India Today - - COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE - Rahul Bhattacharya

TO Lahli we went like pil­grims to a mela. Out­side a vil­lage of ex­posed brick, be­side a high­way flanked by eu­ca­lyp­tus and an un­elec­tri­fied rail­way line, a sparkling sta­dium grew out of cane and paddy fields. This was a sin­gle-de­ity mela—the hoard­ing wel­com­ing ‘Cricket ke bhag­wan Sachin Ten­dulkar’ told us so—but the routes to him were var­i­ous. There were no tick­ets for dar­shan. Pil­grims could ap­proach the sarpanch, or the DC or SP or DSP or a cricket ad­min­is­tra­tor, or one Mr Malhotra who had sold his farm­land to the sta­dium, or leave one’s name and phone num­ber at a stall out­side the sta­dium and hope that some­where a greater god was watch­ing.

We were di­verse pil­grims: Die-hard pil­grims, time-pass pil­grims, cheap-thrills pil­grims, con­nois­seur pil­grims, scep­ti­cal pil­grims, un­be­liever pil­grims, we were youth from Lahli and Ro­htak, wrestlers from Bhi­wani, the mother of a Haryana women’s crick­eter, press from Chandigarh, Cal­cutta, Mum­bai, 300 pri­vate se­cu­rity men from Delhi, and at least 1,400 po­lice (“Con­gressi hai woh ab, aap samajh liyo, he is an MP af­ter all”.)

The lead­ing devo­tee among us was thirty-three years old. He had com­mit­ted ev­ery Sachin Ten­dulkar in­nings to mem­ory. Throw him a Test num­ber and he re­turned, within the sec­ond, the venue, op­po­si­tion and his god’s scores. Ajeet Singh Tan­war was a daily-wage labourer, a mistry. He had trav­elled from Dabla vil­lage, Sikar dis­trict, Ra­jasthan. He had brought with him a let­ter telling Sachin Ten­dulkar about him­self and his life, and in­cluded in it a poem of ap­pre­ci­a­tion. He wished to hand this over.

I would go to Lahli not Mum­bai, I thought, be­cause that overblown shaadi feel­ing, the cus­tom-made fi­nale, the ne­tas and the celebs, the ticket-quota farce, the spec­ta­cle of a vis­it­ing Test team re­ceived like a troupe of ex­tras, would be cringe-wor­thy. And to re­port on Sachin Ten­dulkar one last time, I was find­ing, was not very dif­fer­ent from the very first time.

I’m think­ing of an early morn­ing net twelve years ago at the Mid­dle In­come Group Club in Ban­dra East. I had gone be­cause I wished to see how ge­nius works in the shad­ows. Can ge­nius hope to evade com­pany?

“Alaa ka? (He’s come?)” MIG mem­bers con­spir­a­to­ri­ally

Ten­dulkar knows, per­haps, what ob­servers have sus­pected for longer, that his re­flexes, his in­stincts, call it what you like, are in ter­mi­nal de­cline.

asked the guard as they made their way in, and then de­layed their visit to the pool or the gym to watch him from the ve­ran­dah. Ten­dulkar bat­ted an hour against five bowlers, he re­hearsed his cover drive for twenty min­utes against the back of the net, fill­ing the morn­ing with beau­ti­ful bassy sounds. Oc­ca­sion­ally he con­sulted his pal Atul Ranade and his brother Ajit. From the gate we watched: Pho­tog­ra­phers, au­to­graph seek­ers, kids. Among us was a lit­tle boy with the bright­est eyes and a buzzing ex­cite­ment. “Does he play cricket?” I asked his guardian. “It’s the only thing he loves,” he smiled. “Ac­tu­ally he is from Latur. He has come to Mum­bai for a brain tu­mour surgery. He stays in a nearby hos­pi­tal and watches cricket all day. He brought me when some­one told him that Sachin prac­tises here.”

