November 8, 2013

What would the world be like without Tendulkar?

It's a question we need to care about. It's also a question nobody is asking

As one of the greatest exponents of this great sport inches closer and closer to the end of his career, there are deep divisions in the cricketing firmament. There are many, of course, who believe that Sachin Tendulkar's career is something that must be celebrated without reservation or criticism. They believe that Tendulkar's legacy is above reproach.

Lined up against them are a smaller but no less vocal group of sensible people, who while acknowledging his cricketing abilities and achievements are deeply critical of his prolonged career and the long-term disruptive effects of the latter half of the Tendulkar era on Indian and world cricket.

But today this wholly neutral columnist will not take any sides in this debate.

It is immaterial to me if Tendulkar was the greatest cricketer of all time. Nor do we care if he was a self-centred, achievement-obsessed smooth manipulator of the Indian cricketing system who amassed vast wealth and copious records at the cost of team performances and even in his final sporting days sees no harm whatsoever in disrupting cricketing schedules for a last, fleeting attempt at personal aggrandisement that will inevitably lead to the destruction of the very fabric of cricket in the subcontinent.

What we do care about is asking a very different question. A question that no one seems to be asking even though it is of utmost relevance at this juncture. And that question is:

"What if Tendulkar had never become a great cricketer? Would the world be very different?"

There are several potential answers to this question. This columnist would like to suggest one. This is an alternate timeline of the history of Tendulkar's career and what might have happened had his tryst with destiny turned out differently.

April 24, 1973: An infant son is born at Nirmal Nursing Home in Dadar, Mumbai, to Ramesh and Rajni Tendulkar. The couple decide to name the child after their favourite film music director. Thus the life of Ilayaraja Ramesh Tendulkar begins.

1977: The child Tendulkar shows an uncommon ability to play all sports. So much so that one day his family decides to photograph the little boy playing a variety of them. Tendulkar is captured kicking a football, potting a black in the corner pocket, lobbing a tennis ball, sitting on a small bicycle holding up a mock vial of drugs, and posing with a cricket bat. All the photos are excellent, except for the cricket picture, which is poorly focused and grainy. This photo is discarded and the negatives burnt so that the picture is never seen again by anybody ever again, especially photo editors at Outlook magazine.

1978: While walking past Shivaji Park one evening, Ajit Tendulkar, Ilayaraja's elder bother, is hit on the arm by a stray cricket ball. In the ensuing fracas he is severely harassed by large groups of local cricketers. Ajit falls to his knees, raises his fist to the sky and makes a solemn vow: "I WILL NEVER LET ANYBODY I KNOW OR LOVE EVER PLAY THIS WRETCHED GAME EVER AGAIN, SO HELP ME GOD!" Another ball then hits him on the right cheek.

1979: A superb cricketing columnist and bestselling Indian author is born. This is unrelated to the rest of the timeline.

1981: A restless child, the young Tendulkar soon develops a reputation for troublemaking and bullying other children. This is a cause of great concern to the family. Ramesh Tendulkar suggests that they enrol the boy in Ramakant Achrekar's cricket coaching clinic at Shivaji Park. Perhaps this will serve as an outlet for the boy's energy and aggression. Ajit Tendulkar puts his palms to his head and lets out a stentorian scream of agony. "NEVER IN THIS HOUSE WILL ANYONE EVER PLAY A SINGLE MOMENT OF CRICKET!" Instead the young Ilayaraja Ramesh Tendulkar is enrolled in a Speed Mathematics for Children programme at Prof Ghorpade's Tutorials in Kalanagar. It is a fateful decision that will change India forever.

1982: Meanwhile Ramakant Achrekar invents his new coaching system for youngsters. He places a rupee coin on a stump during training sessions. Batsmen get the coin if they keep their wickets through the whole session. Bowlers get the coin if they take wickets. After losing several thousands of rupees in this process without discovering a single talented cricketer, a dejected Achrekar gives up cricket coaching and opens a software company in Vashi.

1988: In a Lord Harris Shield inter-school match against St Xavier's High School, a new world record is set as Shardashram Vidyamandir High School is bowled out for a total of four runs. All four runs are scored by opening batsman Vinod Kambli, who is not out at the end of the match. Embarrassed by the outcome and the social-media fallout Shardashram administrators immediately shut down the school's cricketing programme. Kambli is crushed but goes on to have a highly successful career as a security consultant and stadium supervisor in Kolkata.

1989: Meanwhile India's batting line-up is going through tremendous turbulence. With hardly any young talent coming in through the system, the team decides to place all its chips on the shoulder of the resurgent Navjot Singh Sidhu. It is a fateful decision, as Sidhu has a magnificent year with a century in almost every alternate match. By the end of the year there is an emerging consensus in world cricket that Sidhu could become one of the great Indian players of all time. "He reminds me of me in my youth," says Shahid Afridi.

1991: The young Tendulkar enrols in IIT Bombay for a dual-degree in Physics and Mechanical engineering. He later switches majors to aeronautical engineering and then goes abroad to work for NASA. Nothing else is heard from him ever again, until around 2004, when he briefly writes a blog about cooking Indian recipes, targeted at an Indo-American audience. The blog is nominated for an Indiblogger award in 2005 but loses.

