Tendulkar, the 'normaliser'
Following Sachin Tendulkar's recent retirement from one-day internationals, a number of people shared their favorite memory of him. Perhaps the most commonly mentioned one was his ‘Desert Storm’ innings against Australia in 1998 in Sharjah. My favorite memory of the man is from the same year, against the same opponent, but in a different tournament, at a different venue. But first, some background.
I moved from India to the United States in the summer of 1998, immediately after I completed my bachelors degree in engineering. The final semester of the BE degree allowed the students some latitude in determining their workload. With an India-Australia series scheduled, it was no surprise that my final semester workload left plenty of time for me to watch cricket matches. I thus followed Australia's 1998 tour of India and the subsequent Sharjah triangular tournament with great interest. I too have fond memories of both the Desert Storm innings and the century that followed in the tournament’s final, on Tendulkar’s 25th birthday. Apart from being perhaps the zenith of Tendulkar's one-day batsmanship, it was among the last few cricket matches I saw before I traveled to the USA.
Everything about moving to the USA. was new. My ticket to Chicago was the first air ticket my middle-class parents had bought in 15 years – you see, we generally traveled by train or bus. I moved from Chennai, a metropolitan city of seven million residents, to a small Midwestern college town with barely 100,000. I was living in an apartment with a room-mate for the first time in my life, having always lived at home with my family through school and college. I was solely responsible for my food, my laundry. I was a graduate student and a teaching assistant – my first job and first income. Graduate study was daunting. Grading was on a competitive scale. My university was ranked among the top ten in the country. My fellow graduate students had been winning medals at International Mathematics Olympiads, while I was skipping college classes for cricket matches. In trying to catch up, I burnt so much midnight oil that I feel largely responsible for the hole in the ozone layer.
It wasn't just a foreign country, it was a foreign life.
I wasn't complaining though. I was sleeping on a comfortable bed, food was varied and plentiful, I made new friends from different backgrounds, the autumn weather was mild, and the world-class campus was resplendent in breathtaking fall colours. But that made it even less like home. In Chennai, autumn temperatures are in excess of 35C – just like summer, spring, and winter temperatures – and there's no such thing as a maple tree. In Chennai, one rarely heard Hindi on the street. In this strangely friendly new world, one heard Spanish and Chinese and English spoken with a southern American twang, in addition to Hindi. I missed home. Phone calls were too expensive for someone still converting every dollar spent into rupees. Internet connections in India were unreliable.
My Indian friends and I learned to follow cricket through Cricinfo, it became our browser home page. But reading the term ‘cover drive’ is a lot different from watching the stroke itself.
Thus, when I first heard that Mick Jagger's company, Jagged Internetworks, would be carrying the 1998 Wills International Cup telecast from Dhaka, I was ecstatic. Two equally fanatical friends and I made a date to stay up all night and watch India's game against Australia in the Sun SPARC computer lab, over the university's high-speed network. It was the first cricket all three of us would be watching since leaving India several months earlier. I had never used a Sun SPARC computer or a high-speed network in India. I'd never streamed a video over the internet in India. It was going to be a very new experience.
As it frequently happened in the 1990s, India were soon 8 for 2 in the third over. Both Sourav Ganguly and Mohammad Azharuddin – India's second and third-best one-day batsmen in the Tendulkar era – were gone. And then Tendulkar exploded. He smashed 141 sublime runs, before taking four wickets at a crucial stage, including those of Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan.
I'd love to say that I can remember clearly all the wonderful shots he played. But apart from a lofted drive or two, I can't remember any. The innings had deeper meaning for me than the shots it contained. The shots he played were special not because of their ingenuity, but because of their familiarity. Tendulkar was demolishing Australia, like he had before I left India, and I was watching it, like I had in India. It represented a sense of normalcy. Everything had changed in my life, but nothing had in the world. I could deal with the change. A Tendulkar cover drive still looked the same. It wasn't a new world, it was the same one. In that match, to me, Tendulkar wasn't the master or the destroyer, he was merely the ‘normaliser’.
It was also during that game that I first appreciated the power and promise of the internet in helping me bridge the divide between the old days and the new. Sure, I'd sent email and browsed the web before. The world's first popular web browser was created at the very university campus I was sitting in. But this was 1998. Facebook and Skype were five years away. YouTube was non-existent. Even Google was only in its infancy. But if I could use online media to watch Tendulkar live, I might use it in future to see mom and dad live, stay in touch with family in Chennai and Gujarat. If I could stream the genius of Tendulkar live via the internet, then I could stream the genius of AR Rahman and Lata Mangeshkar. I could watch and listen to the firecrackers go off on Diwali night in Chennai … It wasn't all that foreign a land or all that foreign a life after all.
As India completed yet another victory over Australia that year, perhaps for the first time in this new home, I felt happy. And then it was 6am. The Mathematics Olympians were awake.