September 1, 2002

A singular icon

Like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Sachin Tendulkar dominates his sport comprehensively, but unlike them he is the sole focus of an entire nation and its quest for identity

Of all the emotions evoked by spectator sport, there is one that, for me, supersedes all others. Aware as I have been from an early age that my own sporting prowess was negligible, I have often been touched, when gazing at top-flight competitors, by a sensation of awe. There is so much they do with ease that the rest of us can never hope to accomplish even with the most prolonged, dedicated and scientific preparation.

But the great thing here is that this awe does not leave us feeling belittled or inadequate. On the contrary, the wonder and marvel at what one of our fellow human beings can do is life-enhancing: the intricate coordination of mind and matter, strength and speed, the welding together of eyes, feet and hands in the heat of the moment, all driven by a single competitive purpose, yet somehow making a thing of beauty beyond that single purpose. At their best, great sporting geniuses challenge and extend our notion of what is humanly possible. Normally when this happens outside the sporting realm, it is experienced as disturbing or threatening, but somehow, within that redemptively trivial domain, it is irresistibly seductive.

So thank you, Sachin Tendulkar, for giving me as many of those delicious awe-filled moments as any sporting genius of my time. Tendulkar is one of that narrow stratum of elite sports stars whom people will clamour and even make great sacrifices to watch, regardless of their national identity. If you care for cricket, you must love Sachin (and yes, that feeling can be found across Pakistan as well). In this regard, his peers are few - and mostly found in other sports, and certainly in other lands.

Like Tendulkar, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods dominate their chosen sports both statistically and stylistically, and like Tendulkar they are a source of joy to fans of every stripe. From an early age, all three have been compelled to cultivate their extraordinary gifts in the spotlight of a powerful and ubiquitous mass media, in an industry whose commercial, cultural and political importance has swollen to outrageous dimensions in the last two decades. Of course, Don Bradman or George Best had their difficulties with the press, and sport has never been a stranger to big business. But in recent times, economic and technological changes have transformed the scale and nature of these pressures. The social context in which the likes of Tendulkar, Jordan or Woods have explored their inner potentialities has altered profoundly.

To achieve greatness in sport has always required exceptional powers of concentration. That is truer now than ever. Can we be sure that the geniuses of the past would have been able to sustain their best form in the relentless glare of today's global celebrity culture? Or that they would have succeeded in negotiating the numerous pitfalls accompanying a degree of wealth and renown previously undreamed of?

Today, Tendulkar, Woods and Jordan are all hugely profitable brand-names - and it is not always easy to reconcile the demands of being a walking corporate logo with those of being a fallible, needy, ordinarily inconsistent human being. No doubt, all three have had to pay a high personal price for their exorbitant rewards. In this regard, they serve as apt reflectors of their era - its exaltation of individual success (even in team games), its neurotic fear of personal failure, and its fond embrace of an ethic of single-minded self-improvement. "Just do it" is the message these icons are used to pumping out to the rest of us - the vast majority of whom, I'm afraid, simply cannot do "it".

Compared to the riches reaped by Jordan and Woods, Tendulkar's stash seems modest, though in India, or indeed in global cricket, it represents something of a breakthrough. All three have proved adroit in handling their financial success, cautious and canny in dealing with the powers-that-be, circumspect, dignified but also accessible to the media. Significantly, all three are studiously neutral when it comes to political controversy of any kind. None, however, can escape the tangle of contradictory meanings woven around the deities of modern sport.

Tendulkar is one of that narrow stratum of elite sports stars whom people will clamour and even make great sacrifices to watch, regardless of their national identity. If you care for cricket, you must love Sachin (and yes, that feeling can be found across Pakistan as well)

As an African-American basketball player, Jordan embodies one of the most familiar of sports stereotypes. But as an African-American multi-millionaire, Jordan is also one of the least representative of celebrities, as far away from his community of origin as it is possible to get. Yet it is precisely because of his anomalous social status that he has become - in the age of neo-liberal triumphalism - a powerfully symbolic figure. Thanks to his association with multinational footwear giant Nike, Jordan is recognised in countries that can barely distinguish basketball from kabaddi as a symbol of individual success in a deregulated, global marketplace.

