November 13, 2013

Tendulkar: forever icon

In some ways, we know less about him now than before. The more he has played, the more godlike and inscrutable he has become

Tendulkar has had no choice but to go along with what a billion people wanted him to be © Associated Press

Change is constant, but the pace of change is wildly inconstant. Some lives are played out in the context of continuity and stability; others must adapt to dizzying change and upheaval. Endurance, perseverance and resilience are all relative concepts: standing your ground is much harder when the sands are shifting all around you.

In 1989, when Sachin Tendulkar first took guard for India, cricket was mostly played in whites. The dominant team in the world was West Indies. ODI cricket was emerging but Test cricket firmly remained the game's gold standard. T20 was an accidental form of the game, a solution used only when rain shortened the duration of play. When the England Test team played away from home, it still wore the egg-and-bacon colours of the MCC, a strip invented in the 19th century. India was a passionate cricketing nation but a marginal player within the game's power structure and governance - money and influence lay elsewhere.

Twenty-four years later, as Tendulkar lifts his bat for the last time in Indian colours, survey the contours of the cricketing world today. Many more cricket fans love and understand the white-ball version than the red. India is the game's great superpower; it commands such huge television contracts that every other country wants a slice of the goodies. A whole dynasty, the Australian machine of the 1990s and 2000s, one of sport's greatest empires, has risen and retreated. T20, once a mere entertainment, drives the commercial imperatives of the sport.

When the final history of cricket is written - for our purposes here, let's call it the age of Tendulkar - his period has been seen as one of deep change and constant uncertainty. Yet throughout Tendulkar has adapted and endured. He has found answers to every new question - his 49 ODI hundreds are arguably the more remarkable achievement than his 51 Test centuries. And yet he has also belonged to the great, timeless tradition of pure batsmanship. Modern and classical at the same time, Tendulkar has been a cricketer for every stage.

It is a truism that he has faced a unique burden of expectation. That is partly because the changes in Indian society between Tendulkar's first Test and his 200th have trumped even the revolutions in cricket. In 1989, the Indian economy languished from protectionism and introversion. The beginning of India's economic recovery was the moment of Tendulkar's emergence as a global talent. That Tendulkar's career coincided with the emergence of India as an economic power was just that - a coincidence. But the subliminal link between the "Little Master" and a resurgent India provided yet another dimension of pressure and expectation.

So in celebrating Tendulkar's achievements, we are partly paying testament to the weight he has carried. When India won the 2011 World Cup final, Virat Kohli captured a deep truth: "He has carried the burden of our nation on his shoulders for the past 21 years. So it is time that we carried him."

Despite all this - all the many ways in which Tendulkar is admirable and impressive and inspiring - I have found it very difficult to gather together my thoughts about his retirement. My feelings about his career will not settle into a shape or a narrative. I can see the achievements but not the thread. I can list the feats and accolades, but the personality that achieved them eludes me. When I describe him as an enigma, I feel a failure on my part, as a writer. It is my job to find the man underneath the enigma. And I regret that I cannot.

My feelings about his career will not settle into a shape or a narrative. I can see the achievements, but not the thread. I can list the feats and accolades, but the personality that achieved them eludes me

When we watch athletes perform hundreds of times, we nearly always get to know them. Not from their quotes and their interviews but from the sporting performance itself. "An artist is usually a damned liar," DH Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature, "but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day." Change the word "artist" for the word "sportsman" and the same point holds: trust the runs and wickets, not the press-conference quotes.

We see into a sportsman's character by watching him play. We know when they relish the battle, when they allow themselves to enjoy it, when they are anxious and unsettled, when they are confident or in the zone. With players we care deeply about, we know and understand them almost as close friends. Knowing and being known, the mask slipped from the face: that was the playwright Tom Stoppard's definition of the emotion that sustains meaningful relationships.

But there is a strange paradox at the core of Tendulkar's career. The more he has played, the less we can see the real man. The mask has not slipped, it has risen. The carapace has not shrunk, it has grown. In a strange way, less is known about Tendulkar than ever before. The icon has supplanted the man.

Only a handful of human beings can understand what it has been like to be Tendulkar. Bob Dylan, writing in his autobiography Chronicles, said the hardest thing to handle was not criticism but deification. When they called him a prophet, hero and saviour, Dylan replied, "I'm just a song and dance man." Dylan drew upon his innate savvy to wriggle free from the straightjacket of being a redemptive hero. Sportsmen, sadly, find it harder to escape the traps of idolatrous celebrity.

I used to think that Tiger Woods had experienced the weirdest of all sports careers. In his heyday, Woods treated his own humanity almost as a flaw, like a kink in his backswing that needed to be ironed out. Woods wished to ascend from human frailty into machine-like invulnerability.

Now I realise that becoming a machine is much easier than being turned into a god - as Tendulkar has been. Perhaps he had no choice but to go along with what a billion people yearned for him to be. But I cannot avoid the feeling that the god has gradually displaced the man.