Sportswrit­ers and their ed­i­tors are par­tial to over-reach­ing. They like to as­sess sig­nif­i­cance, no, not enough: They like to see mean­ing. When CLR James wrote that “West In­di­ans crowd­ing to Tests bring with them the whole past his­tory and fu­ture hopes of the is­lands”, he in­structed gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers. Other sportswrit­ers are su­pe­ri­orly con­cerned with the craft of the thing, con­struct­ing with sim­i­lar dili­gence their own co­coon. But to go watch Ten­dulkar bat is, for­tu­nately for us all, to in­vari­ably see what Ten­dulkar means. This too is what Ten­dulkar means.

In his fi­nal do­mes­tic match, Ten­dulkar emerges to bat with twelve wick­ets gone in the first four hours. He walks out to the cus­tom­ary roar and hoots, to a scram­ble of pho­tog­ra­phers and crowds, to that old an­tic­i­pa­tion which has never faded and never will, and with one unim­pressed Haryanvi telling another, “Dhai foot dikhta hai yeh (He looks two-and-ahalf feet tall),” be­cause height too is some­thing Sachin owed them. He has be­come broader if not shorter, that much may be said. In his sil­hou­ette there is a faint sug­ges­tion of love han­dles.

The pitch is mag­nif­i­cent. The wa­ter ta­ble at Lahli is so high, we are told, that the grass on the pitch doesn’t die, it gets greener with the match. Cars sink in their makeshift park­ing lots in the fields, fields bloom, seam­ers pros­per, and the TV crew has had to con­struct a ce­ment plat­form to re­li­ably hold their scaf­fold­ing lest a cam­era­man crash into Ten­dulkar’s head from 40 ft above.

Sachin Ten­dulkar plays a broad old-school punch down the ground, de­feat­ing the thick out­field. The ball rolls into a sightscreen so im­mense that even Ten­dulkar can­not fault it. Not long af­ter, he is out. He is bowled, by a ball nip­ping back, as he has been for the last two years. Within twenty min­utes the chole-kulche and ganne ka ras ven­dors clear out of the khets, the six thou­sand peo­ple ring­ing the ground are gone, and only the ghost of a Ranji Tro­phy match re­mains. This too is what Ten­dulkar means. He is in the pavil­ion, and every­body won­ders what he must be think­ing. “If my bat­ting is hav­ing a good day, I’m hav­ing a good day,” I once heard him tell a com­pan­ion. But there is no ques­tion of good or bad days, re­ally. Ev­ery day is a Ten­dulkar day in a Ten­dulkar life.

Af­ter play he trav­els back in a white 5 se­ries BMW sent from Delhi be­cause con­trac­tu­ally he must not be seen in another brand of au­to­mo­bile on pub­lic oc­ca­sions, and as he does boys on bikes race be­side the car and pho­to­graph him through the win­dows. Ten­dulkar does not want blood spilt; he re­quests the driver to slow down. Slow down, be calm. Too much rid­ing on you. Blunted into cau­tion, as ever, by the ma­nias of his peo­ple.

At the gates of the Canal Rest House, where he along with four Mum­bai ‘se­niors’ is put up, a huge throng awaits him. Those with con­nec­tions have al­ready pen­e­trated the se­cu­rity and wait in­side in am­bush. Th­ese num­ber about a hun­dred. They want to shake Ten­dulkar’s hand, take pho­tos, have some­thing signed, seek a bless­ing, show off their child, sim­ply stare. He has been oblig­ing. I’m told this by the mak­ers of his farewell-tour doc­u­men­tary, who as a con­se­quence can­not get enough film­ing time with him. Ten­dulkar has com­mis­sioned the film.

A team of six im­ported from ITC Mau­rya, Delhi caters to him at the rest house: Food-poi­son­ing would be no less care­less than al­low­ing a cam­era­man to fly into him. Once in the morn­ing and once in the evening he drinks a meethi lassi. The di­etary de­vel­op­ment is of ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ter­est to press pil­grims. Sachin Ten­dulkar likes the meethi lassi of Ro­htak.

Among the suc­cess­ful pe­ti­tion­ers on the sec­ond evening is Ajeet Singh Tan­war. He pre­sented his let­ter. In re­turn he re­ceived warm en­cour­age­ment and a signed train­ing vest. In the in­nings-game Ten­dulkar tried him with Test nos.

“Be hon­est with cricket,” he told

his Mum­bai team­mates. It is what Achrekar Sir had told him and

he al­ways re­mem­bered.

