November 16, 2013

Sachin mania: it's about religion

Like saints were revered and worshipped by people of various faiths, Tendulkar transcends differences and brings his devotees closer to the divine

Tendulkar: a cult figure if ever there was one © Associated Press

Sachin Tendulkar has finally retired. As I type this, there are a fair few letting out sighs of relief, because the sheer hype and hoopla surrounding his farewell Test series has left many feeling distinctly uncomfortable. The cynical nature of the BCCI's scheduling, the hyper-opportunism displayed by politicians and corporations, and the general hysteria of the crowds has left many decrying the spectacle as slightly unnerving.

As a Pakistani, I have been relatively immune to Sachin's appeal for most of my life. It was only in my more mature years that I came to support any Indian players at all. Even then, it was the likes of Rahul Dravid and perhaps Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni whom I admired, rather than Tendulkar.

Yet over the past few days, the backlash against the Sachin celebration has left me intrigued. Why were certain opinion-makers so visibly aghast at the treatment being accorded Sachin? Why were the sights of delirious crowds being countered with stats showing Sachin to be the 29th best batsman of all time?

The answer lies in an area that many people find to be naive at best and disastrous at worst. It is an area that carries significant political influence, and is always, always an incendiary topic to bring up. The answer lies in religion.

In Europe, and much of the developed world, historically, religion has been the cause of brutal and terrifying political battles over the centuries, which determined not just who ruled but also the intellectual world-view underpinning those governments. Consequently, speaking of religion in Western society can often invoke memories of violence and persecution, and can even be seen to be a resistance to progressive ideas.

In South Asia, religion has been and continues to be a major driver of violence and conflict. In a region that is one of the world's most diverse ethnically, religion often shows up as a fault line in a bewildering array of instances. Yet at the same time, religion (believe it or not) is also the reason why such distinct peoples have managed to live together for thousands of years. The idea of syncretism, which, broadly speaking, refers to the fusion of seemingly contradictory beliefs, is central to life in South Asia.

The prime example of such syncretism is found at festivals or melas held to commemorate the lives of famous saints. From Kabul to Chittagong, these are a ubiquitous feature of the subcontinent, and are attended by pilgrims from near and far. Most importantly, they witness an annihilation of conventional identities. So a saint from one religion has devotees from various faiths. You can have a Muslim saint whose shrine is visited by Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and others.

It is impossible to distil and explain these practices in a few lines, but to put it simply, the reason such practices exist is because people believe that a truly holy person transcends conventional religious differences. Thus the revered saint becomes a pathway to a more immediate and direct bond with the divine - in a relationship that not only exists outside the regularly prescribed rituals, but is one that is only made possible due to the exalted life and efforts of the saint.

I think this is the context one needs to view Sachin's farewell in.

I am not taking the popular sentiment of calling him "god" and trying to run away with it, and I doubt many people consciously and spiritually see him as a saint on par with the rest. But the sentiment that underlines his retirement and the rapture he is generating cannot be seen as mere sycophancy, commercial exploitation, or celebrity-fuelled hysteria. Undoubtedly, all of these things play a part in this festival, but they are not what it is limited to.

When people ask why all this is being done for one person, or why Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman didn't get such farewells, or why the FTP is being disrupted for one man, they are asking valid questions but ones that are irrelevant to this context. The debate about who was great and who wasn't ends here with the people. Because ultimately, this celebration is not for Sachin, it is for his devotees.

It is for the people who turned to him as a symbol of hope, as a symbol of perseverance. It is for the people who refused to give up because their Sachin hadn't. It is for the people who believed they could break barriers and limitations because Sachin had shown them it could be done. It is for the people who know that it is time to let go of someone they relied upon for their smiles and the unburdening of their sorrows.

Perhaps all this hype and obsession makes "cricket" fans feel uncomfortable. Perhaps there are fans despairing at this cult-like behaviour. Perhaps there are those who feel that all this undermines Sachin's own credibility. To all of them, I paraphrase the patron saint of cricket writers, Hazrat CLR James, when I say: "What do they know of Sachin, who only Sachin know?"

