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November 1, 2003
The two keenest appreciations of Sachin Tendulkar were made from vantage points that could not have been more opposite to each other, and together serve as an incontrovertible cross-reference to his greatness. The first was Sir Donald Bradman's famous remark to his wife during the1996 World Cup that Tendulkar put him in mind of how he himself batted.
The second is the widespread understanding in the cricket community that match-fixers will not successfully get on with their crooked business until Tendulkar is out, and an anecdotal account of how Tendulkar once unwittingly ruined a fix by batting too blissfully well.
It must be understood that neither reflection would have been made lightly. Sir Donald was not given to hyperbole or glibness, but rather was precise in everything he did and said. Nor would the fixers have bothered with throwaway lines.
Together, these tributes convey immutable impressions of Tendulkar that accord with less quantifiable, more aesthetic understandings of the glory of his batsmanship, Here is a man capable of changing the course of any game. Here is a man incorruptible in the face of the venal temptations that so many of his peers could not resist. Outside the laws or outside the off stump, he could not be lured. Here is a man not susceptible to human failing in any endeavour, a man not so much invincible as invulnerable.
Here is a man whose name is synonymous with purity, of technique, philosophy and image. If Ian Botham can be seen as the Errol Flynn of cricket, or Viv Richards as the Martin Luther King, or Shane Warne as the Marilyn Monroe, or Muttiah Muralitharan as the hobbit, Tendulkar is surely the game's secular saint.
Right from the beginning, he appeared to be touched by divinity. He came among us as a boy-god, unannounced. He was 16 and was hit on the head in his first appearance, but neither flinched nor retreated a step. Nothing thenceforth could harm him, temporal or otherwise. He was short and stocky - like all the best - and mop-topped and guileless to behold. He has scarcely changed since.
Tendulkar was born with extravagant natural talent, but he was also driven and indefatigable. When a boy, he would bat from dawn to dusk, and even a little beyond. As with all the greats, he came not from another dimension, nor the mystical east, but from the nets. By such dedication, he came to understand intimately his own gift, and at length to lavish it upon others.
His movements at the crease are small but exact. He said once that he did not believe in footwork for its conventional purpose, because the tempo of Test cricket did not permit a batsman the textbook indulgence of getting to the pitch of the ball. Rather, he thought of footwork as a means of balancing himself up at the crease so that each shot was hit just as he meant it. He scores predominantly through the off side, an unusual characteristic for such a heavy run-maker, but of course he can play every shot.
Tendulkar's method promotes an air of calm, reassurance and poise at the crease. Brian Lara's batting is characterised by explosion and violence, and Steve Waugh's by grim resolve, but Tendulkar's ways are timeless. His battles with Shane Warne, genius versus genius, have been for the ages. It is said that the common element to concepts of beauty among all peoples is symmetry, a balance between all the parts. So it is with Tendulkar's batting.
How easily he carries the hopes and takes responsibility for the well being of untold millions on that impossible subcontinent; in this, he is also divine. All eyes are upon him, day and night, but no scandal has attached itself, not in his private life nor in his cricket endeavours. Across the land, he is the little man on the big posters and hoardings, creating a kind of reverse Big Brother effect; he is not watching them, but they are watching him. Still he stands tall.
Sometimes petty criticism is made that he fails India in its hours of need, but it is not borne out by the figures, and besides, no one man could take upon his shoulders all of India's needy hours. Just 30, he has already made more than 50 international centuries.
When called upon, he also bowls intelligently, if sparingly. He is sure in the field. There is even about him, as there was about many saints, something of the ingenu. He is not a natural captain for the modern era because he can lead only by example. He does not have a charismatic presence in a cricket stadium, but rather fills it in a different way, as the one certainty in a sea of doubt. Batting is the most fraught of sporting pursuits because even for the best the end is only ever one ball away. Tendulkar seems to turn that verity upon itself.
As Tendulkar put Bradman in mind of himself, so he puts others in mind of Bradman. Once I was on a night train winding down from Simla to Kalka that stopped halfway for refreshments at a station lit by flaming torches. On a small television screen wreathed in cigarette smoke in the corner of the dining room Tendulkar was batting in a match in Mumbai. No one moved or spoke or looked away. The train was delayed by 20 minutes. Not until Tendulkar was out could the world resume its normal timetables and rhythms.
Greg Baum is a writer with the Melbourne Age. This article was first published in the November 2003 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine
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