October 5, 2015

The making of a sporting icon lies in the timing

The legend of great sportsmen like WG Grace, Babe Ruth and Sachin Tendulkar is partly to do with the eras they lived in
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Standing out: WG Grace arrived at a time when Great Britain was looking for non-military heroes © Getty Images

I am reading two biographies about two great lives: WG Grace and Babe Ruth. Their two careers, separated by 47 years and the Atlantic Ocean, were united by a wider symbolism. In a vague but unavoidable sense, WG became indistinguishable from Britishness, as did the Babe and American self-confidence.

We tend to think of the nation as being the lucky partner in those relationships, with adoring populations fortunate to be inspired by the brilliance of athletes. But it was two-way traffic. The careers of both WG and the Babe are unimaginable without the burgeoning greatness of the nations they embodied. That is why reading the two autobiographies has led me to reflect on a third great life: Sachin Tendulkar.

Instead of imagining great men inspiring Empires, it is the Empires that inspire great men. When there is an urgent need for heroes, someone usually emerges.

Amazing Grace, Richard Tomlinson's fine biography, depicts WG as an outsider, whose pluck and talent pushed him to the top, despite the prejudices of the ruling classes. Grace is portrayed as a revolutionary - in batting technique, in tactics, and above all in his mentality. In contrast with the old gentlemanly code of style over content - according to the novelist Anthony Trollope, to play any sport "pre-eminently well is the life of a man who, in learning to do so, can hardly have continued to be a gentleman in the best sense of the word" - for Grace, winning was the only thing. Forget the etiquette; get the job done. For that reason, Tomlinson argues, WG was the "first truly modern international sports star". We might classify the history of sport as BG and AG - Before Grace and After Grace.

Babe Ruth's record-breaking home runs make it to the front page of New York's Daily News, 1920 © Getty Images

But Grace was the representative (in fact, the beneficiary) of that change rather than the agent. Until the mid-19th century, British heroes had almost exclusively been soldiers, sailors or fighting men. The problem, if that is the right term, is that there were no longer any wars to fight. After the catastrophe of the Crimean War, Britain did not contest a major war for half a century. Martial "heroes" had no obvious career path open to them.

In the absence of real wars, Britain instead required metaphorical warriors. The concept of heroism needed to be recast for peaceful times. Britain already had an Empire, now it needed an emblematic standard bearer. He had to be a winner. WG fit the bill. Cricket, once an amusing gentlemanly diversion, was quickly reinvented as a legitimate expression of superiority, a means of flexing Britain's imperial muscles.

What luck! For WG, that is. If he had been born 20 years earlier, Grace's lack of social status and his preparedness to push the laws and conventions could easily have kept him outside the cricketing establishment. Instead, Grace ended up boasting a fan club that stretched from an American Civil War general and the Prince of Wales' mistress to the children who grabbed his coat tails in the streets.

The Babe reinvented baseball just as WG had recast cricket. In 1921, Ruth hit 59 home runs - 11 more than the next two best hitters combined. In his first season as a New York Yankee, crowd attendance doubled. With massive gate receipts, the Yankees built a new ground, twice as big as any other, literally "the House That Ruth Built". How big was Babe Ruth? "He was bigger than the President," declared the New York Times.

Tendulkar emerged at a time when India's economic boom made cricket an extremely marketable consumer product © Hindustan Times

While Ruth's excellence was all his own work, his celebrity was not. Sport was no longer merely local. The new railway network enabled players, fans and (just as importantly) the media to expand the game. In 1927, when Ruth broke his own home-run record, a baseball fan could purchase a ticket on 20,000 train services operated by 1085 different companies. If they weren't there in person, fans could, for the first time, listen to the game on the radio. As Bill Bryson points out in One Summer: America 1927, one-third of all the money America spent on furniture was spent on radios. New York was the new centre of the Anglophone world. America was where it was at - in sport, in everything. The phenomenon of the Babe not only embodied American's self-expression and confidence, it was created by it.

Something similar applies to the career of Tendulkar. It is often said that he had to handle the unique pressure of a billion fans. I argued along similar lines here.

That is why Virat Kolhi's comment, in the moment of World Cup triumph in 2011, seemed so apt: "He has carried the burden of our nation on his shoulders for the past 21 years. So it is time we carried him."

The burden, viewed differently, was really the engine. Tendulkar's career almost perfectly coincided with India's economic transformation. Just like the Babe and WG, had Tendulkar's life spanned a slightly different era, his performances may not have captured the same deep resonance. Only some great players become icons; the trick is in the timing, tapping into a collective and burgeoning yearning among followers.

The iconic sportsman surfs a breaking wave. The tide, however, is the force of history. We see the dazzling individual much more clearly than we do the swelling sea beneath. We imagine it is the hero who defines the follower. In fact, it is the fan, the democratic representative of the people, who makes the hero.

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**Two stories from cricket, one a team the other a man, stand counter to my thesis.

The dominance of Caribbean cricket is hard to explain using conventional historical tools. From the early 1980s to the 1990s, the West Indies - a tropical archipelago of tiny islands without any centralised control - never lost a Test series, a 15-year unbeaten streak unequalled in international sport. Barbados alone (population 270,000) would have beaten most international teams. Economic determinism falls quite a long way short of explaining that.

Rationality gets no closer to unravelling the secrets of the Don. Australia was already a great sporting nation by the time Bradman made his Test debut in 1928. But how can we explain a population of six million people producing a player whose achievements have not been equalled in 90 years, despite cricket's global talent base? Forget cricket. Bradman is sport's oddest outlier.

09:20:01 GMT, 6 October 2015: The last three paragraphs were inadvertently left out of the piece when it was first published, and added subsequently.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on October 15, 2015, 19:16 GMT

    WG embodied Britishness in the spirit of John Bull. The WG that everyone recognised and recognises is not the great athlete of his early days, but the arrogant, contemptuous and overweight cynic who put the bails back on because people had come to see him bat, not the other bloke bowl.

  • randolf on October 15, 2015, 19:10 GMT

    Ed, while your premise is quite correct in saying that it's the "time" in a sportsman career that helps to make him a special icon, it is quite clear that because of his "time", Sachin Tendulkar does not fit the bill to be included in the same class with the likes of Bradman, Grace, Sobers and a few more. Tendulkar's time had too many who were better than him. He was a traditionalist from no "extra-special" mould - I would not quarrel if you had mentioned the name of AB DeVilliers who revolutionised batting in a way that I've seen from no other batsman in my many years of watching the game! It's Indian godfathers aided and abetted by their friends in the press who definitely made too much out of Mr Tendulkar! Where is the press now for De Villiers? I notice that since Tendulkar's retirement, the lukewarm manner in which they deal with the right man, AB De Villiers who have made batting and cricket a much more special sport than what I read and saw in the 20th and 21st centuries to date

  • victoria on October 13, 2015, 21:20 GMT

    @JAY57870: Once again, I'm agreeing that Sachin Tendulkar is a sporting icon, but his icon-ship was facilitated by extraordinary godfather favouritsm and pampering. There were other Indians who were as good or better than him; but they were never given the same respect - hence, they never had the chance to achieve as much as he did. And my main point is that Tendulkar is not an icon in the class of Bradman, Sobers and few others. How can he be, when he spent 3 long consecutive years and 40 innings (half of Bradman's career) trying to score a single 100 to end his career looking good; but failed abysmally! Do you know how many 100s the incomparable Bradman would have scored in those 40 innings? I end by saying that Tendulkar was not that special to match the kind of hype that was heaped upon him. He is howeverr a sporting icon!

  • victoria on October 13, 2015, 8:34 GMT

    @JAY57870: Bear with me: I am not saying that Tendulkar is not an icon - nearly every international athlete who competed for a period of time (outstandingly or not) is a sporting icon. But all that I'm saying is that he doesn't belong to the same "SELF MADE" genus of icons as the likes of WG Grace, Sir Don, Gary Sobers and few more - these guys were simply incomparable - Tendulkar had too many EQUALS and SUPERIORS to be included in their class. Yes, he does have an illustrious-looking record, which was compiled as a result of him being favoured and pampered, maybe more than any other athlete who has ever trod this earth! In fact, he always had equals and superiors right in India, who could have achieved even more than he, if they were equally treated. He's the best example of a HAND-PICKED icon. I'm not into this 100 international CONSPIRACY - I told you why. But you must also tell the world that his record is ONLY DUE to him being ALLOWED approx. 50% more playing time than his rivals.

