Evening of an icon

Evening of an icon

Evening of An Icon, Sachin Tendulkar, India-West Indies Test Match. Sachin is India and India is Sachin. For a nation such as ours, he is an icon that perhaps comes along once in a century.

Sachin is India and India is Sachin. For a nation such as ours, he is an icon that perhaps comes along once in a century. We proudly announce to the world, ‘Cricket is a religion and Sachin our God.’

My son ran a travel agency at Chennai in the 1990s, operating premium tourist taxies at a five-star hotel. From time to time he would renew the fleet with new cars. But he held on to one car. I was intrigued. When enquired, he said with all pride: “That was the car in which Sachin Tendulkar travelled from the hotel to Chepauk once. It is not a car anymore; it is a memento, a souvenir. ‘’

Cricket was Greek and Latin to me for 33 years. When a Test Match was played between India and West Indies at Fateh Maidan grounds in 1963, I was in the commentator’s box watching the game of Gary Sobers, Gordon Greenidge, Wesley Hall and Jayasimha and others. Clive Lloyd was the baby of the team then. I had no idea that I had a brush with history then. But when my 10-year-old son spent a night on the pavement standing in a queue of Chepak in 1975 to get a ticket, again for India-West Indies Test match, this time with Clive Lloyd as the captain, I was concerned, intrigued and started watching the ‘madness’ from the 10-year-old’s point of view and the world was never the same.

In 1996, we made a pact. To go to London to watch Sachin at Lords during the day and go to Westend to watch a play each day. It was there we were introduced to a gentleman who happened to be the father-in-law of Sachin. Something else happened in that match. A lanky boy swung the bat for the first time with a new cap on his pate, scored a century on his debut. It was Saurav Ganguly. The rest was history.

At this point, I felt that it was prudent to rope in a ‘ghost’ to complete this column, my son who travelled with the Indian team twice for all the days for two World Cups in 1999 to England and in 2003 to South Africa. Such was the madness of the group who travelled together- he drove a car across South Africa from Johannesburg to Cape Town, 2700 miles, with four press people to share the excitement. From here, he takes over.

And so the day we all Indians dreaded has finally arrived. It is strange that we feared for this terrible moment for all of 24 years of his illustrious career! The maestro is ready to hang up his boots. He reportedly remarked to a friend at the end of CLT20 Finals, ‘I am not enjoying this anymore; time to say enough.’ Cricket perhaps will not be the same again. With him announcing his retirement from the game, a billion people’s lives have been changed forever.

I will never forget March 1, 2003. Venue, Centurion ground, South Africa. Jingoistic fans from both India and Pakistan were packed together in a crucial World Cup encounter in the backdrop of post-Kargil hostilities. It was billed as the ‘Mother of all battles’. It was not just a game of cricket. It was war. For me the charged atmosphere was threatening. Pakistan batted first and scored 273 with the man who enjoys tormenting India, Saeed Anwar, scoring a century. The odds were stacked against India. I didn’t enjoy my lunch with Pakistani fans looking cock-a-hoop sensing that the match was theirs to be won. A motley group of Indians, including me, were quiet. In walked the Indian openers Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. Suddenly there was a different drama. South African Airways was the official partner of the World Cup 2003. The video screen flashed a sign, ‘Look up in the sky’. I looked. Two 747 Boeings were flying low (in fact very low) and very close to each other towards the cricket ground. It was at once eerie and spectacular. They dramatically arched in opposite directions just above the light towers of the ground with their engines raising a storm, roaring, as they throttled on power to gain altitude. My heart was racing and it was difficult to breathe for a moment. In the humid afternoon, my India t-shirt was drenched in sweat. It wasn’t for faint hearted. Now, thankfully back to the game. The Rawalpindi Express, Shoaib Akthar, was soon steaming in with his long run-up threatening to run over India. The screen confirmed that he was bowling at more than 95 mph! That moment required someone to take the scruff of the neck and stamp supremacy on the game. Merely scoring runs wasn’t enough. The god was ready. Legends love a challenge. They like being questioned about their inherent ability. They love the fight back when cornered.

We, the spectators, held our breath. I suspect that was the case with a billion people watching back home in India. Shoaib bowled fast and furious outside the off stump. Sachin slashed and slashed hard. The white ball sailed over the hapless third man into the top tier of the stands. I felt the hair on my neck. It was a surreal moment, one that I will remember to my last breath. The game was won then and there. What followed after that was just details. India won on Tendulkar’s 98 runs.

Here is a fragment of a beautiful story. Sir Don in the evening of his career was watching a Test match on television at home. A young man batting for India caught his attention. He liked the technique and the aggression of the boy that made him reminiscent. He wondered how he himself would have appeared to a spectator while batting. Television came much later than his era. He sought his wife’s opinion. ‘Hey, come over and have a look at this boy. What do you think?’ Ms. Bradman, after seeing the boy, nodded in approval: ‘Yes, he is very similar, the same compactness, technique. He resembles you. ’ Sir Don was pleased. The young man the Bradmans were discussing was Sachin Tendulkar. And they should know.

Reams of print around the world have been produced analysing his batting. As a matter of fact Tendulkar’s batting is not the most distinctive India has ever produced. He does not have a signature shot that would set him apart. He does not have the swagger of Viv Richards or the monstrous ‘Helicopter-shot’ of Dhoni. That is because he is a versatile batsman who plays every shot in the coaching manual in a pure copybook style. He is indeed a product of the more coached and organised Bombay school of batting as his predecessor Gavaskar was, perhaps more dominant and flamboyant. But for us, a billion odd Indians, the technical evaluation of his batting is mostly irrelevant and best left to experts. For us he is a paragon of virtue. He is not just a sportsman representing India, but a symbol of vibrant India taking the centre stage in the world.

Sachin is India and India is Sachin. For a nation such as ours, he is an icon that perhaps comes along once in a century. We proudly announce to the world, ‘Cricket is a religion and Sachin our God.’

We feted him and, as Indians, proudly owned his incredible achievements on the field. But the most enduring aspect of him is the way he conducts himself off the field. It is difficult to fathom how he manages to keep his sanity in the wake of the colossal adulation of a billion people. But icons are also fallible human beings. They too have a family and a life to lead. Sachin’s moments of personal grief became national mourning. When he lost his father during the World Cup of 1999, the nation grieved. And when he returned to England to play against Kenya, almost immediately after the funeral, there was charged emotion in the ground and the entire cricketing world. A white man seated next to me in the stadium that day seeing tears well up in my eyes when Sachin came to bat said, ‘I suppose you’ll give him a standing ovation even if he clears his throat.’ I couldn’t have agreed more.

The long wait of about a year from international century number 99 to 100 gave ulcers to a billion people! The oftener he came tantalisingly close to the landmark and fell short, he sent millions into depression. More prayers followed. Let’s quickly be done with it, Sachin, they said. Finally when he did get to the summit the nation collectively sighed in relief. He is perhaps the only player to have been a part of a World Cup winning team, an IPL trophy and more recently Champions League trophy. In Bangalore, during the World Cup match 2011 against England, an enthusiastic fan held a banner that summed up Sachin for us: ‘Until I see God, I’ll settle for Sachin.’

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