About a Boy by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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17 November 2013

It is only fitting that Tendulkar is born in a land where the lines that separate legends, myths, fairy tales, facts and histories have long blurred to the point that one passes off as the other with little sense of disbelief and incredulity. It appears only fair that Tendulkar is from the region where the elevation of man to myth to idol to God can happen all in a single lifetime. It is probably deserving that he hails from a culture that has a personalized God customized for every event and occasion, with each God invested with the requisite powers and reigned with right amount of defects and faults. In the land of countless deities, idols, Gods, swamis, babas and Gurus, finding a place for him in that pantheon of elevated and extraordinary is not a tough task. And to think that all of that is because of his cricket is only telling half the story. It was a confluence of events and factors that contributed to the transformation of plain admiration of a talent to true worship of his name. At the turn of the 80's when the country was stretching its limbs and finding its feet into becoming the economic powerhouse (at least, in the game) that it is now, when the team was getting pounded by all and sundry, except on its tailor made pitches, when the credibility of the side was mired in a spate of scandals, rose a cherub with a squeaky voice and squeakier clean image, standing up to the mighty and the ferocious, eager to showcase his prodigious talent on bigger and better stages. And then the system took over from there - guarding him fiercely from unwanted influences, guiding him through every step of his away outside of the playing field, the cabal of administrators, commentators, marketing professionals nurtured this once in a lifetime talent with a kind of attention, dedication and devotion reserved probably to messiahs and incarnations. And Sachin repaid the faith reposed in him, maintaining till the end the dignity, the humility, the humbleness and the reservedness that endeared him to the elders, the aggression, the accumulation, the domination and the subjugation that won him the hearts and minds of the youngsters. Discipline might probably mean cutting out the cover drive completely while amassing a mammoth score of 241, however much induced, lured and enticed by loose deliveries outside the off. But there has to be a much stronger word than 'Discipline' to describe the unwavering from the path of dull, normal and boring in all of the 24 years and remain steadfast to the cause of cricket. Not playing a cover drive, many can repeat the feat at that level, to not throw his enormous weight around for over a couple of decades, history has yet to checkmate Sachin's move.

His talent - the scores, the runs, the performances on the field - is not what that made Sachin the phenomenon, he turned into. It is what transpired, quite paradoxically, outside the cricket stadia. India fell in love with the little lad who was in the early throes of teendom, when he was featured in a little segment on a Sunday morning cricket show hosted by then recently retired cricketer. Sipping hot tea off a tiny stainless steel glass, he, in all his wide eyed naivete, proclaimed, quite innocently, that he didn't mind facing the likes of Marshall, Walsh and Ambrose, because "the ball comes righT onTo the baT" (stressing on all the "T"s with his guttural might). It was love at first sight. It had all the trappings of a teenage love story - the innocence, the charm, the attraction and the optimism for the future that lay ahead. Though the relationship had its ups and downs, the nation more or less stood behind its man, riding the crests and roughing out the crests together. And whenever the relationship hit the rough patches on the long road, it served well that the country never forgot why it fell in love with Sachin in the first place, emerging out of the many crises that popped up more and more frequently in the later stages, more faithful and more devoted. It is an ultimate tribute of undying loyalty, endless love that can ever be showered on a sportsperson, by a nation that never fell out of love with a dimunitive lad who never grew out of his boyish charm. Even the Bard could not had penned a better love fest.

