India Today - - COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE - Gideon Haigh

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


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