A decent champion

He is an adult, he is a father, he is a husband, of course, but he is still unspoilt, still honourable, still self-effacing. Sachin Tendulkar is an advertisement for the best in sport, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH

SACHIN Tendulkar's 35th Test century was not inevitable and to believe so is to, in some ways, diminish a journey that has been so long, so hard, so luminous, so honest. More than most professions, sport defies the inevitable, it challenges predictability, it offers no guarantee. Prodigies are anointed every day yet have fallen and men have worn true greatness briefly but found it hard to measure up through time. Form rudely flees abruptly into the night, the mind wearies, the body ails, fame distracts, riches bring lethargy. Like Sunil Gavaskar before him, Tendulkar has fought it all with distinction.

There is nothing inevitable about a man staying disciplined for a lifetime, embracing sacrifice, honouring his nation, staying true to his talent. There is nothing inevitable to a 16-year-old boy becoming the highest century maker of his time. There is nothing inevitable to greatness, for it is both gift and burden, it is built painstakingly day after day. Every century is a test of character, an advertisement of desire, a proof of sacrifice. This man has done well.

Too much and too long we go on about Tendulkar's batting style these days, should he play demonically or austerely, a debate hurled back and forth with no finish line in sight, but it's not this minor matter that has changed that is relevant, but what has stayed mostly unchanged. Him.

India is not what it was since Tendulkar took his initial Test stance. Political parties have changed places, new states have sprung up, riots have asked questions of our values, a middle-class has grown wealthy, war and peace has been found with Pakistan, nature and man have had their cruel say. It is an India unrecognisable from 1989. But he is the same. He is an adult, he is a father, he is a husband, of course, but he is still unspoilt, still honourable, still self-effacing. He is an advertisement for the best in sport.

Let us get this out of the way quickly. He was silly for asking for duty on his Ferrari to be waived. He was indicted for ball tampering but that was a joke, this man is no cheat. Perhaps, too, there is the odd other complaint. Of course, he is no perfect man, no saint in virginal white, but in 16 years are these the only blemishes we can find?

To appreciate this more clearly, we must remember that perhaps with the exception of black athletes performing amidst bigotry, and Maradona, Tendulkar has arguably been confronted with more sustained pressure than any other athlete. If you consider all his sport is played in national colours (as opposed to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Pete Sampras), if you consider population, if you consider cricket's place at the centre of the Indian universe, if you consider the almost vulgar media scrutiny he endures, it is not an entirely preposterous suggestion. How admirably then, he has grown up, and lived his life, in the public arena.

Tendulkar is as flawed as we are for he is a human being, but we have not had to live his world, not had to conduct our every waking minute outside our front doors in the gaze of a billion, cameras primed for a single mis-step. If he appears a bland character then it is almost because it was the cleverest solution for him, a defusing of the clamour that surrounded him. His allergy to controversy occasionally proved counter-productive for when he needed to speak out on cricketing matters, he stayed wrapped in silence. He had an acute awareness of the impact of his words, which once said could not be retrieved. Still it is amusing: with most other athletes we find it tiresome when they throw their weight around; with Tendulkar we wish he had done it more often!

Of course, batsmanship sets Tendulkar apart, it is what defines him, but for this writer, who first met him when he was 15, it is the dignity maintained amidst that batsmanship, in the middle of worship, that is his greatest contribution. With the bat he had a studied stillness about him, exploding then into haughty shot-making, but it was an arrogance he left on the field. He has never undignified the adulation he has been accorded.

Through years of interviewing Tendulkar, not once have I encountered rudeness. He has not agreed to every interview request, but he has never been difficult. Only about posing for photographs early on, and I have never quite figured that out. When, like so many others, I left a note of condolence for him when his father died during the 1999 World Cup, when he returned to England he made it a point to seek me out to acknowledge it.

Once, in Sharjah 1998, on the rest day between his two glittering centuries against Australia, a birthday party had been thrown for him, attended by former cricketing greats and celebrities, all toasting him with champagne. Encumbered by an unreasonable deadline for an India Today cover story on him, I approached him, and he, although distracted and enjoying himself, drew me to a side table away from the clamour and spoke for 10 minutes as I scribbled on a napkin. It was an unforgettable act of generosity.

Tendulkar has played cricket with, and been a cricketer of, distinction. Across the seas in Australia, a harsh jabbering between the hosts and South Africa has gone on before even a ball had been bowled, and it was all quite unseemly. Tendulkar on the field said little, barring a bizarre broadside at Glenn McGrath in Nairobi once that left the infamously intemperate bowler nonplussed. He has not protested wildly about decisions, nor grumbled painfully in the press room. In a time of whining, and sporting excessiveness, decency has been his signature, decorum his trademark. In Sydney, on his last tour, unsuccessful till then, how they cheered him as he walked in. Few men are so beloved in other lands.

Tendulkar has never complained too strongly about his life because his riches are many and he understands he is privileged. But in its own way this successful life we see has been a struggle. From the time he was a boy he has been denied his humanness by us, not allowed a bad day, not allowed disappointment, not allowed failure, he was to be our machine, our squeaky, cherubic robot.

Incredibly, Tendulkar has so rarely let us down. For a while he was so bewilderingly consistent that we began to believe that while other men were due a good run, he was due a slump. Eventually, it came, but it is this faithfulness to his cause that for me sets Tendulkar apart from Lara.

Some contend Lara is more destructive, for some he is the more complete batting genius, and they are not unreasonable opinions, but the West Indian wavered occasionally, he indulged himself, he set himself before team, for a while he spurned his gifts. Tendulkar has been the greater devotee of his craft. He has played with some men who have not tried hard enough and others who sold their team. He has played under limited captains and inept coaches. But he has throughout stayed constant.

The best of Tendulkar is behind him, he has lost some elasticity in his body and misplaced some fluency in his art, but remains a superior craftsman to many around him. Will and memory are his finest weapons these days. His journey is not complete, his desires unfulfilled. He wants this Indian team to win a series beyond the subcontinent; he wants, too, probably, Lara's record of most Test runs accumulated.

When he scored his 35th century, he looked up as he does, to the heavens where his father rests. Ramesh Tendulkar is his son's north star, even now, even today, a guiding light, the one man he does not want to let down. His father, the soft-spoken professor of literature, perhaps demanded more of his son than runs scored, centuries made, but a life lived through it all with grace. The son has not let him down. His career has been a poem his father would have treasured.