost a chance to show everyone that he still had the old roar. Said Ian Chappell, “People come to watch Tendulkar dominate, not just score. And if he is not looking to dominate, he is playing for the wrong reasons.”

This period showed that even the most placid may have triggers, and something triggered in Sachin, unleashing a side no one had seen before—he lashed out at Greg Chappell, and at everyone else who questioned his commitment. I too was guilty of believing that his best days were behind him. “He should spare fans like me the agony of witnessing his slow death,” I had written a few years ago. I was wrong, and am thrilled that I was.

Soon, Chappell was sacked, and Sachin took to the gym like never before, knowing well that while no rambling coach or critic could get him, his waning body could.

The resurgence
What followed was one of the sweetest resuscitations of all times, a period of rebirth that continues even today. He has scored sixteen Test centuries since that ignominious 2007 World Cup, and is also the only man to have scored a double century in one-dayers, an ode to his restored fitness. And from the looks of it, Sachin is savoring this phase of his life, not burdened with the lone savior role any more, relishing the adulation in the dressing room and a batting form that is hardly letting up.

However, this magnificent, almost mythical, opus has one chapter that he himself wouldn't want to go back to—captaincy. In 1996, at age 23, he took over from Azharuddin as India’s skipper. “It will ease the pressure on Azhar, and it will also infuse the team with fresh energy,” said Manjrekar. Except, the pressure that eased from Azhar gripped Sachin. Within seventeen months, the selectors had dethroned Sachin, declaring that that the burden had affected his batting. They were probably right; the following year, 1998, turned out to be a dream year for him. In 1999, in an unfortunate show of musical chairs, Sachin was asked to lead again after another World Cup debacle under Azharuddin. Now, the man scored but the team lost. After a disastrous tour of Australia and the drubbing at the hands of the visiting South Africans, Sachin voluntarily stepped down in 2000. Whether he did so because he was not in control of the team or its dressing room secrets, no one will ever know, but Sachin never took up captaincy again.

This turned out to be a blessing. Instead of plaguing Sachin Tendulkar for his decision-making, we could focus on the sublime—his work ethic, the sweeping arch of his bandaged bat (an old favorite that he likes to use for special innings), the titanic stockpile of records that he has relentlessly amassed, and the portrait of class that he has grown into. We can now focus on safely immortalizing the icon that he will remain forever in our nostalgic videos, in our nighttime stories of an era we feel fortunate to have witnessed: the teary look heavenwards, his bleeding nose, his thirteen one-rupee coins.

The Greatest? An Irrelevant Question

From being called one of the finest, arguably the greatest, to the best-ever outright, like every top sportsman who has given us teary eyes and goose bumps, Sachin Tendulkar will always stand, elevated and almost nonchalant, amidst the crossfire of contention, debate and scrutiny.

Kobe Bryant, the current-generation basketball legend, is being compared to yesteryear great Michael Jordan. Every generation wants to be the one to have produced and witnessed the best of a kind, and considering the usually diminished impact of inactive icons, their greatness relived only in highlights and stories, this tendency can be forgiven. Rahman versus Ilayaraja. Shahrukh versus Amitabh.

Amongst Sachin’s contemporaries, Ricky Ponting's career has petered out and Brian Lara's has ended. These two masters, in addition to Sachin, were the only ones who made the most justifiable claim to the top in recent times. There were others who gave temporary cheer to their hopeful fans, like Inzamam-ul-haq, who Imran Khan remarked at one point was better than Sachin, and Mark Waugh, who himself relinquished the position to “God.”

It is difficult to argue who is the best—Lara was probably the flashiest, the twister who made people stare and gasp, and Ponting was only there because of his sudden and inspired scoring streak that looked like it could catapult him to the top of the record pile. In contrast, Sachin's greatness parade has lasted the longest, having marched through sun and cloud, light and dark, indifference and applause, troughs and inclines, often fatigued but unceasing. Ultimately, however, subjective salutations fall flat in the face of an objective track record. Here, Sachin stands head-and-shoulder above both his contemporaries: he lays claim to (i) Highest number of centuries scored (Tests and One-days), (ii) most runs (Tests and One-days), and (iii) the first (and so far the only) one to score a double hundred in one-dayers.

So, among his contemporaries, the battle for top honor is easier for Sachin to settle with little rancor. But less peaceful and almost impossible to corroborate is the likening to Bradman and Vivian Richards, the stalwarts of a different era. Graeme Pollock of South Africa, a great in his own right, recently called Sachin the best after Bradman, citing as reason the Australian's far superior batting average (99.94), which is as tough to counter as Sachin's other current records. Both players were intensely iconic, and both drew patriotic throngs who came just to see their champions, expecting them to give joy whenever they took stance.

But we could ask other questions that would, even though unanswerable, at least make the comparison look legitimate: would Bradman have been as consistent had he played other countries so many more times? (He played England in 37 out of 52 Tests, so traveled far less.) Or played an enormous number of grinding one-dayers? (Bradman was part of none, while Sachin has batted in well over 400.) And Richards, well, his greatness came as much in his ferocity as in his crushing body language and helmet-less swagger, the try-me demeanor that gave spectators a high even before he had taken his guard. But his numbers are less monumental than Sachin's, and for me, the comparison ended when Bradman himself chose Sachin over Richards in his best-ever line-up.

I feel ashamed trying to pit eras against eras, records against records, men against men, when I know that what these titans played for represented so much more than mere runs. Isn’t it enough that Bradman brought hope to the depressed masses of the Depression era, while Sachin's batting brightens the lives of even the most economically deprived Indians?

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