The two yard sticks that size up the stature of a great career are how long and how well the career served the team, as against the team carrying the career, and second, how does it measure up against other superlative talents that took to bat during and before. Every great career has a familiar trajectory - the bell curve - along which it unfolds. The gradual rise to the top, the stay at the perch above and slow climb down. During both the climbing up and down periods, the team supports him through the establishing and the eventual struggling periods, which the talent repays in kind (sometimes manifold) during his stay at the top. No career, no matter how talented or blessed, is an exception to this, and neither was Sachin. During his rise, the administrators and the fans, in a rare show of unity, extended a long rope to him, allowing him the time and space to breathe and bloom. The fact that he didn't hit his stride till the 80th one day before he hit his first century attests to the faith and patience, that would not have otherwise been extended to any other player. And the only reason for it appears to be the need and the longing for a true hero, in those dire times. In all fairness, the two stars that shone brightly till then, Sunil and Kapil, were never "heroes" in the truest sense of the word, that the entire nation rallied around blindly. Sure, on their days, they won matches single-handedly for the team, but in Sachin, the nation found an intoxicating cocktail of Kapil's aggression and Sunil's classicism, coupled with the innocence and humility that happily coexisted with the hunger and the talent - the stuff that "heroes" are made of. Add to the fact, the team, when he joined the proceedings, was ragtag bunch of aging stars and unrealized talent, getting beaten black and blue by teams that mattered. Sachin's arrival was a fresh breath of air to a rudderless team with broken sails. Here was a lamb among lions, David among Goliaths, a true boy among men. There could not be a better underdog story. It was as much as the prodigy of his talent as it was the desperation of the times.

The stay at the top was a sight to be beheld. Every cricketer, particularly the batsmen (only because they got more chances and more time on the field), at the peak of their prowess seem to be operating in a different zone altogether, unperturbed by the commotion all around and unburdened by the weight of expectations, where runs seem to be piling up without a great degree of difficulty, when the hand-eye coordination seem to be fine tuned to the purest precision, and the performances seem to be appearing as an art form unto themselves. Huffing and puffing, the fast bowler fumes in from the 30 yard circle intent upon exacting a pound of flesh or at least an ounce of blood from the puny figure staring him in the eye from across the 22 yards. The ball thunders down as though the clouds opened and hell fell over, rushing in to crush the toes and topple him over into humiliated submission. However the ball lands just a few centimeters short of the intended spot and what should have been a perfect yorker turns into a full length ball. Then the magic begins. With the head perfectly still, and the eyes, that had been following the ball all the way across, sufficiently lit up, and the body in perfect balance as Vinci's Vetruvian Man, the bat comes down in a silky motion and meets the ball just as it is about to rise up and cause damage. The momentum of the bat transferring its kinetic energy to the speeding ball causes it make a complete halt for a fraction of a millisecond and reverse its direction right before speeding away to the sight screen boundary, blowing a fleeting kiss to the wickets across, as it hurries through the outfield with great expediency. Text book, Straight Drive. It was Newton and Beethoven at their harmonic and symphonic best, an exhilarating mix of classicism of art and dynamism of science, amounting to a feast to the eyes and pleasure to the senses. Straight drive, they say, is the benchmark by which a batsman is judged, and Sachin never lost it till his last innings.

Aside from the straight drive, the square cut, with the ball climbing upon him and Sachin rising alongside it, balancing his entire weight on a few toes and slicing the ball across its rotating axis to cause it to race to the boundary, is another virtuoso performance. Front foot, back foot, drive, cut, pull, hook, delicate, hard, precise and strong - his quiver had an answer for every situation, as he is known to be virtually faultless with nary a creak in his technique. Bowlers could not intimidate him and the opposition merely stepped back and allowed him to make a mistake, than forcing upon him their will ('We'll let him have his hundred" - Steve Waugh, opening comments on a bilateral series, post Desert Storm). The one cornerstone that Sachin built his career upon and the one keystone that sustained his career all along was balance. This has been Sachin's strength. He never talked down any opposition, never sledged or intimidated, was never casual or loose, and balance - of the mind, and the body, on the field and off it - played a huge part in it. Warne once mentioned that they never sledged Sachin, for they found the harder they came at him, the stronger his resolve, to stay at the crease, got. His stoic nature while under the helmet could also be borne out of the fact that he discontinued his formal education, never going past high school, that automatically bred reservedness and a certain kind of steeliness which allowed his bat to do the talking for him, replying in runs, sledging in centuries, and trading tirades in fifties. It was this period during most of the 90s and early 00s that garnered the idol worship for him that was hitherto unseen on the global stage. While the wickets fell around him, he valiantly stood between the opposition and its march towards victory; while the rest of the order crumbled on what looked like minefields, he reveled on the same to mistake them for featherbeds. The gulf between him and his compatriots was so vast and wide, that with him, and him alone, swung the fortunes of his team. And this single handed, and single minded performances for well over half his career earned him a privilege that no other sportsperson in any other game was rewarded with - a tenure.