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Amit on November 19, 2013, 0:22 GMT

    Sachin was a great batsman and fun to watch when on song. Therefore I cheered for him. He is a good guy. Therefore I like him. 'God', 'Wall', 'Very Very Special', 'God of the Off Side' etc is just fanspeak. Enough of the navel gazing frenzy please...

  • Arun on November 18, 2013, 19:27 GMT

    @ Emancipator007: Finally, I also greatly respect RD for the fact that he had the least natural talent among India's top and middle order. He didn't have a gift of timing (VVS, Ganguly) or a great eye (Sehwag) or allround genius (SRT), and yet, he managed to over-achieve. He's a bit like Steve Waugh mentally, I think... SRT is more Mark Waugh. Like Mark Waugh, or Lara, SRT could have been much more. (There's the tennis elbow and the back and all that, but even so). The potential is probably why people rate them so highly over scrappers like Dravid or Steve Waugh. And yet when you look at the results column, it's the Steve Waughs that have saved/won more matches. Since say 2000, RD had been extremely tough mentally, a feeling I didn't get with SRT. And RD was willing to open, bat at #6, keep wickets, as the need might be. Even if Adelaide was dumb luck, there's Trent Bridge, Rawalpindi, Perth, and a host of other games to choose from :-) Like I said, it's subjective :-)

  • Arun on November 18, 2013, 19:13 GMT

    @Emancipator007: (continued)... The crass commercialism of an inconsequential home series is off-putting. I'm not sure whom to blame: the corps. with exclusive SRT ad contracts, and BCCI for trying to maximize their ad revenue... Dravid and VVS had no pressure to continue playing. Regardless, it leaves India facing Steyn and co with a #4 who has never batted at that slot. Re. records, I'm certain they mattered to him. He's given up captaincy twice to "concentrate on his batting" and by all accounts, he was a good captain for Bombay.The team was without a skipper after Azza was booted out.Ganguly turned out to be a great pick, but the fact remains that he's never been about the team (although he loves saying otherwise). Anyway, for the amount of leeway he's been given re batting positions, rests, etc. i've not found him superior to RS,and RS did score in tough conditions(maybe not sheer pace on fast decks but all else. SRT had trouble with inswing on a seamer's wkt, so it evens out(?))

  • Arun on November 18, 2013, 18:55 GMT

    @Emancipator007:Agreed. I am a bit annoyed a couple of things that has happened over the last few months: 1) When RD and VVS retired, the selectors (older group under Srikkanth) and the media pundits were going on about how India would need his experience in SAF, and he should wait until then. He himself went around saying that it would be selfish for him to retire at the top of his game (that he was at the top of his game is debatable, but most competitive people have immense self-belief). All the while he was playing home games at #4 against Eng and Aus (vs. grooming a #4, a position nobody but him has batted at since the mid 90's), I had assumed he will tour SAF.He suddenly wakes up and decides it's too much effort to tour SAF, and I feel cheated,and that he cheated Team India.The BCCI doesn't care about such trivialities, as long as SRT pulls in ad revenue (and he does in copious amounts). The BCCI responds to his change of mind by re-organizing the FTP to rake in even more moolah.

  • PALLAB on November 18, 2013, 8:12 GMT

    @McGorium; That petulance at press conference about that declaration cheesed me off too as it stole the THUNDER from Sehwag who had scored India's first ever Test 300 same day.Yes, I felt he shud have gone for entire 13 overseas Test tours next cycle as his game against pace has not deteriorated (cue his recent handling of Tino's 85 mph pace,pace of Pattinson/Harris last OZ tour);just probs with lateral swing & sharp turn & concentration (as no 100s in past 2 years )have crept in. He wud doubtless have scored accomplished & effective 50s on all 4 tours. But I feel perhaps SRT for the first time in his career might have suffered from fear of failure on abroad tours & his plummeting average affecting his legacy (SRT might have not chased records, but doubtless like all greats like Gavaskar, RD,Lara was justifiably proud of his records.Ponting is different here in that only team victories were paramount for him, records became incidental on the way).

