The Invisible Tendulkar

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What you didn’t quite see when you watched him for 24 years
Rohit Sharma’s first acquaintance with the unfamiliar world of non-academic texts was Ajit Tendulkar’s The Making of a Cricketer—the story of younger brother Sachin’s formative years in cricket.

His first experience of watching Tendulkar in the flesh was at the age of 13, when Sharma skipped school and travelled ticketless for 11 stops on a local train to the MIG cricket club, where Mumbai were playing Baroda in the Ranji Trophy. The trip was well worth it: Tendulkar raced to 108 and Sharma furiously made mental notes from a tree outside the ground. In his first meeting with Tendulkar four years later, Sharma was tongue-tied and fumbling nervously, but no less determined to hang on to every word from his boyhood superhero.

It was only fitting, then, that Sharma should be awarded a Test cap in Tendulkar’s final series by the man himself, that he made a century in Tendulkar’s farewell Test at their mutual home ground Wankhede, and, as if in complete surrender to serendipity, that the 111 runs were made with a bat gifted to him by, who else, Tendulkar.

A week before the Test series against the West Indies, Sharma matched another Tendulkar record—a limited-overs double-hundred. The only other cricketer to achieve this feat is Virender Sehwag—no coincidence, perhaps, that Sehwag, like Sharma, was one of many Indian players who took up the sport because of Tendulkar.

But Sharma’s recent dream run, which also included a century in the first Test at Kolkata, was preceded by a six-year struggle as he made several entries and exits into the Indian limited-overs team like a stage actor who couldn’t quite get right the lines of his soliloquy.

Through these times of uncertainty, he had many conversations with Tendulkar—about tackling bounce in Australia in 2008, the technical adjustments he had to make in South Africa and suchlike. He was mentored through three IPL stints after his switch from Deccan Chargers to Mumbai Indians in 2011. And he was given a pep talk over the phone through another slump in Sri Lanka in 2012. The chats often focused on helping Sharma overcome his failure to convert 20- and 30-run starts into substantial scores.

“What Rohit and many in the Indian dressing room learnt from Sachin was the ability to elevate their game to the next level of productivity,” says a member of the Indian set-up. “Sachin is like a search engine. Any question you ask results in multiple responses. It is so difficult to quantify his immense influence, especially on younger players.”

The irony is this wasn’t always the case. Tendulkar’s immediate impact was to unsettle a generation of cricketers who played alongside him. One of his contemporaries who did not wish to be named revealed how cricketers just a couple of years older began to question their place in the scheme of things. “Tendulkar was 16 and playing for India. At 19, I was still trying to make my debut for the state side,” he told Open. “If you were 26-27, you were considered too old by the selectors.”

When Tendulkar’s immediate contemporary Vinod Kambli made his Test debut four years after Tendulkar in 1993, he mentioned famously how he had plodded up the stairs while Tendulkar had taken the elevator to success—an insight into the pressure he must have felt when compared to his Mumbai teammate and close friend.

Fast forward 20 years and you witness how dramatically this dynamic evolved as Tendulkar went from boy genius to senior statesman in the Indian dressing room.

Now that the dust has settled at the Wankhede, the tears have been wiped away and the shouts of ‘Sachin, Sachin’ have petered out, one can step back and raise the question of Tendulkar’s legacy.

We all know the runs and records, the stats and scorecards. But as Tendulkar wakes up to make himself tea and contemplate life without cricket in the many morns to come, it is time to examine his impact on the three generations he played alongside and the ones to follow; time to understand the intangible legacy of India’s most celebrated sportsman and its most revered hero since Mahatma Gandhi. Paaji, coaching manual, bhagwan, role model extraordinaire, legend, inspiration and master, Tendulkar has essayed many roles and earned many labels from his teammates—of whom 93 made their Test debut and 121 their limited-overs debut after him.

For two decades, he was the nucleus of the Indian team—regulating the activity of this cell and its influence on maidans across the country; controlling its metabolism, growth and reproduction; and ensuring its evolution contributed a new species of Indian batsman with aggression, fearlessness and determination in his DNA.

Tendulkar was the prototype of the new-generation Indian batsman, a run machine in the most hostile of conditions and a judicious combination of his heroes Sunil Gavaskar and Vivian Richards. While he was by no means the architect of this brand of batsmanship, he was without doubt India’s finest exponent all through the nineties and early 2000s.

Of course, Tendulkar is too graceful to admit his wide-reaching influence on his teammates, let alone flaunt it. When Open put the question of legacy to him at his farewell press conference, Tendulkar said, “I know that someone like Bhuvneshwar [Kumar] wasn’t even born when I started playing for India. I have told them jokingly, wish me ‘good morning, sir’ when I come to the dressing room.”

He added, “I have shared my various experiences with them, and about my batting and my observations about their batting and what should they do… I have always done that and that’s not only because I am the senior-most player in the side. Even when I was the junior-most member in the squad, I would do that. It was about talking cricket, breathing cricket, it’s all about cricket. I think that process will continue till the time I stop breathing.”

Perhaps, questions of legacy are best left unanswered by those who create them.

Tendulkar was the box office blockbuster as well as the cult classic, the embodiment of a conservative middle-class Indian man and his antithesis, the innocent curly-haired boy and the middle-aged monk with straightened locks, the destroyer of bowling attacks and the accumulator of runs, sunshine on a winter morning and rainfall on a sweltering tropical noon.

If classifications of Generation X and Y dominated the socio-cultural discourse in the United States and England, then post-liberalisation, India only knew Generation S. The Sachin generation welcomed economic reforms and globalisation, Diesel jeans and anti-ageing creams, frequent flyer miles and luxury wheels, post-graduate degrees at Harvard and corner offices in Nariman Point.

