For Mr. India, another milestone

NIRMAL SHEKAR

PERAMBALUR (Tamil Nadu), May 2001: A family driving back to Chennai from Kodaikanal after a week's holiday up in the hills halts near a granite-mining village not far from the famous temple town of Tiruchi in the middle of a scaldingly hot afternoon. Lunch boxes are opened in the shade of a huge tamarind tree. Before long, a boy emerges from behind a row of weather-battered tents - miners' makeshift homes - and ambles across close to where the family of four is washing down cucumber sandwiches with cardamom-flavoured milk.

Running his frail hand through hair that's perhaps not been washed in a few weeks, the boy, sporting only a dirty pair of khaki shorts torn in all the wrong places, flashes an impish smile. A few metres away, the trendily dressed teenager at lunch looks at the boy - all of 10 years old perhaps - and offers him a sandwich. The boy shakes his head gently but makes no attempt to accept the offer. Then the teenager pulls out a rupee coin and puts it on offer. Again the urchin shakes his head but makes no attempt to take it.

A touch bewildered, the teenager asks him in Tamil what he wants. And the skeletal village kid points his index finger at an English magazine lying on a sheet spread out under the tree by the family.

He then smiles the most amazingly wholesome smile you might have seen and utters a name - Sachin - in near-ecstatic frenzy. And his day is made when he is offered the magazine featuring Sachin Tendulkar on the cover.

Chennai, April 2002: A middle aged man is convalescing in a squeaky clean room in a swanky hospital following a complicated surgery for kidney transplant. He gently opens his eyes as a pair of visitors - his friends - walk in.

The patient's wife exchanges greetings with the visitors and then says, in awe: "You know what was the first thing he wanted to know when he came out of the anaesthesia? Nothing about the surgery or his own health. He wanted to know if Sachin had got his 29th hundred!"

IN three decades of watching sport and writing on it, one has seen idolatry carried to seemingly illogical extremes. Nothing evokes surprise, really. For, you have seen it all. After all, sporting icons are our modern-day equivalents of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Emperor Ashoka and Napoleon.

Sachin Tendulkar with Sir Don Bradman and Shane Warne on the day the Don turned 90. The late Don waxed eloquent about Tendulkar. Warne, too, has only words of praise for the Indian maestro.-AP

With a bat or a ball or a racquet, they invade our consciousness and dominate it much like warrior heroes did in earlier centuries. Helmeted, padded and with a bad in hand, or with a ball at their feet, or perhaps swinging a Rs.8000 graphite racquet on a Rs.4 lakh plexipave court, or maybe even from behind the wheels of the world's most expensive car that is never seen or driven on a public road, they win our affections and take hold of our hearts as fighter/performer-heroes.

Adulation. Hero-worship. Idolatry. So, what's new. You've seen it all.

So I thought for many years till I met that 10-year old boy on the outskirts of the mining village in the heart of Tamil Nadu over a year ago. Here was a boy - already a school drop out at such a tender age - who was perhaps lucky to find one square meal a day, and with the sort of face that you'd find in an advertisement for CRY (Child Relief and You), who actually turned down offers of food and money but gleefully grabbed a magazine which he couldn't read, simply because Sachin Tendulkar happened to be featured on the cover!

Love. It was pure love. This went way beyond adulation, way beyond hero worship. What he did was the ultimate expression of pure love. And so indeed it was when my friend, immediately after regaining consciousness, sought to know from his wife if Tendulkar had got a hundred at Port of Spain.

From the days of C. K. Nayudu and Lala Amarnath, from Dhyan Chand and Mewalal down to Ramanathan Krishnan, from the Nawab of Pataudi down to Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev and Vijay Amritraj, the best of Indian sportsmen have seldom been unaccustomed to adulation.

But nothing that's ever been seen and experienced in this country in the context of sporting idolatry can quite compare with the Tendulkar phenomenon. Never in the history of modern India have so many people staked so much emotion on a single sportsman.

If you left the political arena aside, perhaps the only other Indian who was the object of such widespread hero-worship in the last three or four decades was Amitabh Bachchan.

Gavaskar had his fans. So did Kapil Dev. Ramanathan Krishnan had his admirers. So does Leander Paes. Dhyan Chand had his share of passionate supporters. So does Dhanraj Pillay.

But nobody, man or woman, ever managed to dominate our day-to-day conciousness as Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar has done. As a sporting phenomenon in this country, he is a pure one-off, much like Bachchan was in the entertainment industry.

On the Friday night - well past midnight in fact - when Tendulkar reached his 29th Test hundred to draw level with the late Sir Donald Bradman, there might have been impromptu celebrations in millions of drawing rooms in Indian homes from Jammu down to Trivandrum and from Shillong down to Porbandar in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

It is hard to say how many Australians might have kept awake through the night to listen to the radio commentary when Bradman stepped out to play his last innings but several million Indians would have surely risked leaving home bleary eyed for work on that Saturday morning.

