January 29, 2008

Australian idol

Just what is it that endears Sachin Tendulkar to crowds and cognoscenti alike Down Under? We asked a selection of Australia's great and good for their opinion

Loved to bits: the SCG gives Tendulkar a standing ovation after his 154 © Getty Images

Back in Melbourne, "Aussie Ana" was adding to her ratings. Twenty-year-old Ana Ivanovic of Serbia, the 2008 Australian Open finalist, endeared herself to sports fans Down Under thanks as much to her knockout good looks as for her tennis skills. A nation that feeds off the deeds of its sportspersons, Australia has always welcomed the talented with open arms. It was the same 16 years ago, when another youngster, the 18-year-old Sachin Tendulkar, arrived on his maiden voyage and returned with two spectacular centuries, leaving behind impressions that still endure in the minds of the natives.

Now, nearly two decades on, it is almost as if they have adopted him as one of their own. There have been other visiting champions during this age, such as Brian Lara of the West Indies, but none has attracted quite the sort of rapturous applause that has greeted Tendulkar every time he has walked out onto a cricket ground in Australia during this series. Yes, much of it has to do with this tour probably being his last, but it was much the same in the 2003-04 series, and in 1999-2000.

Just what it is about Tendulkar that the Australians so love? The reasons have as much to do with Australia as with the man himself.

Bill Lawry, the former Australian captain, points out that Australians have always had time for champions. "We've always enjoyed champions and they could be in any sport." Peter Roebuck, who captained Viv Richards and Ian Botham at Somerset, and enjoys something approaching Tendulkar-like status in cricket writing himself, reckons it has to do with the sentimentality of Australians. "It's a new country, and its people get excited when they see great innings like Tendulkar's." He goes on to stress that the likes of Lara and Shane Warne were "mixed blessings", while Tendulkar is not.

Gideon Haigh, historian and cricket writer, agrees that his countrymen admire anyone who does well against them, but presents a unique point. "It is partly a mark of respect, partly a symptom of national narcissism. I think Australians are also fascinated by Tendulkar's status in India. Australian cricketers are hugely popular in their own country, but they do not need protection from their fans in the fashion Tendulkar does. His fame, to us, makes him an emblem of Indian extremity and exoticism."

There is also the matter of two ringing endorsements, delivered by Australian greats.

When Tendulkar was at his peak in the mid-to-late-1990s, one day Sir Don Bradman called his wife Jessie to the television set and said how he could see himself in the young man he was watching play on the screen. Then Warne, talking about his contests with the Indian, said Tendulkar gave him "nightmares".

Mark Taylor, another Australian captain who played against Tendulkar and has been an admirer from the day he first watched him play, thinks the Bradman compliment was a major head-turner. "Suddenly people thought, 'Hold on, you don't have the greatest batsman saying things just like that.'"

Taylor also points out that part of the admiration has to do with the sheer amount of runs Tendulkar has made in Australia. Six of Tendulkar's 39 Test centuries have come in Australia, each worth its own photo album. Haigh's personal favourite was the MCG Test of 1999. "The Indian batsmen struggled awfully. [Rahul] Dravid was lifeless, inert," he remembers. "But Tendulkar was so immediately at home that it was almost like the Aussies just gave up trying to get him out and decided to work around him." Haigh calls Tendulkar not just a great batsman but a fascinating batsman: "so correct, so compact, as intricate and exquisitely functioning as a Fabergé egg."

Tendulkar came to Australia for the 1991-92 series as a impressionable youngster. His legend was already on the way to being established, thanks to the world record he had set with Vinod Kambli in school cricket. When he arrived in Australia, people wanted to see the young phenomenon. "People loved him then because he seemed to be still a boy but played brilliantly," recollects Mark Ray, a senior Australian journalist.

Ray, the author of Cricket Masala, a brilliant photographic travelogue of his various cricketing tours, touches on another aspect of Tendulkar's appeal. "His modesty is a bit old-fashioned these days and appeals to many Australians. We have an image of being tough, very self-confident sportsmen, but most of the public here still prefer the modest champion. He stands out in that regard." Jim Maxwell of ABC Radio believes it's Tendulkar's flawless character that has defined him. "Australians like the humble, the laconic, no-complaining types, which Tendulkar is."

Mike Coward, the eminent cricket writer, says: "Humility and civility have followed him all his life." For Coward it is Tendulkar "who has raised awareness about Indo-Australian cricket, given it a profile more than anyone else. He is someone people can relate to."

'Australians like the humble, the laconic, no-complaining types, which Tendulkar is' © Getty Images

Tendulkar for his part has valued the importance of gaining the respect of the most feared opponents around. Ravi Shastri, a team-mate at the time, recalls how Tendulkar, even on his first Australian tour, wanted to take the fight to the Aussies. "We were at the SCG and the contest was getting heated. Both of us were batting well and the Aussies were shooting sledges from all directions. I told him that I would take care of them while he focused on his batting. He was mentally charged. I still remember him saying, 'Let me get past my 100, then I will give it back', in Marathi. Let me point out again that he said he wanted to get to the century and only then would he distract himself."

When asked recently if Australia ever felt like a second home to him, Tendulkar said, laughing: "I only have one home. But it's truly a special feeling to walk in to such a reception, when I don't know if I am batting on zero or on 100."

In private conversations with friends Tendulkar has talked about his appreciation for the respect he has been accorded in Australia. He told a senior Indian journalist friend how satisfying it was to score his 39th Test hundred at the Adelaide Oval, the home of Bradman, who would have been close to a hundred years old if he were still alive. Tendulkar wouldn't admit that in the public lest it was mistaken for false modesty, but thereby he adds another layer to his greatness.

General Peter Cosgrove, a former head of the Australian Defence Force, delivering the 2008 Sir Donald Bradman oration at the University of Western Australia two weeks ago, said, "Australians are among the most overtly competitive people on the planet. Cricket defines our approach to competition: it has rules and teams, it demands focus and self-confidence. It entails an intense desire and will to win; it needs an abundance of skill, stamina, courage and perseverance." Indeed, these are the qualities Sachin Tendulkar has come to define for Australians among others. And in so doing, he has come to represent an unreachable ideal.

Greg Baum, columnist at Melbourne's Age, wrote in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine a few years ago: "Here is a man not susceptible to human failing in any endeavour, a man not so much invincible as invulnerable." He ended his appreciation by calling Tendulkar "the game's secular saint".

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo