THERE HAVE BEEN NATIONAL HEROES BEFORE SACHIN TENDULKAR AND THERE WILLBE PAN-INDIAN SUPERSTARS AFTER HIM. BUTNO ONE ELSE, ATLEAST IN OUR TIMES, GAVE US MOMENTS THAT DEFINED OUR LIVES.
It was the winter of 1986. In Lucknow’s idyllic cantonment, my uncle Shyam Babu Saxena, a former cricketer in the Delhi University circuit and later a frequent visitor to the Mumbai maidans, was giving me throw-downs with a tennis ball on our terrace. In the middle of this practice session, he conspiratorially said that he was going to tell me something that should write down, and never forget. He said it was the name of a boy who would one day be the greatest Indian batsman the world had ever known. I fetched a pencil and paper, as any eager eight-year-old would at the prospect of being handed down a secret of such untold value. Two decades later, I found that forgotten piece of paper nestled inside a Class III textbook. It bore the faded, misspelt legend: “Sachin Tendolkar”.
Sachin was 13 at the time. Over in Mumbai, young sports writer and later newspaper editor, Sunil Warrier, was interviewing him for Mid Day after his exploits in school tournaments. In his piece, a scanned copy of which surfaced recently on Twitter, Warrier wrote, “Sachin does not like to plod on while batting. He always prefers to attack. His only ambition is to score centuries,” before ending the piece with a daring prophecy: “Seems to be another Sandeep Patil in the making!” It’s remarkable that a journalist had felt confident enough to label a boy barely in his teens as a future stalwart. And ironic that what Sachin went on to become eclipsed Patil’s achievements several times over.
So where do you begin to conjure up the legend of Sachin, and where do you stop? He is different from any other national icon that we have known because he hasn’t just defined a generation, he has propelled it forward. He is neither the face of India, nor the soundtrack of India. He is neither the hope of success, nor the harbinger of doom. He was here before we understood these things. Before we were caught in the trappings of luxury or seduced by the embrace of technology. He was here at a simpler time. He led us into a more complicated world, as the one constant when everything else was changing. He kept us grounded while asking us to reach for the stars.
Nobody is perfect, and nor could Sachin ever be. He has his failings and his follies—both on and off the field—as any other human being would. His lure for material objects was evidenced by his infamous, now sold, duty-free Ferrari. His love for milestones, particularly centuries, was so all-consuming that he was accused of putting it ahead of the team. After all, a statistical aside created by combining two different formats of cricket—the 100th international hundred— consumed his batting for a year between the springs of 2011 and 2012. Nor has he always handled match pressure as effortlessly as his colleagues VVS Laxman, M.S. Dhoni and now Virat Kohli. Unlike some omnipotent God, which he is portrayed as, Sachin often succeeded and sometimes failed.
Igor Stravinsky, the RussianAmerican composer, was once asked in a TV interview what his greatest moment was. Was it when he completed a symphony? Was it when he heard it played the first time by an orchestra? Was it on opening night when it was heralded as one of the greatest works of the 20th century? No, no, no, he replied. It was when he was sitting on the piano, trying to look for the right note, and finally, after three or four hours, he found it. “That’s the moment,” he said. “There is nothing like it.” There have been national heroes before Sachin and there will be pan-Indian superstars after him. But no one else, at least in our times, hit that note more often than he did.
The stories, the factoids, the anecdotes and the impact are all sidebars that become fascinating when the person they’re about is enthralling enough. In the end, it is Sachin’s cricket that makes him special, not what he signifies or what he means to the country. That is what we will remember him for—the ‘Tendolkar’ moments that just happened to influence, overlap, or coincide with our lives.
Sachin is neither the hope of success, nor the harbinger of doom. He was here before we understood
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