I try to understand men; gods leave me cold. Perhaps that is why, when I write about Tendulkar, for all my admiration and awe in the face of his great achievements, the words will not come.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • tejas on October 8, 2015, 5:09 GMT

    Every one thought steyn will trouble sachin in India's tour of South Africa in 2010. But he played one of his best cricket in that tour. His 146 at Capetown is one of the best knocks I have ever seen.

  • Dummy4 on November 16, 2013, 15:56 GMT

    10) Lara may well have had a few spectacular innings, but then so did many others inc. Sehwag. Also Lara's flamboyance tends to obscure faults which cricket "fans" should actually realise: Lara had s distinct weakness against real pace ( 145+ ks - not medium pace). Lara does not have a single 100 vs. any genuine pace bowler till 2003. Then on he has 4 against Lee and Flintoff on the most batting friendly conditions imaginable. Tendulkar has multiple classic 100s against virtually every genuine pace bowler of the past 25 years. 11) On NON -continental "flat tracks". Tendulkar does better than Lara in Aus, NZ, Eng, Saf is the same. This despite Tendulkar's last couple of horror tours to Aus and Eng.

  • Dummy4 on November 16, 2013, 15:56 GMT

    8) People conveniently pick one particular "analysis" ( out of countless). Must have taken a while to find one particularly suited to his premise. In any "analysis" - the weightings are mostly arbitrary. So, though one may agree in principal on most parameters - the weighting is subjective and will change depending on the individual. There are countless other analyses showing Tendulkar on top. 9) Regarding any individual innings. Any individual innings always has luck as a factor. For eg Tendulkar's 136 may well be regarded as a superior innings to Lara's 153. The sole difference being one catch taken , the other dropped. But even if we arguably say that Lara's few innings were "better" - the same may be said about numerous batsmen - Richards, VVS, Sehwag, Botham, etc. etc. Make what you want out of it. Thereafter - any conditions, any where, any time , any bowling , any format- It is difficult to look beyond Tendulkar.

  • Dummy4 on November 16, 2013, 15:55 GMT

    6) Matt Hayden is at No. 10 in these peak ratings - ahead of Lara at 23 and Tendulkar at 29. Hayden had a poor start to his career but the matches/runs were few enough to create little drag later. Ponting at No.4, Sangakkara at No.6, Hayden at No.10, Yousuf at No.11, Hussey at No.17 -all achieved their best ratings in the mid 2000s . As mentioned earlier - amidst the greatest run fest in history. Did they face tougher bowlers and pitches than Tendulkar. 7) So- again the author reveals his lack of elementary understanding of how the stats are created. If you take Tendulkar's peak years such as say 1994-2000, or 1996-2002 you will get quite another "peak" rating as compared to when cumulatively totted up from his debut in 1989.

  • Dummy4 on November 16, 2013, 15:55 GMT

    4) It is in this period of unprecedented runs that numerous batsmen "suddenly" caught up with Tendulakr. So a superficial look at overall stats suddenly show all in the same boat. 5) The ICC player ratings are not "Peak" ratings as in for a certain period. They are the peak ratings attained cumulatively from a players debut. So, if a batsman had a poor debut the ballast will create a drag on future points. Tendulkar had a poor start to his career even though he played a few great innings . The consistency was still not there for one so young.

  • Dummy4 on November 16, 2013, 15:54 GMT

    1) The entire "Number of runs" and longevity issue is merely another feather in the Tendulkar cap. As far back as 2002 Wisden had him ranked as the 2nd best batsman of all time behind the Don. 2) Through the 1990s , for batsmen who played THROUGHOUT the 1990s ( MINUS minnows Ban/Zim) Tendulkar averaged 59, to Steve's 52 and Lara's 51. i.e for an entire decade Tendulkar was 15% better than the "next best". Needless to say - only the Don can boast of such sustained dominance over his peers.

  • Dummy4 on November 16, 2013, 7:21 GMT

    In 1989, when Sachin Tendulkar first took guard for India, cricket was mostly played in whites. The dominant team in the world was West Indies. ODI cricket was emerging but Test cricket firmly remained the game's gold standard

  • Dummy4 on November 15, 2013, 15:11 GMT

    I remember very well when Sachin hit one straight drive to one of the Pak bowlers in a match played at Sydney cricket Ground in 1992 Cricket World cup since then he never turned back and saw behind in his career till date Good bye to Sachin Romesh Tendulkar.

  • Android on November 14, 2013, 20:31 GMT

    Another great thing about sachin is he is a bit of everything as a batsman. He is aggresive defensively solid, technically great, beautiful strokes, most cheeky shots pedal sweeps, upper cuts etc unlike other greats. As veteran cricket analyst richie bernaud say he best thing abt sachin is purity in his shots. every indian fan has thier own fav cricketers but everybodies undisputed fav is Sachin Tendulkar may or may not be the same case for fabs from abroad but nobody cn ever say they dont lime SRT. tats all guys.

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2013, 20:27 GMT

    You are right mate. Gods are elusive, difficult to understand and define. But being an Indian and keen follower of Sachin from beginning, We feel we know when and how he is feeling when he plays. I think for Indians, he is God in Human flesh. We understand him and yet there is mystery about him. Article is intriguing. Cheers