Tendulkar begins another journey

Sachin Tendulkar shakes hands with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee while skipper Sourav Ganguly looks on. The Indian team met the PM before its departure to Pakistan. -- Pic. SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY-

Sachin Tendulkar first went to Pakistan to learn about himself, and he goes there again to find more of himself. People were talking then, now they are talking again. He is not in a slump (his last Test scores of 241 not out and 60 not out suggest that), but he is not himself either, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

WHEN Sachin Tendulkar toured Pakistan in 1989, Andy Roddick was seven years old. The Berlin Wall had just come down, a batting genius was just being erected.

When Sachin Tendulkar toured Pakistan in 1989, Pete Sampras had yet to win his first Grand Slam title, Michael Schumacher hadn't raced a Grand Prix, Ronaldo hadn't been to a World Cup and Tiger Woods hadn't been heard of.

Still he's here, still he's scoring runs, still he commands our almost undivided attention. Our memory is full of him but still we make room for more; so many of our lives, in some minute way, are better for his coming (for an hour here or there, for a day if not two, he gave us hope, he challenged the imagination, he was a study in violent grace, he was an enduring distraction.).

As Tendulkar returns to Pakistan this is not journey's end, for while his back rebels and his hands mutiny and his feet are caught in momentary indecision, he is not done. This man is era, he is institution; he, and no one else, will decide when the curtain descends. That much right he has earned.

But this column is not about endings at all, it is about journeys, and Tendulkar's is unique in the Indian sporting landscape. Not by virtue only of his achievements, but because we have been allowed to travel almost every ball with him, sit beside him every innings, behold his transformation from apprentice to master in slow motion and close-up and action replay. (Television has been good to us, and him.) Of course, he did all the work, we the gloating.

The Tendulkar that walks the streets of Lahore is the same man of 1989 and he isn't. He has changed yet he is changeless.

Then his hair curled up and away, his shoulders were slighter. Now his hair is straighter than his bat sometimes is, his body as heavy as his resume. But the stillness of his body, the dead face that bowlers see when they roll in, the tick, tick, tick of the scoreboard (then maybe it moved quicker then than now), all that remains familiar.

Then his captain was Srikkanth; now Tendulkar has been captain himself, though evidently he is better at leading by example then merely leading. It is his least favourite memory, as if his captaincy record somehow diminishes him as cricketer. It was also his first real embrace of failure, for till then he almost had us believe he did not comprehend the word.

It has been a remarkable journey for Sachin Tendulkar, right from the day he made his Test debut in Pakistan in 1989. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Then Tendulkar blanched when he saw a microphone, now he faces them with less reluctance but more resignation. The quiet teenager has turned, or been turned, into a private man. His batting is for the world, his thoughts are mostly for himself. Still, duty he understands. In the midst of a birthday party in Dubai once, the day after his glittering century against Australia and the day before he scored another one, surrounded by wine-glass-armed back-slappers and celebrities, he found a corner table away from the tumult to grant me a quick interview only because I had a deadline waiting.

Then he was son now he is father. Then we wondered if he should wear nappies when facing Waqar, now he is well versed in changing them, and while the boyishness to his look will never die, you can see the man in his face. Most of this is natural aging, some is the unnatural accumulation of the pressure of playing God that no cream can cleanse.

Then we expected greatness from him and now it has not stopped, though we were more forgiving of him then than now. He has 9265 Test runs and 32 centuries, 12921 one-day runs and 36 centuries but in some quarters it is not enough. It is said his centuries are mainly first-innings hundreds and it is a laughable criticism. Mostly in these matters he is compared to Steve Waugh, who is considered the better finisher, yet 23 of Tendulkar's 32 tons came in the first innings but 30 of Waugh's 32.

Then he was not the best batsman in the world and now perhaps he is not either. On present form the names Ponting, Laxman, Hayden, Dravid rest more comfortably on the lips. But none of them are quick to wear the label, to snatch it from him, and it is easy to understand why: from 1992 till 2002, Tendulkar's average every year has been 41.90, 91.43, 70. 29, 41.53, 62.50, 80.88, 68, 63.89, 62.69, 55.68. Batsmen have great years, maybe two, even three: this has been a dazzling decade that challenges repetition.

Then he carried himself with a silent, squeaky dignity, now too he remains a decorous man. Through his performance only he drew attention to himself. Barring his indictment for picking the ball in South Africa, and his clear mistake over the Ferrari tax, his career has been remarkable for its absence of blemish. He could have got away with so much but chose to take so little from his celebrity.

The batting maestro's latest assault came against the Aussies in the Sydney Test, in 2004. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

He is not one to linger when dismissed, suggesting he knows that despite the absurd pedestals he is hoisted on, that he is scarcely bigger than the game. His father, whose photograph he carries with him, would have expected no less. Even now as Dravid and Laxman and Sehwag are celebrated, and his own form stammers and stutters, there is no evidence of petulance, no childish need to want the spotlight for himself. He is struggling but he is struggling with some grace.

Sachin Tendulkar first went to Pakistan to learn about himself, and he goes there again to find more of himself. People were talking then, now they are talking again. He is not in a slump (his last Test scores of 241 not out and 60 not out suggest that), but he is not himself either.

In Pakistan 15 years ago a great batsman began to emerge, perhaps 15 years later another model is revealing itself. Then he was exuberant, instinctive, aggressive, uninhibited, immortal; now he, or so it seems, is considered, circumspect, more cunning, experienced, mortal. Then people said he should play his natural game and now they say it too. But perhaps this is now his natural game, a batsman evolving to another plane, beginning a new phase. As much then as now he fascinates.

As Sachin Tendulkar returns to Pakistan, to the place where his legend commenced amidst a bloody nose, he will be grateful for the life he has had. And we grateful for the journeys he took us on.