Then again, is there anything at all in Indian sport that is better worth losing sleep over than a Tendulkar Test century? And this, to be sure, was not just another hundred but one that saw him match the greatest batsman in the sport's long history.

I remember the day Sunil Gavaskar got his 29th in New Delhi against the West Indies in 1983. It was a particularly aggressive innings with the little man hooking and pulling and driving with rather uncharacteristic ferocity. As an Indian, you felt that the little master's wonderful accomplishment rubbed off on you too. You felt proud. Simply put, it was a glorious day.

Tendulkar would have been 10 years old then. His talent with the bat might have been obvious even then to a handful. But little did we know then that another Mumbai maestro would one day go on to match the Don, as did Gavaskar, and then breathe down the back of the original little master himself.

Yet, the point about Bradman's centuries is this: as a record, in my mind, it will never be passed. You will never have a batsman scoring 30 hundreds in 52 Tests and 80 innings and only when this happens can we, reasonably, say that Bradman has been surpassed.

But, as a milestone, it can be passed. And it has been passed by Gavaskar and matched by Tendulkar. As level-headed gentlemen not given to chest-thumping easily, both the Mumbai masters of batsmanship have acknowledged this.

Every sport has one or two icons who stand way beyond the rest, well ahead of even genuises such as Tendulkar and Gavaskar. In cricket, it is Don Bradman and Gary Sobers. In football, you have Pele. In tennis, you have Rod Laver and Pete Sampras. In boxing, you have Muhammad Ali.

No matter that - and notwithstanding the fact that his 29th hundred, as an innings in itself, would not rank among the best we've seen him play - it is important to remember that Tendulkar is only 29. Most Test batsmen don't reach their peak until their late 20s.

As Gavaskar said the other day on television, this young man might go on to score 50 Test hundreds and 15,000 runs before leaving the game. And that would move the post so far that anybody hoping to catch up will have a lot of hard running - and more than a touch of luck - to do.

To me, quite the most amazing aspect of Tendulkar's career has to do with the fact that he has gone on to match, and even surpass, all the predictions that greeted his entry into the big league towards the end of the 1980s.

To those used to his heroics in India and elsewhere over the last 10 years, this may not seem hugely significant. But hit the rewind button for the moment and go back to the days when he and Vinod Kambli made merry in schools cricket.

Remember all the glowing tributes paid to the teenagers then? Now contrast Kambli's fate to Tendulkar's.

The point is simple: there are dozens, even hundreds, of teenagers who look good, very good, when starting out. Only a handful live up to the promise. Only one, or two maybe, go well beyond the promise and achieve the sort of immortality that Tendulkar has by his 29th birthday.

That Tendulkar has accomplished what he has is at once a tribute to his character as a champion sportsman of rare substance. With wonderful support from a close-knit family and a handful of friends, he has survived the tidal waves of adulation and attention, all the glare of the spotlights and the pressures of being a solitary genius in a team that's constantly swung between mediocrity and the average and has only occasionally veered towards the brilliant.

As the greatest spinner of the era, Shane Warne, has pointed out, day after day after day, there is not a single contemporary batsman who can match Tendulkar both in terms of the quality of run getting as well as consistency. Perhaps no other batsman of this generation has handled Warne with quite as much confidence and skills as does the Indian maestro.

It takes a certain kind of greatness to manage the sort of genius that Tendulkar possesses and let it flower that way it has. Bradman had it. Gavaskar too. And so does Tendulkar. What you need is a tunnel-visioned focus that obliterates everything else in sight.

What appeals to me, more than anything else, in Tendulkar - more than the beauty and power of his batting, more than his technical genius, more than his tactical flexibility - has to do with his powers of concentration.

Take a close look at his eyes when the bowler is running up to deliver. In them there is an intensity of purpose, of one-pointed focus, worthy of a Zen master.

Nothing matters but the moment. Nothing matters but the Now.

To better understand this, imagine a Test match ground with tall buildings all around. If every one of them happens to collapse as the bowler runs in to deliver, Tendulkar's focus would not waver one bit.

This might sound callous, on the surface. But surface truths are essentially immaterial.

Such intense focus might have seemed even more intense and other-worldy only on rare occasions and in the case of a handful of geniuses who symbolised such saintly powers.

In the last three decades, I have only known one sportsperson who went way beyond Tendulkar when it came to focussing on the moment, on the Now. This was Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver who was killed on the track in Imola in 1994.

But Senna lived on the edge all the time in a high-risk activity. Cricket, in comparison, is a far more genteel sport and to bring such intense focus to it, as does Tendulkar, is something truly extraordinary.

Then again, there is nothing that is ordinary about Sachin Tendulkar on a cricket field.