130, 80, and 155, and Ajeet Singh nailed them all. (Test no. 130 was the 103 not out v Eng­land in the shadow of 26/11.)

‘Dravid nahin barabar Sachin ka? (Isn’t Dravid the equal of Sachin?)’ I ask Ajeet Singh af­ter­wards. This is a proper provocation, I had learnt from the en­joy­ably com­bat­ive book If Cricket is a Re­li­gion, Sachin is God.

‘Brad­man bhi nahi muqabla kar sakte Sachin ka. West Indies ke khi­laf Brad­man ka av­er­age dekho: 74.5. (Even Brad­man can­not match him. Brad­man’s av­er­age against West Indies was 74.5.)’

‘Sachin ka itna kisi ke bhi khi­laf nahin. (Sachin doesn’t av­er­age that many against any­one.)’ The pil­grim from Sikar has set me up. ‘Bangladesh ke khi­laf Sachin ka av­er­age 136.66 hai. (Against Bangladesh he av­er­ages 136.66.)’

Soon Ajeet Singh causes a fight be­tween tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ists: He had been signed up by a chan­nel for Rs 50,000, ex­clu­sively, and this too is what Ten­dulkar means.

There is no telling how a crick­eter goes be­cause sport takes note of nei­ther spon­tane­ity nor stage-man­age­ment. Brad­man left Test cricket with a fa­mous duck at the Oval. Five months later Aus­tralians waved him off at a first-class tes­ti­mo­nial, 94,000 peo­ple stream­ing into the MCG in trib­ute, 52,000 on the Satur­day alone to watch the hero amass another cen­tury. A few months on, to boost at­ten­dance, he played a cou­ple of tes­ti­mo­ni­als for friends. In a dead Shield game at Ade­laide the toss was fixed so Brad­man could come in on the Satur­day, a par­tic­i­pant would re­veal decades later. As it hap­pened, he was in on Fri­day evening, out for 30 early next morn­ing, tweaked an an­kle af­ter­wards and left the field. And that was Brad­man’s fi­nal first-class match Su­nil Gavaskar’s last Test in­nings was a clas­sic 96 against Pak­istan on a flak­ing pitch. In­dia lost. In his last first-class match he com­piled a colos­sal 188 for Rest of the World against MCC at Lord’s; in the sec­ond in­nings he was bowled by Mal­colm Mar­shall for duck. His last in­ter­na­tional in­nings was against Eng­land in the semi-fi­nal of the 1987 World Cup. Bowled through the gate for 4, In­dia knocked out.

In his fi­nal Test, at the Oval like Brad­man, Viv Richards, de­spite a 60, failed to lead West Indies to a se­ries win

selves. (In the stands, Sachin not at hand, the ubiq­ui­tous body-painted Sud­hir Gau­tham of Muzaf­farpur fills in.)

In the dress­ing room, Mum­bai have a brief celebration. “I had told the boys ‘let us give Sachin a farewell gift’ by win­ning the match for him,” Kulkarni said, “but Sachin gave us a big­ger re­turn gift with his in­nings.” Then Ten­dulkar spends an hour in the Haryana change room, talk­ing to the young team. One of them, Rana, had changed his name as a teen from Pramod to Sachin. Else­where in In­dia, a player with the one-day team has been wear­ing a Ten­dulkar T-shirt be­neath his jersey. Another Test crick­eter re­cently set an im­print of Sachin paaji’s right palm in plas­ter of Paris to hang in his new home. Th­ese are crick­eter pil­grims and this is their form of Vish­wakarma puja, crafts­men wor­ship­ping their craft god, and no mat­ter how cloy­ing, it is gen­uine. To them the mean­ing of Ten­dulkar is so ob­vi­ous it needs no elab­o­ra­tion.

Press­men are con­tem­plat­ing his great in­nings for Mum­bai: The child-ge­nius cen­tury on Ranji de­but in 1988, the gal­lop­ing 96 in the clas­sic fi­nal of 1991, the phe­nom­e­nal 233 not out in the semi-fi­nal of 2000. Per­son­ally I’m think­ing of the 204 not out, Mum­bai vs the Aus­tralians, made in two ses­sions more or less, the com­pressed syn­chronic­ity of his bat work, foot­work, hand­work, mad-work, stroke af­ter stroke, in­evitable and ex­hil­a­rat­ing and re­ju­ve­nat­ing as waves; we surfed them and we were happy a long time. North Stand, Brabourne ’98.

