An ode to Sachin Tendulkar on his 50th birthday

Vijay Lokapally, veteran sports scribe, pays a tribute to Sachin Tendulkar, remembering a few memorable moments he shared with the legendary batter.

Published : Apr 24, 2023 14:41 IST , New Delhi - 8 MINS READ

Sports journalist Vijay Lokapally poses for a photo with Sachin Tendulkar.
Sports journalist Vijay Lokapally poses for a photo with Sachin Tendulkar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Sports journalist Vijay Lokapally poses for a photo with Sachin Tendulkar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It’s never been easy to be Sachin Tendulkar. Not even after you stopped playing. Your personal time was hardly yours. Not that you regretted having to share it with fans and colleagues. And family whenever you could.

Having seen you grow as a player, getting to spend some quality time on cricket tours, it was impossible to fathom your source of energy and inspiration. To play the game with such dignity, not to forget the longevity that made you a larger-than-life figure, extracted the best out of you. But you did not complain.

You did not complain when demands were made of you to shine individually in a team game. You never shirked but what a price you had to pay! Losing sleep to command concentration for the match the next day was an extraordinary quality. There are incidents galore that have stayed with you but come into public domain much after they have made an impact.

The one leading to your century against Sri Lanka at the Wankhede Stadium in 1997 was breathtaking. As always you spent a sleepless night and slipped out of your hotel room with a friend to visit some of your favourite stops in the city, including the temple at the Shivaji Park. Returning to the hotel, you had a strange request to the receptionist: to fetch a carpenter. He arrived the next morning to work on the handle of the bat, slicing off a bit at the top. The shortened handle worked wonders and resulted in some rousing shots as you crafted a century.

Some incidents are worth repeating here. The occasion when a fan, kept waiting outside the dressing room at the old Ferozeshah Kotla ground, decided enough was enough. The securitymen had denied him entry since he was in an inebriated state. When the fan realised the team was about to leave, he just gatecrashed by breaking the glass door. I was inside the dressing room, and the huge noise created a panic. The fan kept shouting, “ Sachin kahaan hai?” You hid behind the big sofa and Navjot Singh Sidhu sprang to your defence with a bat in his hand. Even as the burly fan was brought down, he pleaded to shake your hand. Realising the gravity of the situation, you obliged. “I can die in peace now,” the fan declared. The team also left in peace.

Bantu Singh, the First Class cricketer, loves you. You broke his nose with a nasty bouncer in a Ranji Trophy match at the Ferozeshah Kotla. Bantu landed up in the hospital for an emergency surgery. That night, Bantu’s father, Dilbag Singh, got a call. “Sachin here. How is Bantu? I am sorry about the injury.” Dilbag shed a few tears. Bantu recalled, “I don’t know how he got hold of my landline. From that day, my family has held him in reverence.”

WATCH: It’s a fifty for Sachin Tendulkar!

The desert storm, at Sharjah in 1998, was something. The storm in your eyes was not to be missed. The fierce determination was so visible as you took it upon yourself. Like a man possessed, tearing into the opposition, to ensure India achieved the run rate to pip New Zealand for a place in the final. It was incredible. You repeated the feat a day later and won the hearts of millions of fans across the world. Photographer VV Krishnan and I had the rare privilege to visit your room a day after the epic win to shoot a cover picture. There was not an inch of space to step. The room was flooded with hundreds of gifts from your admirers. It was a small return for such a huge achievement.

Former team physiotherapist Dr. Ali Irani never tires of the frightening experience in Pakistan in 1989. His job every night was to place a table and chair in front of the door to stop you from walking out in sleep. “It was a task. He had deftly unlatched the door in sleep and I just about woke in time to restore him to bed. It would be an exercise every night before I could sleep without a worry.”

Your preparation for a match, even a local game, was a lesson in cricket ethic. The coffin (kit bag) would be spick and span, with equipment placed in proper order. The pads would go in first, then the gloves, bats, followed by shoes, cleaned of dust from the day’s play. The coffin would be gleaming and the equipment shining, proud of being so well looked after by their illustrious owner. Your close ones know how you worship your playing gear.  

