November 19, 2013

Tendulkar: devoid of malice

Is his image a carefully constructed bubble that will one day be pricked? Everyone I have asked emphatically disagrees

Tendulkar's reputation as a person sets him apart from other cricketing greats © BCCI

A complete absence of malice. Hard to say about anyone in modern sport these days. From fans to commentators to fierce opponents and team-mates. Who can I think of in contemporary male sport, a genuine world champion on a truly global scale, who is devoid of malice, either directed at him by others or from within?

I qualify it by gender because generally speaking, female sport is much kinder, much less vicious, dare I say it, more mature, about the way it perceives champions, either from the outside looking in or through the lens of the champion herself, excelling without feeling the need to "fire up" in the way that many male athletes are conditioned to do in order to reach the very pinnacle. That so-called "mongrel" that is apparently necessary to lift performance from the mediocre to the magical. Female sport often rids itself of this unnecessary burden.

Tennis has a few such men, it seems. To an outsider anyway. Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal appear to have scaled dizzy heights without inviting a malicious word from the industry. Perhaps the insiders know better, but if so, then it is a well-hidden secret to the rest of us. Mo Farah, the Olympic champion middle-distance runner from the UK, is another that springs to mind. Haven't heard a malicious word about him.

In rugby, a sport that I am very closely associated with in my work as a life-skills coach, the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw ascends those heights, albeit tainted slightly by those who think his playing style skirts the borders of the rules, but that's almost accepted as part of the territory when it comes to a No. 7 in rugby. Within the industry, I haven't heard a bad word said about McCaw, even from bitter opponents. An absence of malice. A special tag indeed.

More than any other cricketer, living or dead, Sachin Tendulkar is the one true giant of the game who still gives me that impression, in his demeanour towards others and going by incoming fire. An absence of malice.

Again, perhaps those in the inner sanctum might have other tales to tell, but the mere fact that none have emerged, despite a 24-year career, almost all of it at rarefied altitude, is testament to the fact that anyone with a malicious story to tell hasn't had the guts to say it, or the audience been prepared to listen. All the records with bat aside, Sachin's reputation as a person sets him apart from any other cricketing great.

We're only talking a select few here in terms of that sort of company. We're talking WG Grace, the Don, Len Hutton, Garry Sobers, Dennis Lillee, Viv Richards, Shane Warne, Ian Botham, Muttiah Muralitharan, Glenn McGrath and Brian Lara perhaps. Even that list is bound to be disputed by readers. Fair enough too - it is but an opinion that is coloured by my own memories and prejudices.

I think Jacques Kallis deserves to be mentioned in this list, such is my respect for his phenomenal record over a long period. When he retires, he deserves the sort of accolades that Tendulkar has received. If he had been a Springbok instead of a Protea, he would no doubt be immortalised in South Africa. But of these players listed above, who among them can we truly say is without malice, from any quarter, incoming or outgoing? I'd be tempted to put Murali and Lara in that bracket, but as much as I like them, they have both courted controversy at various times in their careers, sometimes not of their own making but attracting malice nonetheless. It's not a question of fault but of trying to find the cricketer in whose case there has been an absence of malice.

It speaks to the humility of a man like Gavaskar, an absolute god in Indian cricket circles, that he has enough room in his heart (and ego) to share that space with another deity

Of Sachin's contemporaries in the Indian dressing room, I would nominate Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble as being worthy of a mention in this category. Dravid I have never met, so my impression of him is only from what I've heard from knowledgeable folk within the camp. Not even a single word to suggest malice. Kumble, on the other hand, is someone that I've had personal experience of.

Without going into too much detail, I had an encounter with him in 1998 at Sir John Paul Getty's beautiful cricket ground in Buckinghamshire (he was playing for JPG's XI and I was representing MCC) and Kumble showed me an act of kindness and humility that will live with me forever. I cannot imagine anyone having a malicious thought about this man, despite his strong opinions, as evidenced by his inspirational and brave speech last week at the Pataudi Memorial Lecture. But in terms of those half-dozen cricketers who we will remember in 500 years' time, neither of these two fine gentlemen may make that list.

