Sachin Tendulkar - mobbed forever but good travel partner

Even seven years after retirement, Tendulkar remains the most sought after; true, there is a Virat Kohli but the Master Blaster's aura refuses to fade away.

Sachin Tendulkar races down the steps of Rashtrapati Bhavan with autograph seekers and security officials at his heels after receiving the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in New Delhi in 1998.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

He would walk in his sleep but sit tight at the crease. He would not want to return to the pavilion. But then which batsman would want to? In his case, Sachin Tendulkar made it a habit. There were occasions when he got out for nothing – 14 in Tests and 19 in ODIs – 33 in a total of 781 innings but those were forgettable in a career spread over four decades – 1989 to 2013.

Even seven years after retirement, Tendulkar remains the most sought after. True, there is a certain Virat Kohli. And Mahendra Singh Dhoni. But then there is Tendulkar, exuding an aura that just refuses to fade away. He was mobbed the first day he attended the Parliament as a nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha.

COVID-19 has given him the opportunity to spend time at home. Throughout his career he craved for privacy, stepping out of his home or hotel incognito, often restricting himself in the room for breakfast when the rest would be in the restaurant. He would leave crowded receptions and gatherings at the earliest opportunity, but he always had time for cricket.

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An afternoon at Hobart is vivid. Rain had robbed the team of a training session ahead of the three-day match against Australia ‘A’ but how could Tendulkar be confined to his room. I happened to run into him at the hotel reception, ready with a pair of pads and bats. With Ajit Agarkar for company, he was off to the Bellerive Oval. Our man had found out that the indoor facilities were functional and he had a bowler who was “game” to give him practice. It only reconfirmed Tendulkar’s discipline to be in the right frame of mind for a competition.

Here is a little story of Tendulkar’s intense reading of the game and his obsession to be ready for any challenge. Ahead of the tour to England in 1990, Tendulkar, all of 17, approached Austin Coutinho, who was Sports Officer with Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilizers in Chembur, Mumbai.

“I was amazed at his high level of preparation for the tour. He requested me to just prepare a green top and wanted to come and practice to be able to tackle the seaming ball,” said Coutinho.

The pitch was prepared as per his request and Tendulkar batted three hours daily for a fortnight. “He organised the ten bowlers who would bowl to him but imagine the mind of a 17-year-old. So committed and with a vision,” Coutinho remembered. Tendulkar’s first Test century came in his ninth match and as he had anticipated, it was in conditions similar to the created at the RCF ground.

His affection for ‘kid’ fans is to be seen to be believed. He just adores them. Two incidents come to my mind.

Once, at the end of a nets session as he walked to the dressing room, he charged at a police constable at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi when he saw him push a youngster, who fell on the ground. In a rage, Tendulkar blurted out in Marathi. When I reminded him he was in Delhi, he repeated it in Hindi even as he escorted the kid to the boundary. Can’t remember a more livid Tendulkar.

Mohammad Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar at a training session.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

On another occasion, he responded to a knock at the door and saw former Delhi cricketer Bantu Singh with an army of youngsters. Obviously Tendulkar was not prepared since Bantu, who was the local manager of the Indian team, had given no indication of bringing this big fan brigade to his room for an autograph session. Keeping his cool, Tendulkar requested the kids to form a queue and obliged every one of them. He could have said “No” to Bantu but refrained from doing so for a reason. “The kids had come with hope and wishes. I didn’t want to become a figure of disappointment for them,” he said before having his dinner which had arrived moments before Bantu had rung the bell.

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There was a scary episode involving Tendulkar, again at the Kotla, on April 14, 1998 when India lost to Australia in an ODI match. I had gone to meet Mohammad Azharuddin for work related to his weekly column in Sportstar when suddenly there was furore at the gate of the dressing room in the old block. A well-built man, in an inebriated state, had barged into the area and demanded to see Tendulkar. Even as the DCCA security tried to push him away he broke the cordon and smashed the glass door of the dressing room. Panic gripped the players who scurried to safety with Tendulkar hiding behind a big sofa and Navjot Singh Sidhu, bat in hand, standing like a wall between the intruder and India’s most precious batting gem. All that the man had asked for was a hand shake with his hero. Tendulkar obliged and the man left.

The hug Tendulkar gave Sidhu was some sight as the players, recovering from the incident, broke into a wild celebration. The team was to leave for Sharjah the next morning where greater deeds lay in store for the little master.

The 1998 Coca Cola Cup at Sharjah was a one-man show. There were two centuries from Tendulkar in three days. We saw a sand storm that threatened to blow the stadium away. And then when it subsided, there was a storm in the shape of Tendulkar. He swept the Australians off their feet. He first concentrated on getting India past 237, the magic figure required to put New Zealand out of the contest on average. India lost that last league contest but won a place in the final. Australia rued it.

At the pre-final dinner, noted cricket writer R. Mohan struck a conversation with Australia captain Steve Waugh. “Sachin sometimes slashes early in the air and a deep backward point could be a catcher and sometimes he gets inside the line to glance,” was Mohan’s observation. Mohan also remarked if they did not get Tendulkar in the first 6-8 overs the Australian bowlers stood no chance. Waugh had a deep point and leg slip but Tendulkar left them stranded with his innovative strokeplay that night.

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The final was a thrilling experience. The Australians were flattened by Tendulkar, who seemed like a batsman possessed. He crafted a sensational win for India and triggered unprecedented celebrations. The morning after the final, I and my photographer colleague V.V. Krishnan were tasked by the office to get exclusive stuff – an interview and a cover photo. That we managed was a story by itself, waking Tendulkar up, doing the interview in his Dubai hotel room overflowing with gifts for his match-winning feat, and Krishnan emerging triumphant with a cover picture. All because Tendulkar so sportingly accommodated us despite a tiring match and a literally sleepless night.

Tendulkar is known to be a caring colleague. Ajit Agarkar has some fond memories of his travels with the great man. “I remember when I scored a century as an under-16 player, he sent me a pair of high-quality gloves. I didn’t even know him well then. Over the years we became good friends. He has been the biggest influence on me from the time I first met him at Ramakant Achrekar Sir’s home. He had seen me bowl in the Kanga League and later he invited me to bowl at the India nets when I happened to be playing in the Buchi Babu tournament in Chennai,” said Agarkar.

Speaking about Tendulkar’s image, Agarkar recalled, “I was in awe when I came into the Indian team but he made me so comfortable. Both of us enjoyed eating different kind of food. We would try all kinds of cuisines but I can’t forget the crabs in Colombo and prawns in Kolkata. He’s been a great friend to have.”

Friends remember him as a “gentleman” who never says “no.” As Agarkar emphasised, “I have not seen Sachin speak rudely even under intense pressure. He has no escape from public but he is always polite. He has been amazingly patient for the adulation he gets.”

At the crease, he is a force who grows with every over. He made cricket a charming vocation to enjoy for a nation starved of heroes. His batsmanship has been a benchmark. In modern era, cricket owes it to Tendulkar for bringing grace and dignity to the middle with his unflinching integrity.

The master continues to inspire a generation. In these exasperating times, all confined to the homes during a critical phase of the lockdown, an old video of Tendulkar producing runs with silken artistry can be a most soothing experience.

Let us revisit his batting feats and remember the good old times when Tendulkar brought joy by swinging the willow.

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