Aspiration for success is the single most natural thing in the world. It is not a trait unique to human beings alone; it is the very fundament upon which nature exists. It is what gives rise to evolution and results in life as we know it. And yet there are times, when even before you begin, you not just suspect that you will not succeed, but know that you are doomed to, and, will fail. Nonetheless, you go ahead and do it anyway. Because it is not a choice, but a call to duty; like a mountaineer attempting to scale that one last impossible peak, a surgeon trying to perform the miracle that will not happen or even a letter of infatuation that you know will never be reciprocated. Failure is merely a meaningless by-product.
And so I attempt to put in words, the emotion that cannot be explained but only be felt, the phenomenon that cannot be understood but only be experienced and a love that cannot be rationalized but can only be succumbed and surrendered to. I attempt to both understand and explain how much Sachin Tendulkar has meant to Cricket fans across the world, how much he has meant to millions of Indians and, how much he has meant to me. I will fail. But that is alright; it will not be a reflection of the inadequacy of my writing but rather a testament to the magnitude of the Tendulkar phenomenon, the Tendulkar experience and the Tendulkar emotion.
It was in 9th grade when I first realized that hyperbole can be literally true; a spectacular fall from a bicycle resulting in me actually seeing stars. And then it happened again a couple of years later. It was the evening of the 5th of November 2009, in Rajiv Gandhi stadium, Uppal, Hyderabad. It was ‘that’ match. That match, where chasing 350 against Australia, Tendulkar scored 175 of the most glorious runs; and India lost. Having had faced 16 balls for just 6 runs, Tendulkar clips Hilfenhaus to deep square leg and scampers three. It would have been innocuous if not for the fact that with those three runs, he became the first batsman to score 17000 ODI runs. 17000. The crowd, to the last man, are on their feet. They shout and they scream; they clap and they stomp. And the ground actually, literally, physically, shook beneath my feet. And all because of that one tiny small man hitting a ball with a bat. This was fan-dom and this was fan-aticism but this was also something more, something perhaps purer and something certainly rarer. This was about millions uniting in their joy. This was not the crowd celebrating Tendulkar’s achievements but celebrating their own because, for that brief moment in time, Tendulkar was a part of them and they were a part of Tendulkar. Tendulkar meant so much to so many people for so long a time.
Tendulkar was a great batsman; probably one of the best that there ever was. The record books will confirm that. But if he was only that, he would have been confined to the world of Cricket; instead, he ended up being a cultural phenomenon. How did this remarkable journey come about to be? And where did it all start? Most of us spend a lifetime searching for our true calling. Tendulkar found his at the age of 10. By the age of 14, he was known as the ‘Greatest schoolboy Cricketer ever’. And then, less than two years later, in a room in Bombay, five wise men were having a heated discussion. It was absurd. He was only 16, and he looked 14. Some of the selectors argued that Pakistan with its fearsome bowling attack and hostile environment was no place for a kid to be making his international debut. They would have been right except for the fact that they were discussing about Sachin Tendulkar. One of the five, Naren Tamhane, thoroughly exasperated, got up and shouted, “Tendulkar never fails’. And so by the age of 16, the hopes of a nation rested on Tendulkar.
The selectors were not wrong to be wary though. In that first series, against that fearsome attack, amidst the hostile Pakistani crowd baying for blood, Tendulkar almost failed. Waqar Younis broke his nose and drew blood, but heroically, Tendulkar batted on, his spirit unbroken. As the years passed by, the runs accumulated and the centuries began to pile up. There were some memorable innings, a few glorious victories and some inevitable heart breaks. But more importantly, he began to become one of us. Fathers bonded with their sons over Tendulkar. The generation gap was briefly erased when discussing Tendulkar with our grandparents. And for as long as Tendulkar batted, our mothers would relent and let us watch television. Once he got out though, television sets were turned off and reality resumed. Tendulkar had firmly become a part of our collective psyche. All nations need a hero and Tendulkar was to be ours.
