For the love of Sachin
It is an understatement to say Jaipur is hot at the end of April. The heat is like a living thing, determined to scorch the earth of all other living things. Yet there the Sawai Mansingh Stadium was three weeks ago, with its uncovered stands, already half-full at 2.30pm, a good 90 minutes before the scheduled IPL game. By the time the umpires walked out to the middle, the place was packed with fans eager with anticipation.
Rajasthan Royals typically draw tremendous home support, but on this day it was clear the fans weren't there just for them. The opposing team were Mumbai Indians, and the fans had come to see Sachin Tendulkar. They cheered when he came out to warm up, cheered when he came out for the toss, and cheered when he came out to bat. Such was the reception for Tendulkar that during Rajasthan's next game against Pune Warriors, Shane Warne was moved to say at the toss that it was "nice to be home. They cheer us well here as long as Sachin's not playing."
The faces in the crowd reflected their dual allegiances, literally. One girl had the Rajasthan logo - the double R - painted on her right cheek. On her left, in the same blue paint, she had "Sachin Tendulkar". Unfortunately for the fans, Ashok Menaria had Tendulkar stumped for 7 in the fifth over. Having missed out on a chance to cheer their hero at the crease, the fans produced the loudest roar of the game when Tendulkar caught Rahul Dravid. No opportunity to celebrate India's most cherished cricketer was going to be missed, whatever the situation.
It has been a similar story at stadiums around the country. What the 2011 IPL has made clear is that Tendulkar transcends team loyalties, especially now in the twilight of his career, when it's hard to know if there will be another chance to see him play. The fans want to get a glimpse of him so they can tell their grandchildren: yes, I saw him bat. India's World Cup triumph has added to his aura, making his career appear complete. It was the final piece in the puzzle, the storybook ending, and what we are seeing now amounts to the standing ovation at the end of play.
"People are making an extra effort to be at the ground," Amrit Mathur, the chief executive of the Delhi Daredevils, told ESPNcricinfo. "It is one more chance to see a legend, to see Tendulkar. Because he is Tendulkar, and if you miss out, you might not see him again."
The numbers back up the existence of a "Tendulkar effect". Television ratings for Mumbai have been consistently higher, and their games have attracted more viewers, than those of the other franchises. It is the same story at the box office. Ashish Hemrajani, the founder and chief executive of BookMyShow.com, which handles ticket sales for four of the 10 franchises, told ESPNcricinfo that all the Mumbai games have been sold out, barring a few early ones. While other teams' sales depend in part on the quality of the opposition and the time of the match, Mumbai, he said, has transcended these factors. "The Mumbai games most certainly sell off quicker."
Neetu Bhatia, who heads Kyazoonga.com, which handles tickets for Pune, said they were selling about 70% of the tickets for each game, with one exception - Mumbai. "It was completely sold out. And not just sold out two days prior but sold out three weeks prior." When it comes to watching Tendulkar, you don't take chances.
Part of Tendulkar's universal appeal is his consistent excellence, which resonates with fans of all backgrounds. Keshav Joshi, 29, has been watching cricket since he was six years old. In 1996 he went to each of India's games in the World Cup. Having grown up in Pune, he supports the Warriors and the Maharashtra state team, who have had a long, albeit unsuccessful, rivalry with Mumbai in Indian domestic cricket (think of Maharashtra as the Manchester City and Mumbai as the Manchester United of Indian cricket). It is safe to say that Joshi is not a Mumbai fan. But like millions of others, he finds it impossible to set aside his admiration for Tendulkar, the India batsman, in favour of IPL team loyalty.
"I think SRT's fan following is based on his exploits for the Indian team, and although he plays for a different IPL team, deep down I want him to do well even against the Warriors, as long as we win," Joshi said. "The same question could be asked to supporters of the Maharashtra Ranji team. When we play Mumbai, I still want SRT to do well. A lot of it has to do with him showing his mastery irrespective of who he is playing against."
Joshi roots for Tendulkar to score runs against the teams he supports, so he can have "the opportunity of seeing the best batsman on earth play". He even supported Mumbai in the first three IPLs because of Tendulkar and the team's geographical proximity to Pune, but switched loyalties once the Warriors were born. His support for Tendulkar, however, remained intact, as it has for others like him. "A lot of my friends, now that PWI is pretty much out, have begun supporting Mumbai again."
It isn't just the fans who revere Tendulkar either. Mathur, the Delhi chief executive, says it extends to the players who play with and against Tendulkar. "The people in the squads on either side - they consider it a privilege that they are in a game with Tendulkar." Signs of that were evident during the World Cup. R Ashwin, the India offspinner who plays for Chennai Super Kings, said playing with Tendulkar was a moment he had waited for. After his first World Cup game, Ashwin took a stump out of the ground and got Tendulkar to sign it as a memento.
It is an aura that has grown not only with the sheer weight of Tendulkar's achievements but also because of how he has carried himself as a person. "He is one icon who has conducted himself very well," Mathur said. "No taint in his conduct or in his behaviour or in a way he has carried himself, not just as a cricketer but as a personality and as a role model. He has reached a stage I think it will be impossible for anyone [else] to reach."
Mumbai has two games left in the league stage and at least two more playoff games. Two of those games will be played in Mumbai, but wherever Tendulkar plays, it will sound and feel like home.
Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo