Playing it My Way November 14, 2014

The mask behind Tendulkar's mask

His autobiography merely endorses the public image of the man, instead of giving us the insights we've been craving

Cricket autobiographies are not to be judged on literary merit. Judging them by the standard laid down by George Orwell - "an autobiography is to be trusted only if it reveals something disgraceful" - might be too harsh.

The best reveal character, place a career in the context of the times, light up aspects the public has no access to, and join the dots to present us with an unexpected picture.

Autobiographies of sportsmen are played out in public, on television screens. Sachin Tendulkar is his cricket. As the greatest all-round batsman the game has seen, he has had more words written about him than most. In writing his own story, therefore, he is up against better written and more closely analysed stories already in the public domain.

As a public figure, Tendulkar is politically correct, image-conscious, wears his patriotism on his sleeve, is the ideal Indian hero - not a hair out of place, not a word out of turn, espousing family values at all times; in private he is far more interesting, mischievous, full of beans, a prankster and a mimic. And he is deliciously incorrect politically.

Playing It My Way merely endorses the public image. You thought Tendulkar was a patriot; he thought so too. You thought Tendulkar was an important batsman, focused on scoring centuries; he thought so too. You thought Tendulkar was a loyal friend; he thought so too.

The urge to confirm the public image is far stronger than the urge to tell the story of Indian cricket when he was its leading player. There is very little of the turbulence of his times - match-fixing, chucking, player depression, sledging - issues on which he maintained a studied silence when active, whetting our appetite to know his thoughts now.

What we get here is a recitation of facts and figures, of matches played and series won and lost, all from the perspective of Tendulkar's own performances. It is a bit like Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, where the supporting cast (Nehru, Patel, Jinnah) play bit roles.

Sachin Tendulkar found match-fixing at the turn of the century "distasteful, disgusting and repulsive". Over a decade later, when the spot-fixing scandal in the IPL broke, he was "disappointed, shocked and angry at the goings-on".

How did the Indian team deal with having its captain hauled up for match-fixing and other players banned? What were the conversations among Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble, Ganguly, Prasad, Srinath, Laxman - men of integrity, who ensured that Indian cricket would survive its biggest threat? We will have to wait till one of the others writes an insider's autobiography.

And that is the weakness of this book - it is an outsider's autobiography of a private individual who reveals a bit of his family life but little else. It was said of Len Hutton that behind the mask was another mask. Ditto Tendulkar.

Yet even in the most carefully orchestrated work, a writer does reveal himself. For writing is a matter of choices. And in making his choices, Tendulkar's emphasis on family values, on the team being greater than the individual, on the inspiration of the national flag, on being the wronged man, on reducing matches to his individual contributions, all speak of someone who wants that particular self-portrait. Platitudes, however, cannot pass for insights.

In an autobiography, the use of the first person singular is not to be condemned, yet a sentence like "The World Cup trophy was still eluding me" does stick out. Speaking of playing Pakistan at the same 2003 World Cup, he writes, "This is why I played cricket, to be out in the middle for my team, on the world's biggest cricketing stage, against India's arch rival." Really?

There is, too, the overdone humility: "…I managed to score a double hundred." And the startling prayer during the 2011 World Cup final, where "I wasn't asking God to help us win. All I wanted was that God should do whatever was best for us, for Indian cricket, and for the Indian cricket team." This was god speaking to god.

To what extent was Tendulkar motivated by vanity? After all, it is self-awareness that makes for great players. You can't move a nation without being aware of your power to do so.

There are occasional nuggets in the book. Tendulkar's various injuries and his ability to retain his passion through the pain and self-doubt are touching. This is a man who cries when he is disappointed, sometimes locking himself up for hours. Sachin the man, as opposed to Tendulkar the legend, peeps out from behind the mask here. As it does when he speaks of his children, wife and parents. Sachin isn't afraid to come across as an ordinary man, with the ordinary concerns of a son, husband and father.

There are some interesting takes on batting. On focusing by following the ball everywhere, for example. Tendulkar gets almost philosophical when he says, "I've batted best when my mind has been at the bowler's end of the pitch… in fact, for both bowlers and batsmen, cricket is played best when your mind is at the opposite end… problems occur when your mind is stuck at your own end."

The autobiography as a means to settle scores - Kevin Pietersen's being a recent example - is well understood. Tendulkar's feud with Greg Chappell, his disappointment with Dravid for declaring the innings when he was batting on 194, his anger against Ian Chappell for criticising him, are well delineated.

It might have been a good idea to write Playing It My Way to get it out of the system and then settle down to writing the real story. The one that provides perspective rather than what comes across as a trainee journalist's essay on "my favourite cricketer".

From a great player, an icon, a Bharat Ratna, this book is a disappointment. Reticence is not a quality to bring to the writing of life stories.

Playing it My Way: My Autobiography
By Sachin Tendulkar
Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback, 486pp, Rs 899

Suresh Menon is the editor of the Wisden India Almanack