There are two kind of heroes though. The first kind are those who do the unexpected. When David defeated Goliath, he was a hero because he performed a miracle. The other kind though, the rarer breed, are those who do what is expected of them, without fail, again and again. Tendulkar did it for nearly a quarter of a century. Tendulkar had begun to become so much a part of our lives that the nation’s mood began to depend on his performance. It was a vicarious relationship. We lived out our dreams through his achievements. We celebrated his success and mourned his failure. We prayed when he was injured and swore when he was wronged. In 2007, when Tendulkar repeatedly got out in the 90’s, I spent almost all of my pocket money on replacing the three remotes that I had broken. Tendulkar did not make our troubles go away of course; but he helped us forget our troubles for a while and made the pain more bearable. As long as Tendulkar was batting, the world was a kinder place.
Was Tendulkar aware of the hype around him? Was he aware of people worshipping him and temples being built? He certainly must have been; it was difficult to miss after all. Was he comfortable? Very unlikely. For, the relentless scrutiny, and the incessant pressure, of the magnitude that Tendulkar has had to face can and does break the best of men. And yet, Tendulkar was not broken. The expectations only seemed to fuel his hunger for runs and the love and affection showered upon him only served to make him ever more humble and grateful. Circumstances conspired to make Tendulkar the phenomenon that he became. Tendulkar’s immense ability, prodigious talent and audacious stroke play certainly contributed. But more that, it was the Television revolution sweeping across India, and the coming together of Cricket and commerce for the first time that made the Tendulkar phenomenon happen. What is remarkable though is that Tendulkar did nothing to halt the procession of that incredible phenomenon.
He became the great batsman we expected him to be. But more than that, he was a role-model like we demanded him to be. For all of Tendulkar’s staggering achievements, his greatest achievement is not in what he has done but in what he hasn’t. He didn’t rebel, didn’t try to run away, and didn’t try to shrug off the stifling expectations of perfection placed upon him. He didn’t throw tantrums, he didn’t have affairs and he didn’t court scandals. In our society, like in most others, we place people on high pedestals, often only for the sadistic pleasure of seeing them fall. Higher the pedestal, greater the fall. Tendulkar though didn’t give us that opportunity. Instead, he became what we wanted him to become; honest, hardworking and humble. And he remained that way. For 24 long and glorious years.
Somewhere over those 24 years, for some of us, this hero worship transformed into just worship. Cricket became our religion and Tendulkar our God. Like so many other kids around the world, my room walls were plastered with posters of my heroes. Thanks to SportStar, there was Tiger Woods, there was Federer essaying one of his glorious backhands, Beckham oozing glamour, Schumacher in his blood red Ferrari but most of all there were the Cricketers; Lara, Dravid, Sehwag, Hayden and others. One face missing on the walls though was that of Sachin Tendulkar. Because, the roof was reserved for Tendulkar. Every Sunday morning, I would take the week’s newspapers and magazines
and cut out the pictures of Tendulkar most carefully. Then I would get onto the bunk bed in my room and perform acrobatics as my sister passed on the sellotape. My mother did not approve much of what she considered the desecration of the walls and the roof, but she understood. It just seemed right somehow; looking up to Tendulkar first thing in the morning. That was my daily dose of prayer.
It was that same ‘175’ match against Australia. The sun was setting and the stadium was bathed in warm orange. The flood lights had just been switched on and the outfield dazzled a pristine green. Hyderabad rarely looked better and it was a glorious evening to be watching Cricket. And just then, a great flock of birds glided past the stadium. It was a spectacular sight. The spirit of each spectator there was stirred. All 50,000 or so of them were excited. And so how do they express this excitement and euphoria? They break out into a chant of Saachin Saachin. Tendulkar wasn’t even batting. That’s how much he meant to us.
In our country we call our friends by their first names. But we refer to our heroes by their family names. So it is Gandhi and not Mohan, Bachchan and not Amitabh, Dravid and not Rahul. But he was one of us. And so more than Tendulkar, it was always Sachin. That’s how much he meant to us.
As I stood in Wankhede, listening to Sachin give his farewell speech, tears streamed down my face. Except I wasn’t alone. All around me, grown men were weeping and sobbing openly. That’s how much he meant to us.
And just yesterday, I decided to watch Tendulkar’s movie alone. Because I thought the emotion was too personal a one to be shared. I was wrong. I wasn’t alone. I couldn’t be alone. Strangers we were, but together, probably for one last time, we reignited the passion, rekindled the memories and relived the journey. The theatre transformed into a stadium, with chants of Saachin, Saachin. And that’s how much he meant to us.
Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo probably summed it up best. Tendulkar loved Cricket more than anything else and Cricket loved back Tendulkar more than anyone else.