ONE MAN WITH A BILLION OTHERS IN STEP MAN WITH A HERS IN STEP
Ajournalist shouldn’t dwell over much on the possible reception of anything they’re about to write—they should just get on and do it. But before directly addressing Sachin Tendulkar the sportsman, let me volunteer a thought or two about Sachin Tendulkar the subject. I have written a great deal about him yet I always return with feelings of jubilation and relish. He is as refreshing to describe as to watch—momentously driven, endlessly faceted. Sometimes in my trade we refer to sporting figures and their feats as ‘inspirational’ with no real empirical evidence that they have inspired anyone as distinct from simply exciting them. Yet, in Sachin’s case, this sense comes readily, because in writing of him, you yourself want to do your best work, aware that a public will read it, aware that they will understand, aware that they will care.
Little wonder he is such a joy to consider. Sachin’s times have been tumultuous. In the last quarter century, a growing proportion of the average cricket journalist’s hours have been allocated to dealing with on-field boorishness and off-field scandal. Frankly, we writers have needed Sachin as much as any constituency in his public: He has helped periodically to remind us why we started writing about cricket in the first place. Sachin at his best, a state he reached with uncommon regularity, has put us in touch with our youthful fandom again. That’s why we have occasionally lost perspective about him, waxed hyperbolic, united overprotectively: We have developed a stake in his continued greatness—in some cases, if not mine, a financial stake.
The last few years have tested that allegiance. His struggles have been palpable. On occasions, he has looked a little like the deceased El Cid, dressed in his armour, planted on his warhorse and pushed out the gates of besieged Valencia to lead a charge posthumously. So there’s sadness to his departure but also relief, for there will be no more Sachin agonistes, and we will at last have an end to go with the beginning and middle, a totality to contemplate, and also a hole to dread—for while he cannot be replaced he must be succeeded. Football teams have been known to retire the jumper numbers worn by famed players to avoid burdensome inheritances. But someone will have to bat number four for India in future, probably Virat Kohli. And outstanding player that he is, Kohli will be hard-pressed to define his era in the way Sachin defined his—not through any deficiency, I fancy, so much as the game being defined now more readily by external influences than by transcendent individuals. Here’s a paradox of our times. It is far easier now to get rich, but far more difficult to be ‘great’.
How, then, are we to understand Sachin’s particular greatness? You can divide the preconditions of cricket eminence into two. The first dimension is achievement. Sachin’s is immense, in scale, duration and consistency. He built vast tem-
ples of runs. He played for what in sporting terms is almost a geological epoch. Yet he did it without a real sense of time passing—his standards remain consistent, almost inviolable. In cricket, we talk of ‘form’—a kind of intermittent state of grace and equipoise when all comes alike, but whose inherent nature is to come and go, like a mood or a phase or a tide. Except that in Sachin’s case, not since Bradman has a batsman made ‘form’ seem such an irrelevance. He had better and worse days for sure, but this was just as much about the parameters he set himself as susceptibility to a particular bowler or the pressure of a certain situation. If he ever felt vulnerable or ungainly himself, he never communicated it to onlookers. Had Sachin retired after the last World Cup, ‘form’ would almost never have been discussed in association with him, and the onset of frailty has perhaps made the long robustness all the more remarkable. India’s selectors have had their challenges, to be sure, but in one sense have had it easy: They have only needed to pick ten players at each meeting, ‘Tendulkar’ already being embossed on the teamsheet whenever he was available.
The second dimension of greatness is context. Consider this. Sachin has played 199 Tests. Of them, India won 71 and lost 56. It is at first glance a record not nearly so astonishing as his individual statistics. It actually pales by comparison with the win-loss ratio of Ricky Ponting, who played 168 Tests for 108 victories and only 31 defeats. Likewise India won only 234 of the 463 one-day internationals in which Sachin played, Australia 262 of the 375 one-day internationals in which Ponting played. Overall, then, the fate of India during the time of Sachin could be argued as one of middling success, especially outside India. In all that time, of course, India secured only one World Cup—not much compared to the trove of trophies, trinkets, globes and gourds Ponting piled up. Nor did Sachin so much win this last trophy personally as have it won for him. “He has carried the burden of our nation on his shoulders for the past 21 years,” said Kohli afterwards. “So it is time that we carried him.” Sachin’s own tenure as captain, furthermore, was such a non-event that he surrendered the role amid few protests, and was never really considered in line for it again. He won four of his 25 Tests as a leader. It is not so much a black mark on his career as a blank mark: He left no trace on the captaincy, and the captaincy left no trace on him.
Stopping here, though, we learn little. Compare Sachin’s record to Gavaskar’s. Gavaskar played 125 Tests, of which India won 23 and lost 34, and 108 one-day internationals, of which India won 49 and lost 56. The mode results of Gavaskar’s career, then, were a Test draw and a one-day defeat. The period of Sachin’s career—and it provides us with ample data from which to derive this conclusion—is the one in which India went from battling to achieve equality to just consolidating a slight but appreciable edge on the rest of the world. That was a hard-won transition, representing an epochal change, because it influenced, and was influenced by, Indians’ perceptions of themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Sachin was not an out-and-proud personification of India Shining. He was too calm, conservative, pious and humble for that. But by demonstrating that his old ways had a firm and honoured place amid the new customs, he helped his country negotiate the changes afoot, otherwise seemingly uncontrollable and unstoppable. He showed a deference to cricket, and to his countrymen, and both game and nation loved him for it.
The win-loss ratios also contained a kind of moral lesson. Even while fielding the mightiest batsman of his time, India could still win only a third of all their Tests. In other words, great as he was, Sachin alone could not a dynasty build. It takes a great team, as Ponting had for much of his career, to achieve long-running top-level superiorities. Sachin played with some superb contemporaries in some excellent teams, but India held number one Test status only briefly and never topped the global one-day table. Gavaskar, then, started a mission that Sachin continued, but that perhaps no individual can complete: Not even the greatest cricket hero is up to creating a global ascendancy on their own, especially now, perhaps, in an international game split three ways. It has taken your Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman, Sehwag, Dhoni, Kumble and Zaheer to help Sachin build Indian cricket’s estate, it will now take your Kohli, Dhawan, Pujara and Rohit to maintain it. Sachin’s career, then, is a triumph of the individual that also reveals the importance of the collective.
Likewise has Sachin’s career been the magisterial progress of one man with a billion others in step. It comes more naturally to athletes, perhaps, than those in other fields of endeavour, but he assuredly belongs to the second group in G.K. Chesterton’s famous distinction: ‘There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.’ And ‘every’ in the context of Sachin surely does mean it: men, women and children, rich and poor, mighty and meek, in India especially, of course, but also wherever cricket is known and played. Journalists included. Gideon Haigh is the author of 29 books, the latest of which is
Uncertain Corridors: Writings on Modern Cricket