And then, the descent. When the wick glows bright and strong, it would appear as though it would go on forever and the mere thought that it would eventually burn out its potential and exhaust itself seems inconceivable at that moment. Light fades into darkness, seasons change and careers end. It is nature's law and Sachin's invincibility in the 90s was no exception. However the descent was not a direct way down. It stalled and spurted in phases, only to pick up steam and chug nice along right after each of those breaks, it stuttered and stumbled in other instances, picking up second wind and sailing away smoothly to safety yet again. Sure, every career would run into a ditch every so often. But in a 24 year span, if about 1/4ths of it was downtime, over 6 years of staggered non-productivity was bound to earn the boot for any other mortal. Yet Sachin was given the wide berth to bat himself back into limelight, without the looming fear of being shown the door. On his day, Dravid won matches for his country, both in the short and long forms. It was even remarkable that Dravid had to go against his play, change his style to suit the quicker format and excel at the same game that he once was decreed (and derided) as unfit for. Yet, Dravid's lone dip in his ODI career saw him out of the side for good. And the reason quoted on his pink slip - too old. Dravid had no option but to swallow the injustice and look on as Sachin failed for matches and years together without making a significant contribution and still remained very much part of the team's strategy and its long time future. What could explain that?

Ganguly was the captain that India never had - abrasive, combative, winning, and more importantly, winning aboard, and consistently at that. His aggression rubbed off on the team and taught it ways of locking horns, meeting eyes, and matching slurs, all the while, backing the talk up with performances. He spotted talent, picked the horses and ran the courses, earning him their fierce loyalty. He was the as close an Imran Khan that India could ever lay its hands on. Yet he became more and more a non-playing captain in the final stages of his career, finding it hard to justify his place in the side as a player, particularly when the younger brigade was knocking hard at his doorstep. With the lone dip came the swift marching orders. K.Srikanth's stint as a captain (coincidentally Sachin's debut tour to Pakistan) met a similar fate of him losing his place in the side even after a noteworthy draw against a stronger opposition in their backyard. Their noteworthy performances as captains never came to their rescue, when their careers fell on the chopping block. Needless to say that Sachin never suffered similar fate. His lull in the performance as a captain earned him sympathies, instead, from all quarters. He was never stripped off his captained, he was only relieved of it. Why the double standard?

The reason was simple, Sachin was their boy. He was the son of the soil, the chosen one. The Tendulkars might have had first claims on him before he took to cricket. The moment he took to the national stage, he belonged to the nation. Which father would banish his beloved son to ignominy when his otherwise stellar standards falter a bit? Which mother would not give her blessed son the solace of her warm embrace, when the bundle of her joy was unraveling in front of her eyes? Sachin has grown up and lived his life in front of the eyes of the nation. It is the nation that has never grown old with (of) him. In a true Peter Pan fashion, every time he took the field, they never could get past and put behind the boyish exuberance that once launched Qadir's offerings into astral territories. Sachin has grown up, got married, and begot children of his own. But the nation always looked at him as the same 13 year old who once sipped hot tea from a steaming glass in front of the national television audience, enunciated every syllable with the force of the straight drive, and (foolishly/confidently) proclaimed that he never minded the blinding pace of the dreaded West Indian pace battery. Sachin had fallen down, scraped his knees and elbows a few times, and survived a few bruises, fared below par on many occasions, but in the eyes of the nation that donned the role of surrogate parents, he could not fail, he could do no wrong, he deserved all the time he needed to pull himself up and climb up the horse and ride away into glory, however many times it took. Fair? Just? Impartial? Ask any parent those questions and pat would come the reply - Doesn't Matter. And that's exactly what happened - squelching the voice of the minority that cried of preferential treatment, the nation didn't care whether the team performed or not, as long as Sachin clawed back into form. Win or loss be damned, Sachin was back among runs!

In the end, what did Sachin mean to the country - its favorite son, its close sibling, its apt pupil and its stern mentor? To each his own, but the common factor among all those different roles was one who never forgot his roots and manners. As said before, the phenomenon of Sachin has little to do with his cricket!

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