In the realms of divinity

We are too close to Tendulkar to be able to say, as we should, that he is the greatest batsman in the history of the game, greater than Bradman, greater than Hobbs, greater than anybody. This is the tyranny of proximity.

Sachin Tendulkar obliges fans at the Sydney Cricket Ground during India’s tour of Australia in 2011.His fan following is phenomenal.   -  Getty Images

Sometimes a person reveals himself best in someone else’s unguarded comment or spontaneous gesture. One of Bangalore’s iconic writers, the late P. K. Srinivasan was fond of telling the story of walking up the city’s Brigade Road and being struck by the expression of those walking towards him. “The awe in their eyes was unmistakeable,” he would recall, “but the focus was over my shoulder.” He turned around and understood why. For he was looking at the regal presence of C. K. Nayudu, India’s first Test captain.

The chances of Sachin Tendulkar walking down Brigade Road unmolested are slim, but I had a similar experience, literary where Srinivasan’s was physical, while commissioning essays by some of the finest writers in the game for a book on Sachin.

“Why don’t you do a different kind of a piece?” I asked some of them. “Highlighting some of the drawbacks of the player and the man?” The responses were interesting. And you must remember many of the writers are hardened veterans on the circuit, with larger than normal doses of cynicism in their attitude having seen feet of clay more often than the average cricket fan.

Sachin Tendulkar in front of a bust of the legend, Sir Donald Bradman, at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He was given a honorary membership of the SCG. The contributions of Tendulkar and Bradman to cricket are immense   -  AFP

 

Yet, apart from a passing remark about Tendulkar’s refusal to get involved in the big debates of his time — match-fixing, throwing, excessive cricket — there was nothing. Someone who had once written a piece cutting Don Bradman to size felt it was going against his grain to write similarly of Tendulkar. Another who had strong views on Tendulkar was startlingly honest: “Hey, listen,” he told me, “I need to live in India, you know.”

Somewhere between lack of evidence and refusal to acknowledge it stands the maker of one hundred international centuries. It was Mike Marqusee who brought about the great synthesis in his essay when he wrote, “For non-Indians, the joy of Tendulkar comes unadulterated.”

What manner of man is this who can do no wrong, and if he does, no one wants to talk about it? Forget the statistics, the records, the influence, the longevity, the sheer consistency as a performer; Sachin Tendulkar appears as a modern Gandhi, the person the rest of the nation aspires to be.

Bishan Bedi, better known for comparing bowlers to javelin throwers and dacoits, has called Tendulkar a ‘Maryada Purushottam’, the ideal man, arguing that the player’s true predecessor is not Bradman but Lord Ram. There is something about him, says Bedi, that invites the protective arm around the shoulder.

Perhaps that is why there are no dressing room stories that make Tendulkar sound more human — no broken bats, no temper tantrums, no broken television sets, no scraps or foul language.

There are two ways of ensuring such an image. You can have a publicity machinery that is always working in top gear — as in the case of Tiger Woods — or you can be that kind of a person, one who genuinely believes what in other mouths would sound like platitudes. The joy of playing, the importance of doing it for the country, feeling bad when you fail because you have let the team down, giving more than one hundred percent.

Now that he has made a century of centuries, and a whole set of articles in appreciation is set to add to the fan’s feeding frenzy, I am tempted to offer a prize to anyone who has something new to say about him.

His statistics are probably better known than the significant portions of the Indian Constitution. As the Pakistani writer Osman Samiuddin has said, “In recalling a Sachin Tendulkar moment, it must be acknowledged that there is no small, hidden gem somewhere that others are unlikely to have seen, like the single of a cherished band recorded during lost days available only in B-side bootlegs. His great innings, his great failures, his great shots: put together, everyone remembers everything about him. There is no exclusivity in the Tendulkar experience.”

What a wonderful line that is. There is no exclusivity in the Tendulkar experience. What he doesn’t want the world to know, the world will not know. This is the other remarkable aspect of a man so continuously in the public eye. His family gets to live a private life, his children are not thrust into the media spotlight.

Then there is the business of letting the odd journalist who crosses the line know that falling out of favour with Tendulkar is not a good career move.

The novelist Manu Joseph has a lovely story of Tendulkar walking bare-chested on a beach in Durban during the 2003 World Cup and being snapped by an Indian photographer. “I heard (Sachin) tell the man, only partly in jest, that if he wanted to continue in the media business, the images should never leave his camera,” writes Joseph. There is something absurd about being Sachin Tendulkar. No single person ought to be subjected to so much; however, no single person has handled it so well. The adulation, the pressure of expectation might have destroyed a lesser man. It was said of Don Bradman that if he cut himself shaving, it was front page news. For years it was news if Sachin shaved at all. And then he stopped shaving, and that became news too.

When you score over 30,000 runs with the same enthusiasm and commitment every time you go out to bat, it is beyond discipline, beyond spiritualism even, and in the realms of divinity. Perhaps Sachin Tendulkar is a god, after all, as the posters at so many of his matches proclaim.

“When I started playing, I was determined not to let down the 20-25 people who followed my game,” he once told me, “My family, close friends, and so on. I wanted them to be proud of me. Now I feel the same way about the one billion Indians. I want them to be proud of me.” Ah! Well, that’s simple then. Twenty five yesterday, one billion today. It’s only a difference in degree. We are too close to Tendulkar to be able to say, as we should, that he is the greatest batsman in the history of the game, greater than Bradman, greater than Hobbs, greater than anybody. This is the tyranny of proximity. But there is something about that unique century of centuries. If that doesn’t automatically place him above everybody else, what will? We must hurry up and let the man know.

(This was first carried in Sportstar magazine dated 29th March 2012.)