This is the first in a new series where Kumar Sangakkara looks at his favourite contemporary players.
As an international cricketer of the current generation, the Tendulkar era, I will always have one striking memory of Sachin that will be forever etched in my mind: his thrilling entrance onto a cricket field. The anticipation of him emerging from the pavilion, and his walk from the boundary to the centre, is almost surreal. The sound of a passionate Indian crowd all chanting "Sachin, Sachin" as they wait in anticipation, followed by the enormous roar when he emerges onto the field, is electrifying.
That experience also tells you much about Sachin and his special place in the game's history. He is not just the finest and most complete batsman of the past two decades. In a country that is cricket-mad, where players are deified and worshipped, he stands out and stands alone. In a continent of cricketing legends of the calibre of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, and in a tradition of cricket that has produced other great heroes, Sachin seems to have transcended all of them and achieved a revered, almost superhuman, stature.
I remember playing in a charity game in 2003 at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. Thousands of people turned out to watch the match and the familiar chant filled the ground as he walked out to take strike with Virender Sehwag. However, two overs later, Sachin's dismissal was followed by pin-drop silence. As he left the field, the only sound was the murmur of the dispersing crowd. For me, that kind of pressure every single day, and the lack of a truly private life, would, I believe, prove too much.
But Sachin, somehow, has taken it in his stride for an incredible 20 years almost. To my mind that ranks as a higher achievement than the long lists of statistical records he has claimed. Playing for India is no easy task. The pressure to perform in every single outing, to win every single match, is tremendous. Magnify that a thousand-fold and that is what Sachin has to deal with.
He may have millions of fans, but he has his share of critics as well. Many times over the years India has failed to convert an appearance in a final into a win, and when this happens the first barbs of criticisms are invariably aimed at one man. "Sachin," they say, "does not win India finals." The man who has been rewriting the record books has been judged by some to have failed India in some crucial games that everyone seems to remember and talk about.
This criticism is totally unfounded and unfair. Sachin is extremely strong mentally. You have to be, to last 20 years at the top. That he is still able to carve out match-winning performances now, despite all the injuries and the physical and mental overload that comes with being a top-flight international cricketer, is testament to his mental toughness. India have not lost so many finals because of Tendulkar; they have lost because of poor team performances.
Therein lies the danger of having individual brilliance in your cricket team. Many are the times I have sat in the dressing room, watching Sanath Jayasuriya single-handedly win matches. However, without realising it, we reached the stage, at one point, where our whole confidence hinged on the rise and fall of Sanath. His early dismissal would sow seeds of doubt, and his continued presence in the middle would fuel confidence. We have succeeded now in breaking free of that dependence. It is a similar battle that India have fought with Sachin.
I first watched Sachin on TV when I was 12 years old, and for me the most striking thing about his batting has been its beautiful simplicity. The picture-perfect stance; the straight, measured back-lift; the neat forward-defensive and the checked-drive have changed little over the years. Of course, he was blessed with enormous natural talent, but that talent has been fulfilled because of a rock-solid technical foundation.
|That he is still able to carve out match-winning performances now, despite all the injuries and the physical and mental overload that comes with being a top-flight international cricketer, is testament to his mental toughness. India have not lost so many one-day finals because of Tendulkar; they have lost because of poor team performances|
His simple technique has helped him adapt to, and dominate, all formats of the game under all conditions. Use Cricinfo's Statsguru to assess his overall record and you can only marvel at the completeness of his career. He has scored runs in every cricketing country, on every type of pitch, against every bowling attack. Furthermore, his dominance extends from Test cricket to one-day cricket, and even to the newest format, the Twenty20 game.
Various teams have used different tactics against him over the years, probing his technique to find weaknesses. However, even if they did find any, he was always able to adapt and evolve his game to overcome the challenge. That is what great players do. To my mind, his only obvious weak spot has been against the ball that nips back in from outside off stump - a delivery that troubles several of India's batsmen, though for different reasons.
Since 2003, life does seem to have become tougher for Sachin, mainly because of injuries and the physical toll of the international treadmill. I sense that this - especially the injuries - has introduced a more cautious attitude to his batting. Which is why the appearance of Sachin today does not bring with it a cloud of doom for the fielding team, as it used to do. His increased conservatism has dulled his threat, although he remains very capable of compiling match-winning scores.
Despite his great achievements Sachin has managed to stay an unassuming, humble and very approachable human being. He is a family man whose life is steeped in good moral and religious values. His interaction with players, both in his own team and in the opposition, has given many a cricketer a humbling insight into the mind of this genius. He is always ready to accommodate his fellow cricketers in conversations that might range from cricket to his family, food, travel, and his two other passions: cars and watches.
This is all revealing because it helps explain where he gets his mental strength from. His simple private life, his clear values and strong ethics, and a very good support system in terms of his family and close friends, have given him the foundation and strength to be able to shoulder the hopes and expectations of millions. Underpinning him is a natural zest for life, a passion for cricket and also for humanity. To me, he is the embodiment of the gentleman cricketer. He does not need aggressive rhetoric or psychological battles to prove his worth. He has his bat and he lets it do the talking.