  • PALLAB on November 18, 2013, 7:57 GMT

    @McGorium: Agree of course about SRT's ostrich-approach to "Sealing" no 4 Test spot for life (also waltzing into ODI teams after injury breaks/rests breaking Sehwag-Gambhir combo at top). The moment his returns in twin Eng-OZ Test tours were average (against his benchmark performances in both nations on all prev tours), I immediately argued that much like Border,Sobers,Viv pushed themselves down order during latter halves of their career to bolster younger bats, SRT should have been FORCED (by selectors/team management) to do same during 10 Tests at home last season.Also, irony is that Adelaide has always been flattest deck in OZ for decades;yet Agarkar pulled off that one-off heist boosting RD's batting performances in'03.Yes,cable TV expansion & larger demographics interest in cricket force-fueled craze for cricket in 90s (also on strength of SRT's lone-ranger exploits if not outright team successes).

  • Arun on November 18, 2013, 7:04 GMT

    @Emancipator007: Re Kapil, yes, of course, my point exactly. Kapil was also a media icon in his time, though, for similar reasons. At the time, cricket was also somewhat elitist; today, it's a lot more egalitarian (larger demographic => more ad revenue). My point was that the current hysteria is largely due to an aura built up over the years by MNC ad campaigns, at a time the country was emerging from an inferiority complex (I'm unsure if we've completely emerged, but that's a separate topic). This ad campaigns, coupled with private "cable" TV channels were the ideal vehicle for creating an icon. And then Bradman made that momentous quote... I believe SRT should have played in SAF or made way for a #4 to be groomed during the Aus or Eng home series. That said, I've enjoyed watching him bat, just that I rate RD higher due to his skills on tough wickets. While RD was batting, I felt it would take a jaffer to get him out. SRT, not so much. My subjective opinion, perhaps, such as it is.

  • Arun on November 18, 2013, 6:47 GMT

    @Emancipator007: One could just as easily argue that SRT's 241 was on a flat pitch on which getting 20 wickets was hard for both teams (India raked up 700+ for 5 down, if I recall correctly). Or that if India's bowling could get 20 wickets, the wicket had something in it for the bowlers. I prefaced by statement about RD>SRT by saying "I've always rated", which indicates it is my (subjective) opinion based on RD's batting on difficult pitches such as in Headingley, Jamaica, etc. He's obviously not been perfect, but neither is SRT, as his record in SAF,Pak,or NZ would indicate. I'm obviously also further biased by the fact that RD was a complete team man, batting at every position, including the much disliked opening slot. Despite the team's problems with the top order in the past, SRT has refused to move up the order in tests (and down the order in ODIs.) Or complain when he didn't score quickly enough to get to 200, that he was disapointed by the declaration that won us the game.

  • aniruddha on November 18, 2013, 6:39 GMT

    Why all the cynicism? Is it too hard to believe that a person symbolized hope and aspiration for the millions of impressionable minds and that's why millions took the trouble to give him The Sendoff. I was one of them. I cried. Not becoz of religion or American multi-nationals. But becoz He reminded of the days when his batting would be the only redeeming feature of the gloom surrounding us. Was he the best cricketer ever? maybe not. Was he the best batsman? maybe not. Was he technically perfect? no. Was he a good captain? maybe not. But honestly Sachin is the one person outside my family who has given me most moments of joy and pride. There are millions like me. I really do not care whether he was the best in the world ever. I am not, I know. You can create mass hysteria. You can pay people to come to the occasion (ask our politicians) but you CANNOT make them feel & cry for you. Is it that difficult to understand?

  • PALLAB on November 18, 2013, 4:44 GMT

    @McGorium"About Kapil (or for that matter Gavaskar, who I consider the ONLY gold-standard world-class product in non-competitive, socialist era India) vs SRT; Kapil cud not become big enuf simply cos the market was not big enuf for generating megabucks to match Kapil/SMG's superb achievements (both were grossly UNDER-REWARDED!). It took liberalization &American MNCs (as u mentioned) coupled with a growing, conspicuous consumption spending domestic middle class to deliver the megabucks for SRT-that too only after 1996 (7 years after SRT's debut,5 after economic reforms) with Worldtel deal. @Ninad Dixit: Excellent capturing of India's cricketing prowess evolving stages-from SRT's lone-ranger excellence with limited team success to Ganguly (Border-like heralder of a dynasty & team builder) quest for team success abroad to Dhoni's (Dhoni being the S. Waugh) teams making winning a habit.