  • Jay on October 13, 2015, 1:59 GMT

    Reality check: Tests, ODIs & T20s are very much an integral part of the international cricket calendar. They have ICC rankings & stats for all 3 formats. The World Cup for ODIs & T20s. Sachin's international 100 tons is hailed as an epochal milestone by virtually every columnist, commentator & statistician worth his or her salt, including the Wisden Almanack! Reality check: It's a telling quote from Lady Bradman - that's been corroborated by Bradman himself in writing to reputed historian David Frith - that confirms they are much alike. Respect it: it's a real honest first-hand view from their vantage point. The naysayers are entitled to their opinions. To no avail. Sachin always let his bat do the talking. He has pushed the limits of human endurance - with his phenomenal Staying Power over 24 long years - through adversity & crises, pain & injury, slumps & fatigue, and media scrutiny & personal threats. Add to it: honesty, integrity & character. There's no doubt: "He is the One"!!

  • Jay on October 13, 2015, 1:51 GMT

    Check out the facts. The final international scorecard (Tests/ODIs/T20s) for Tendulkar versus his nearest cricket rival Ponting: Sachin's 34,357 runs & 100 centuries outstrip Ricky's by a staggering 6,874 runs & 29 tons. These huge gaps are equal or close to what the great Bradman achieved - 6,996 runs & 29 tons - in his entire Test career! TIME Magazine called it "Total dominance"! In its special 2012 report, it concluded that Sachin (at that time) led Ricky in centuries by a "margin wider (41%) than the gap between the two top scorers in other major sports." Its in-depth analysis compared America's top sports stars: football (Favre v Marino: touchdowns 21%), ice-hockey (Gretzky v Howe: goals 12%), basketball (Abdul-Jabbar v Malone: points 4%), baseball (Bonds v Aaron: home-runs 1%). TIME proclaimed "his ability to carry it for more than 22 years (then) while utterly dominating his sport makes a good case that Tendulkar is the world's greatest athlete"!!

  • victoria on October 12, 2015, 14:46 GMT

    Contd: @JAY57870: "...My [Bradman] philosophy was to try and score off every ball and to take the initiative and I feel Tendulkar does this"! You guys always amuse me with these quotes for the following reasons: (i) It is usually said that Bradman told "HIS WIFE" that Tendulkar reminds him (Bradman) of himself; so you all feel that is enough to equate Tendulkar with Bradman (lol)! When Viv Richards said that Virat Kohli reminds him (Viv) of himself, all Viv was talking about was Kohli's temperament - his eagerness to take the fight to the opposition and to win - of course, Viv was not saying that Kohli is anywhere close to his (Viv's) ability! If Bradman did really ever say that Tendulkar reminds him of himself, I'm sure that Bradman was only referring to "the manner in which Tendulkar walked to the wicket"! (ii) And JAY57870, Is it really true that the OVERLY METICULOUS Tendulkar tried "to score off every ball"? And, haven't you ever seen any batsman who tried to score off every ball?

  • victoria on October 12, 2015, 14:18 GMT

    "100 'international' tons"! The creation of this so called "100 international tons" record is yet another example of the point that I'm making about Tendulkar's hand-picked icon-ship - especially the way that it was done: the word INTERNATIONAL being sheepishly inserted to make it sound better than the tons of 100 tons that other players had scored before him. In fact, most fans didn't even know that many batsmen had each scored more than 100 tons before, and that "all of them could arguably be defined as international tons". Because, why is such great value given to the 5 tons that he scored against bowlers from Namibia and Kenya, where cricket is not being played, and trivialise the equal or more important tons that a player like Boycott scored against the likes of Lilee, Holding or Imran Khan in those SERIOUS county encounters? I'm putting it to all and sundry that those county tons were scored in much more serious cricket than any of the 5 he scored against the likes of Namibia.