Criticise Sachin, don't disrespect him

ROHIT BRIJNATH

SACHIN TENDULKAR is not a god. He knows that. Now so do we. It's just that it seems easier for him to digest than for (some of) us.

Sachin Tendulkar is human. It almost seems a sin. He never promised us he'd score 29 Test hundreds, or in the innings of our choice, or when it matters most, but no, he has to. We expect no less.

Sachin Tendulkar has weaknesses. We've suddenly discovered it and it sits uncomfortably with us, as if we've suddenly discovered the world is actually flat. But you think he doesn't know, you think this batsman who can replay in his mind every single dismissal, who knows to the millimetre when his bat is coming down the wrong way or if his feet have suddenly gathered cement, doesn't know he has flaws?

Sachin Tendulkar does not deserve preferential treatment; he's not beyond criticism or censure or our own disappointment. But you think after 13 years of playing cricket for India, his commitment never in doubt, his courage beyond question, he deserves a little respect.

Instead in the past few weeks we've undignified a dignified man. We've flagellated him in public, dissected his craft, mauled his reputation and in one instance even called him a "choker". We've decided that he doesn't like the short ball in his ribs, doesn't like spinners bowling a negative line, plays across the line and has no nerve for the big occasion. It's one thing for Sunny to challenge him to score more runs abroad, it's quite another to savage him, as people have, on websites and elsewhere. In short, we've decided he's not all that great. But he never said he was. We did.

Greatness is confidence, and poise, and consistency, and flights of beauty and imagination, and strokes of compact elegance and searing power, technique married with ferocity, grace coupled with (cricketing) grammar, intent wedded to imperiousness. He has all that.

But, yes, he's failed occasionally when it counts and that's a minus point. It means he's not Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or the best that's ever played a particular game, but that's not new. But at least he's chased greatness, he's made a commitment to excellence, and this in a country which, let's be honest, isn't quite known for it.

Once we drew inferences from his statistics and compared him to Bradman; now it's as ridiculous and we're comparing him to lesser men. It's even been said that his centuries are mostly first innings feats, and thus useless, and how ridiculous is that? What happened to setting the tone, taking the psychological advantage, batting teams out, emphasising a presence?

No one denies he could have won more Tests for India. He'd be, and he has been, the first one to admit it. It's been said before, and it's been said even in this column, and it's something he's either going to have to rectify or take to his grave. But there is something unseemly in first sculpting a statue of a man and then spitting on it. It demeans him, but worse it demeans us.

He's allowed us to boast and thump our chests and say, "bring on Warne" and "bye bye Donald" and we've been nice to our wives because he's played with a sweetness that is almost aching, and now we say "Arre, what's wrong with you, Sachin?" What's wrong with us?

Let's not make it appear that India is not winning because he's failing, without taking into account India has often not lost because he didn't fail. If he had scored 20 every time he scored those 21 first innings centuries, where would we be?

There is a tendency now to recollect the times Tendulkar let us down and that is fine; but we must balance it against the times he hasn't. In 13 years, and close to 100 Tests and 295 one-day internationals, it is the first time in memory that he's been in a slump. He's had a better decade than most players have had tours. That doesn't count?

He is going through the most unsettling time in his career, and it's a time when a nation who's ridden on his back, should now lift him up. What happens to Tendulkar now is as much a measure of his greatness as it is of ours as a nation.

One of the wonderful things about Australian sport is that even in times of trouble, they keep the faith. At the Sydney Olympics, in an incident I often recount, Brent Livermore missed a crucial penalty in the hockey semi-final against Holland. He crumbled, so did everyone watching.

Except next match, the third place play-off, when the Australian team was announced before the match, his name elicited the biggest roar. It's what we need to do with Tendulkar.

It is a vital, pivotal moment for Indian cricket, for while Tendulkar may score a century in the second Test (by which time this column will be printed), or next year, or whenever, there will be a time when he will fail and not stop failing. In the second innings and the first. All athletes have a use-by date and his, at 29 and after so much cricket, is coming quicker than we think. What we say about him then will say a lot about us.

We can be cruel and dismissive, or gentle and understanding, and surely he demands the latter. Honest debate on Tendulkar's frailties is important, it is valid, it is even necessary, but he, of all people, does not deserve our cynicism. A letter to Tendulkar I read on a website, said, "Don't tell us not to overreact boss, just score when it matters." It made me cringe.

In a way, of course, perhaps it does not matter. It doesn't matter what Tendulkar does next, we've changed him because we've changed (some of us at least). He's always been wary of worship, he has managed it but never quite embraced it; because he knows this is a coin with two sides and now he has seen that other side.

And it is not pretty.