December 21, 2010

Frozen at 18

Tendulkar has stayed on top for so long because his mind remains young and cricket remains an obsession for him

There was a moment during the New Zealand series when Sachin Tendulkar chased a ball in the outfield. Watching him, it struck me that nothing had changed at all with him. He was still going earnestly after the ball, with the same speed and enthusiasm that he would have displayed 20 years or more ago. When you see ageing cricketers on the field, you don't see quite the same enthusiasm and agility as they had before. You can tell a veteran in the field from a distance.

Tendulkar seems to be frozen in time. It got me thinking: what is it about this guy that he can still look an integral part of a young cricketing outfit at the age of 37 and after 21 years in international cricket? People might say that he has kept himself physically fit and kept his interest in the game alive, but I know for a fact that Tendulkar was never a fitness fanatic.

I played alongside him until 1996, during his fundamental years and he didn't spend a lot of time in the gym. In fact, the Mumbai boys always prided themselves on this: it was more the culture of cricketers from north India, particularly Delhi, to hit the gym; we just batted and fielded. The senior Mumbai players, like Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Ravi Shastri, helped instill in us the belief that cricketers should be on the field not in the gym. Tendulkar was very much a product of that culture. I am sure he spends a little more time in the gym now than he did earlier, and watches his diet, but I'd guess that's about it.

The key to his game is his enthusiasm for it. He is like an evergreen film hero, and that is possible only because of the mind. A young mind will find ways to keep the body young. His body may be 37 years old but his mind is still 18, the time when he established himself in international cricket.

In fact that is Tendulkar's nature: he's child-like. He still gets excited by things that excited him when he was 18. Most of us change as we grow old; our ways of relaxing, our choices of reading, the movies we watch, and even the friends we keep, change. Not so with Tendulkar. He still has the same friends with whom he enjoyed spending time back then. They crack the same kinds of jokes. That same masti (enjoyment) continues. That is the real secret to Tendulkar's longevity - his heart and mind are still those of a teenage boy. And teenage boys love to play sport, don't they?

Tendulkar still has the same friends with whom he enjoyed spending time back then. They crack the same kind of jokes we used to during the early years of junior cricket. That same masti continues

Chandrakant Pandit, the director of the Mumbai Cricket Association's academy, says that when Tendulkar comes to practise there, boyish squeals of delight can be heard. In the early years, during the last few minutes of his batting session, Tendulkar would challenge the net bowlers: last four balls, 15 to win. Pandit tells me Tendulkar does that even today. He also still argues with the net bowlers about whether his shot was a four and whether he was dismissed or not. Most ageing batsmen I know tend to have almost sombre net sessions and leave. Not Tendulkar, it seems, from what we hear.

Everyone knows Tendulkar is a very private person. He opens up only around his close friends, in a secure environment. Once he steps out into the public domain, even if there are only a couple of people around, he is aware of them and is immediately on red alert. When he is out on the cricket field, in the public domain, be it a Ranji game or an exhibition match, he is aware he's being watched. And once that is the case, he wants to come out looking nothing but the best. That's innate to his nature and has been right through his career. I have never seen him go out and play silly or casual cricket, whatever the game. You cannot say the same about too many other great cricketers.

"I don't like getting out," he said somewhere after the 50th Test hundred. That's true with him for all cricket, all the time. He will bat with the same intent against Bangladesh on a flat track as he would against Australia in Brisbane. Or for that matter against Tamil Nadu in the odd Ranji game for Mumbai as in a benefit match for an ex-cricketer. Once Tendulkar is in the public view, he is not willing to look any less than what he is: a great performer and a competitor.

His sprinting after the ball on the field comes from the same mindset. People are watching. It may not be the most significant moment of the day but people are watching me. I cannot be seen not excelling. And that is the attitude when it comes to his fielding, bowling, and of course his batting.

I think these are the two fundamental reasons - the child-like enthusiasm and a fierce desire to look his best every time he is on stage - why he is able to have had the kind of run he has had. That he is still able to bring the same value and more to this Indian Test team that he did as an 18-year-old is truly remarkable, apart from being rare.

There is another factor that I would like to explain with the example of Imran Khan. As he grew older, Imran changed from being a fast-bowling allrounder to a leader of Pakistan cricket. Cricket to him had become more than just batting and bowling. Because he was educated at Oxford, and studied political science, politics held great interest for him. Towards the end of his career, the cancer hospital became his obsession. And now it is about trying to effect a social change in Pakistan.

Even after 21 years of cricket at the highest level, nothing appeals to Tendulkar more than cricket. Also, by remaining a pure batting performer, rather than being a long-term captain or a leader of thoughts in Indian cricket, he has been able to devote all his energies, skills and focus to one thing and one thing only - getting runs.

Getting those fifties and hundreds. That is his single-minded obsession, and has been for the last 25 years, since the time he started off playing official cricket at 12 for his school, Shardashram Vidyamandir.

Getting runs gives him the greatest joy. The other stuff - the fast cars, new electronic gadgets, good food and friends are passions, but the obsession is just one: batting and getting those centuries for India.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here