And if an entire generation of Indians was celebrating its newfound confidence, India’s cricketers could hardly be left behind, imbued as they were with a swagger that can only follow four decades of diffidence.

Speaking about the impact successful child prodigies have on their social milieu, cultural historian Leo Braudy said, “One is created by others before one can create oneself.”

Braudy’s observation would offer some explanation of the myth and legend of Tendulkar and what he meant to any aspiring cricketer in the nineties.

When Sachin made his debut in November 1989, Virender Sehwag was 10, MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh were eight, Rohit Sharma two, and Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane a year old.

Sehwag took up cricket as late as 15, influenced by the 20-year-old who was then routinely tearing apart opposition bowling in Pakistan, England and Australia. Called the Tendulkar of Najafgarh before he became the Nawab of Najafgarh, it was clear whom Sehwag had modelled his game on, especially while playing the straight drive and the slash in front of point, leading to much confusion among commentators—and Sachin’s wife Anjali—who found it hard to tell them apart when batting.

Sehwag was just one of many Tendulkar mini-mes. Yuvraj recalls meeting an 11-year-old Tendulkar in Mohali when he was all of three and watching him play a couple of cover drives, Kohli (Tendulkar’s heir apparent) says the desert sandstorm knocks in Sharjah in 1998 made him want to do something similar for India, and Rahane, like Sharma, was a Mumbai boy who joined in the chants of ‘Sachin, Sachin’.

By the mid-nineties, Tendulkar was easily India’s best-known sportsman and its richest. Never drunk on the trappings of success, fame and money, he took pride in showing his countrymen what was possible if you never took any shortcuts, religiously honed your skills, kept your feet on the ground and head on your shoulders.

In the month leading up to Tendulkar’s last two Tests, the vast array of tributes from his teammates has dominated Twitter’s feed, newspaper headlines, sports broadcasts and 24x7 television as Dhoni, Kohli, Sharma, Sehwag, Yuvraj and Harbhajan among many others point again and again to him as their greatest inspiration, like the chorus of a Beatles’ chartbuster.

But this legend wasn’t just about Tendulkar’s batting style or his copybook strokes. “It’s the incredible story of a 16-year-old cricketer taking on the world,” explains Rohan Gavaskar. “That’s the story India fell in love with.”

Perhaps it wasn’t ever so much about batting like Tendulkar as it was about being like Tendulkar.

“The one thing that inspired me the most was his balance. That was the key word in Sachin’s batting and life. Balance on and off the field. There was so much to learn from him, so much to observe and absorb,” Yuvraj Singh said, speaking to Open.

“With time, my relationship grew with him and he became a friend, philosopher, guide and an elder brother. Even during cancer, the way he stood behind me and kept motivating me and came all the way to meet me in England… it just shows the kind of man he is and how lightly he carries his greatness.”

The stories of Tendulkar’s impact are many: helping Yuvraj work out a plan to counter Ajantha Mendis in Sri Lanka in 2008, mentoring Mumbai Indians batsmen Ambati Rayudu and Saurabh Tiwary during the IPL, pointing out to Cheteshwar Pujara that a side-on stance and longer stride would help tackle outswingers, chipping in with valuable inputs about opposition bowlers during matches and team meetings, and sharing his knowledge and experience every day. Any day. All the time.

It wasn’t batsmen alone. Bowlers, too, benefitted from his suggestions. A few months before the 2011 World Cup, Tendulkar advised Zaheer Khan to work on developing the knuckleball—a slower delivery that tends to skid off the pitch and is helpful in Subcontinental conditions. “It fetched Zaheer eight wickets through the tournament including a couple in the final,” says a team insider.

That Tendulkar did all this while absorbing the weight of a billion expectations and allowing his teammates to bat without any shackles is perhaps the most invisible aspect of his legacy and one the Indian team will miss the most.

Pujara’s century in Tendulkar’s final Test was the classic sideshow to his 74—perhaps the most unwatched century in the history of the game as the Wankhede reserved its applause and emotion for one man alone.

Until Tendulkar came along, India’s best-known strokeplayer was K Srikkanth. More of a maverick dasher than a model of consistency, with a modest average of just under 30 in both forms of the game, Srikkanth was always entertaining but hardly enduring.

However, many believe Tendulkar’s greatest legacy to his teammates was not his attacking strokeplay, but his ability to adapt and evolve through injury, age and loss of form as he kept an open mind to advice from even the most junior member of the side. “He is a batting institution who has set new benchmarks for batsmen like Rohit and Virat,” says Aakash Chopra who played alongside Tendulkar in 10 Test matches. “They have seen a person in flesh and blood who has played 200 Test matches and scored 100 hundreds.” These are the new goals to aspire to. Critics may point out that Tendulkar was hardly radical in his strokeplay, that he took classical batting a notch up when he infused it with an aggressive approach. He did not introduce any new shots to the game like the dilscoop (Tillekaratne Dilshan), leg glance (Ranjit Singh), reverse sweep (Mushtaq Mohammed) or switch hit (Kevin Pietersen).

But Tendulkar was a complete package—head position still; stance side on; spiritual, mental and physical balance immaculate; focus enviable; grace under pressure like none other.

Will there ever be another Indian cricketer who inspires a chant that will reverberate in stadiums around the world, no one knows. But as author Stephen Covey so elegantly put it, “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children… one is roots, the other wings.”

Tendulkar did plenty of both. And left Indian cricket in far better shape than when he entered it.