What is the most astonishing aspect of Sachin Tendulkar’s cricket? Not just the runs you have aggregated but also how you have crafted them. The meticulous study of the pitch, playing conditions, and the opposition has been an amazing part of your success story. You would pick the session to thrive upon, the bowlers to feast on and, of course, the judicious shot selection.

A memory from watching a tour game with you from the sidelines in Zimbabwe is so vivid for a mind-blowing experience. You were spot on predicting the bowling changes and the adjustments in the field placements for the batters. Yes, we know you could accurately read the mind of the captain and the bowler.

On another occasion, during a Test match in New Zealand in 1998, you boosted my confidence on the reading of a delivery. It so happened that you got out to a poor shot, playing away from the body. The ball flew to gully. I wrote it was an ‘innocuous ball’. Coming back to the room, while watching the highlights, I heard the commentator rave about the delivery. I was in a fix, having written just the opposite. Having the advantage of time, I was tempted to call the desk in Madras and make the correction before the page was cleared for printing. It would have been embarrassing, no doubt, to tell the sub-editor to change the text from an innocuous or poor ball to a lethal ball, as the commentator had described.

I told my colleague VV Krishnan, who suggested calling you as you were put up in the same hotel. “Are you watching the highlights?,” you asked. “Yes.” I was nervous. “What have you written?” you wanted to know. I read out the sentence. “Relax. You are right. I misjudged the bounce.” Your reply meant the world to me.

The next day, at the ground, you said: “Back yourself and your instinct. We all make mistakes but don’t undermine yourself. The commentator is paid to talk. Your job is to write. You were right.” I hugged you and went off to finish my report.

It was painful to see you struggle with captaincy in the absence of support from some key players, bowlers in a few cases. Probably it was tough for them to match your standards and level of expectations from them. How can I ever forget the dreadful night at Bridgetown in 1997 when India was bowled out for 81? You honoured our dinner date despite the heartbreaking loss. “Don’t ring his room bell,” Sidhu had warned me as I walked into the holiday resort next to our hotel. I wanted to share the grief and was gutted to see you in tears. You had taken the defeat to heart, not realizing that it was the team that had lost. Anjali watched in silence. Obviously, we skipped dinner. 

You are a great host. It’s been a privilege to spend time with you in the hotel room on various tours in India and overseas. Your room was always amazingly tidy, any time of the day. Not at all smelly like the rooms of most cricketers from the sweaty clothes. You used to cook meals in the kitchens of restaurants for team members and claim expertise of making steaks. I can vouch from personal experience for the delightful steaks and eggplant bharta you dished out in Harare. The tea that you serve in the room is a delightful process to observe. The right measure of water. The time given for the water to boil and the tea leaves to soak with a lid on the top of the kettle. “How does it taste?” you would ask before taking a sip. “Perfect,” I used to say. The smile on your face would be of a batter who had just hit his 100th run.

Vijay Lokapally flanked by Sachin Tendulkar and Vivian Richards in Antigua.
Vijay Lokapally flanked by Sachin Tendulkar and Vivian Richards in Antigua. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Vijay Lokapally flanked by Sachin Tendulkar and Vivian Richards in Antigua. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Not just your contemporaries, your seniors and the juniors hold you in such high esteem for your humility and kind-heartedness. The ground staff across the country adore you. For the respect you give them and the affection you shower them with. Your pictures with the curators and workers adorn the walls of their homes in a touching acknowledgement of the place you hold in their lives. Only you have carried on with this practice without fail. Even now, when you turn up for the seniors cricket league.

Personally, it has been a huge privilege to have known you for more than three decades. You accepted criticism gracefully, sometimes pointing out your disagreement politely. It’s amazing how you accommodate these requests for interviews every year on your birthday. There is quality time for every reporter. You don’t discriminate. You have never. Please stay the way you are. For you are Sachin Tendulkar, world’s best batter after Don Bradman. Even he thought you were better than him!

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