I've asked many people close to the international cricket circuit and within the Indian set-up if the Tendulkar image is a carefully constructed bubble that will one day be pricked, but there is no hesitation when they emphatically shake their heads. With this article in mind, I listened intently to the commentators in his last Test, to see if I could pick up even the slightest hint of malice or jealousy and I heard nothing. Nothing.

Dravid, content in his own skin, had nothing but admiration for his old mate. Lara, the closest thing to a competitor that Tendulkar had during his reign (along with Ricky Ponting), was soft-spoken as usual, and he spoke with no hint of rancour. Ravi Shastri, who could have been forgiven for still thinking of Tendulkar as a young pup, was genuinely in awe of his reputation. Wasim Akram recounted fearsome battles but with almost a fatherly affection for the man who must have been Public Enemy No. 1 to any Pakistani cricketer. Warne v Tendulkar was often billed as the greatest battle in world cricket but you'd never know it, listening to Warne's grace and humility when it came to Tendulkar's legacy.

Whenever Sunil Gavaskar was on air, I listened with even more interest. Here was a man who might have had the most to gain from debunking the Tendulkar legend, even if it is impossible to do so on the basis of on-field records. Yet Gavaskar, having endured the might of the fearsome West Indian pace battery and with a batting record to die for, has no malice in his heart for the "Little Master", as he so fondly refers to him.

It speaks to the humility of a man like Gavaskar, an absolute god in Indian cricket circles, that he has enough room in his heart (and ego) to share that space with another deity.

Commentators are one thing - they are paid to be cautious on air. They sense the mood of the audience. What about opponents? Who is prepared to come out and tell us that SRT was a prickly opponent, a nasty man who was full of niggle and venom? I've heard nothing. That is an amazing thing when you consider how easy it must have been to hate the man who so often stood between you and victory. Someone who often hogged the limelight, even when he failed with the bat. Jealousy can provoke vicious reactions but even here, we hear a deafening silence.

Umpires? Anyone prepared to tell us that Sachin was a foul-tempered goon who never accepted a poor decision without kicking up an almighty stink? Lord knows he copped some absolute shockers (who wouldn't in such a long career?), but I marvelled at his unbelievable self-control during moments when it would have been easy to be swept up in the reaction of the crowds. There were times when he was aghast with a decision, but a split-second later, he tucked his bat under his arm and walked off, reputation intact. Grace under fire.

What about the invisible men and women, whose stories are sometimes even more telling because of their relative anonymity? What of those team managers, coach drivers, dressing-room attendants, hotel workers and other support staff? Again, a revealing lack of scandal or rumour.

I read today of the fact that in 24 years, Tendulkar has never been fined for being late to a meeting or for wearing the wrong uniform. Is that because he has never broken those rules or because no one was ever brave enough to fine him? I suspect the former - it just fits with everything else that people say about his respect for the game and his place in it, mindful always that in the eyes of millions, he was cricket.

In the current game, trying to think of players for whom the "absence of malice" tag can be applied, friend and foe alike, I can only come up with a few names, some of them not (yet) worthy of the all-time-great tag. The point here is that it is not the sheer numbers alone that distinguish Sachin's reputation. It is the fact that he has maintained this reputation despite being the most visible brand ambassador for the sport - and not just in India.

Hashim Amla, Shiv Chanderpaul and Mike Hussey are my three contemporary nominees, but they are some way from roosting in the same branches as Tendulkar, the Don or Sobers. In a totally different context, George Bailey is one of those guys who will be fondly remembered for his character, but he will be the first to admit that he doesn't deserve mention in a cricketing context in this conversation.

No matter - an absence of malice is still something to be proud of. It's just that being able to have that said about you, after scaling impossible peaks, crossing international borders and being a human god to so many people, is something that only a precious few can ever lay claim to. And that's the great irony of it - it is a claim that Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar will never make himself. He doesn't need to. He just is. He was. Will always be. No justification required. A living example of a champion with an absence of malice.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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