1992: The great Ravi Shastri retires from all forms of the sport. Shastri later suggests he intends to pursue a career in cricket commentary. But he is persuaded by Sidhu to instead start an aggressive coaching programme for young Indian batsmen. Shastri later recalls: "At the time, Sidhu was the greatest in the player in the world. And I say that as a man who hates cliches. But when he reminds you to give back to cricket… it just made me think really hard. And then I did." The MRF Batting Foundation is opened in Bangalore.

1993: This is the year in which Sidhu finally marks the completion of an unlikely renaissance. He scores over 1000 ODI runs and India finish the year top of the ODI rankings. This includes a remarkable century against Australia in Guyana, in a match that is interrupted by a dust storm, a swarm of bees, a ball of lightning, mortar fire, tear gas and humanoid Cylons.

1994: After relentless pressure from the MRF Batting Foundation and its director, Shastri, the BCCI agrees to lay fast, bouncy pitches in at least 40% of all Indian cricket grounds. "Our batsmen must learn to bat on all surfaces. It was a logical decision," says BCCI president Harsha Bhogle, justifying the hair-raising shift in strategy.

After three years of gradual rapprochement, India and Pakistan sign the "Sidhu Declaration", a treaty that binds both countries in a new South Asian union that opens borders, unifies defence forces and integrates economies

1996: It is a dream come true for many Indian fans when India lift the 1996 Wills World Cup after an astonishing performance by Sidhu, who scores 421 runs in the tournament. But elation is followed by shock when Sidhu announces his retirement moments after the victory is secured against Australia in Colombo. "Look, things can't better than this. I am leaving when India is at the top of world cricket. I have done my job. I think it is time to go."

1997: The efforts of the BCCI finally begin to pay off, as for the first time in history two of the five fastest bowlers in the world - Abey Kuruvilla and Tinu Yohannan - play for India. The results are instant, as India trounce Pakistan in a seven-match series in Pakistan. The dejected Pakistanis immediately ask for a return series in India, which the BCCI rejects. President Harsha Bhogle explains: "Look, we have always been a governing body with the utmost respect for the Future Test Programme and international schedules. As tempting as it is, especially economically, to invite the Pakistanis to play here, that would ruin our schedules for years. It simply isn't worth it."

The BCCI's firm stand leads to huge diplomatic fallout. While the public in both countries bay for blood on the pitch, the board refuses to budge.

1998: The BCCI is disbanded by government fiat and a new governing body for Indian cricket is established. The first act of this new body - Cricket India - is to organise the hugely popular Pakistan tour of India. The tour ends in turmoil after supporters of the old BCCI dig up the pitch at cricket grounds all over India. Turf wars are fought outside cricket stadiums all over the country between the BCCI and CI camps. Many are injured. An embattled Indian government suspends all cricket for 12 months till differences are sorted out. Prof Tendulkar of Saratoga Bay writes a post titled: "Open letter to Cricket India". It is read by two visitors to his blog, one of whom leaves the comment: "panties panties panties panties now".

1999: Navjot Singh Sidhu becomes the first Indian to deliver the Sir Donald Bradman Oration in Australia. It is a speech that will change the sport forever. Cricket, he says, has failed the people of the subcontinent. It has drawn blood and magnified differences. "Many times I have wondered to myself… what if India and Pakistan were just one team that had not been ripped apart by history?" he says with damp eyes. Perhaps, Sidhu suggests, it is time for the people of India and Pakistan to embark on a brave new experiment…

The oration is a triumph and is voted the "Best Thing of All Things Ever in the World" in a BBC online poll, ahead of "Taj Mahal", "Vande Mataram", "India", "Indian Things", and "Things that are from India".

2000: The first-ever Unified Cricket Team of India and Pakistan tours Australia to compete for the Sidhu-Border-Afridi Trophy. With many administrative modalities still to be worked out, the Unified Cricket Team chooses a compromise song as its "national" anthem: "Hawa Hawa" by Hasan Jahangir, performed by Hariharan.

Meanwhile England organises a new tournament format called Fifteen15, in which country cricket teams play each other in innings of 15 overs each. The tournament is a financial failure with the ECB losing thousands of pounds in the form of unsold tickets. The format is quickly cast into the dustbin.

2004: After three years of gradual rapprochement, India and Pakistan now sign the "Sidhu Declaration", a treaty that binds both countries in a new South Asian union that opens borders, unifies defence forces and integrates economies. The pact is held up as a sign of cricket's power to bring people together.

2005: Iran and the United States vie for hegemony over this new South Asian union that has the largest population in the world and the fastest-growing economy. Tensions rise high, especially when the issues of fuel imports and defence purchases come up.

2006: Nuclear war erupts between the US and Iran, eventually concluding in the annihilation of most of the human race and even Australia. Only a handful of humans trekking high up in the Western Ghats, including some female Swedish tourists and a cricket columnist, are left alive. The burden of repopulating the planet falls on this small but enthusiastic group, which is prepared to make the necessary compromises.

This is just one of many possible answers to the question "What would the world be like without Tendulkar?" I hope at this momentous occasion for all cricket fans we all ponder likewise.

Sidin Vadukut is a columnist and editor with Mint, and the author of the Dork trilogy