To watch Ten­dulkar amid wag­tails and ibises and the grey stretch of north­ern win­ter was re­ward­ing, it was in­ti­mate and it was in­struc­tive. And yet who wouldn’t want to feel the mo­ment it fin­ishes? When the fi­nal ap­plause and the dou­ble-Sachin chant falls tor­ren­tially upon him, it will be the long­est and loud­est of his ca­reer or any­one else’s. There will be tears, in the stands and in homes across the coun­try, per­haps in his own eyes, as one last time that mad po­tion of adu­la­tion and own­er­ship ig­nites a sta­dium and ev­ery watcher will pulse witht he power of a com­mon pur­pose, no mat­ter that the pur­pose was sym­bolic or stale or delu­sional, be­cause they had all known some time or another when the Ten­dulkar feel­ing was as good as things got.


When the fi­nal ap­plause and the dou­ble-Sachin chant falls tor­ren­tially upon

him, it will be the long­est and loud­est of his ca­reer or any­one else’s. against Eng­land for the first time in 17 years. Two sea­sons on he played his fi­nal game for Glam­or­gan at Can­ter­bury, for the Sun­day League ti­tle. He was ha­rassed by a young Kent quick: Viv Richards, of all peo­ple hur­ried, by pace, Viv Richards hit on the chest, Viv Richards too late on a hook and caught. No-ball! Re­sum­ing, on a stage smaller than he has strode, he took Glam­or­gan to a pre­cious, hard-earned tro­phy.

In Lahli, di­min­ished, de­pleted Ten­dulkar is not un­like Richards. He is fight­ing be­low his weight and still only cop­ing. His tics have be­come more mus­cu­lar with time, the two crotch ad­just­ments more pro­nounced (the first at the edge of the crease, the sec­ond sub­tler one be­fore tak­ing stance), the nod more stri­dent (so that one wor­ries his hel­met will tum­ble off), the gar­den­ing more ob­ses­sive. His run­ning be­tween the wick­ets is half hound, half Ranatunga: Off the blocks in that fa­mil­iar low-cen­tre-of-grav­ity flash, but de­ter­minedly down to a walk once he has as­sessed the fielder’s chances. There are no signs of levity in his body lan­guage, not a whit of care­free­ness in his stroke­play, and al­though this is not sur­pris­ing it is re­mark­able. The one mo­ment he lets him­self loose is when he sways too early to a slug­gish bouncer, then be­lat­edly at­tempts an up­per-cut. And misses. He looks sheep­ish. He is re­luc­tant to play the spin­ner on the front foot. He is care­ful not to drive the seam­ers on the rise. This is sound strat­egy for the pitch; but Ten­dulkar also knows, per­haps, what ob­servers have sus­pected for longer, that his re­flexes, his in­stincts, call it what you like, are in ter­mi­nal de­cline. But he is there, all there. Mum­bai’s coach Su­lak­shan Kulkarni, who played with Ten­dulkar in his first Ranji game, would tell me af­ter­wards that he’d seen play­ers re­lax af­ter an­nounc­ing their re­tire­ment but Sachin turned up for all five net ses­sions and with the in­ten­sity of a debu­tant. “Be hon­est with cricket,” he told his young Mum­bai team-mates in the time they spent with him. It is what Achrekar Sir had told him and he al­ways re­mem­bered. Ten­dulkar is still at the crease, bat­ting like it is his dharma. Scrap­ping, leav­ing, push­ing, glanc­ing, mid­dling, pris­ing out vic­tory in a su­perb cricket match. On win­ning he holds his arms aloft, with feel­ing.

Soon he is thrust into a thou­sand pho­tos: With the teams, the ad­min­is­tra­tors, the grounds­men, the main­te­nance staff, the po­lice, even­tu­ally the pho­tog­ra­phers them-

Rahul Bhattacharya is the au­thor of The Sly Com­pany of Peo­ple Who Care





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