Woods carries a similar cachet, but with the crucial difference that he does so in a sport in which the great players were previously all white. Busting golf's racial straitjacket has proved a tricky operation. Woods self-consciously defines his ethnicity as a rainbow amalgam of African, Thai, Native American and white. That is undoubtedly an honest self-description from a thoughtful person; but as it happens, it also eases his passage into a particular north American sporting culture where being "black" is decidedly a disadvantage.

African-American sport celebrities have for many generations carried a complex burden of representation - expected to symbolise both the homogenised American mainstream and the distinctive African-American nation-within-a-nation. In earlier eras, individuals as diverse as Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph and Arthur Ashe all found their careers profoundly shaped by American racism and the struggle against it. Thanks not least to their efforts, black sports stars of more recent vintage have reaped hitherto unimaginable rewards for their talents. They have also continued to face the challenges of an enduring racial divide, though in subtler forms than in the past. Jordan and Woods are both global icons, but the connotations of their icons vary both between the USA and the larger world, and within the colour-conscious USA itself.

Some of what makes all three of these living Olympians distinctive is revealed by a comparison with another contemporary sporting hero, David Beckham, England's innovatively coiffed football captain. Without for a moment underestimating the Indian media's appetite for sensationalism, it can be safely said that Britain's tabloid celebrity culture has a peculiar brutality and coarseness, one mirrored sometimes by its football crowds. Neither Tendulkar, Jordan nor Woods has ever had to endure the kind of mega-decibel sexual and scatological abuse hurled at Beckham by thousands of English football fans. (You have to remember that within the breast of the average English football fan, hatred of Manchester United rivals support for the national team). Then again, none of the aforementioned triumvirs has married a high-profile pop star or posed as a fashion icon. It's probably unfair on Beckham, but there are times when he does seem an apt symbol of Tony Blair's brain-dead Britain, or at least of its febrile, philistine cult of the rich and famous.

Though he is as much a household name as the others, Beckham does not, and would never claim to, dominate his sport as they have dominated theirs. He has always been more fallible, and therefore perhaps more human and approachable. And while there is no doubt that Jordan, Woods and Tendulkar will be remembered as the defining performers of their eras, it is not at all clear how history will end up viewing Beckham.

Nonetheless, like Jordan and Woods, Beckham is now something of a multinational enterprise, a globally recognised brand name. He endorses products in Singapore, Malaysia and Eastern Europe. In this respect, it is Tendulkar who is the exception. As a saleable icon, he remains confined to his national market and its diasporic extensions. No one in North America, continental Europe or East Asia is going to pay good money to put his name on a pair of trainers or sunglasses. Even within the cricket world, companies sponsor him specifically because they seek access to the South Asian, and in particular the Indian market.

Of course, in itself, that's no mean demographic. But Tendulkar's uniqueness resides in his peculiar importance within that vast market. Jordan, Woods and Beckham may cross more boundaries, but nowhere do their performances carry the weight of expectation that Tendulkar's carry in India (and among the Indian diaspora). Nowhere are they the focus of the kind of fervour that greets Tendulkar when he strides to the crease at Wankhede, Eden Gardens, or the Chidambaram stadium. It has been argued that Tendulkar is the beneficiary and victim of a specifically Indian culture of hero-worship, but in my view this theory severs Tendulkar from his times, and therefore obscures his significance.

Tendulkar has flourished during a long drought for Indian cricket. In a team that has persistently under-achieved, especially away from home, he has had to shoulder an enormous burden. Often it seemed left to Tendulkar alone to salvage national pride. Somehow he has risen above the scandals and the corruption and the incompetence swirling around him. In a demanding context, he has conducted himself with probity and dignity.

It's the image that Jordan and Woods aspire to, and which they work carefully to craft, but one wonders how successful they would have been if they found themselves in Tendulkar's shoes. After all, if Woods or Jordan or Beckham fail, sports fans in the USA or even in Britain have a variety of other world-beaters to whom to switch their emotional affiliation. When Tendulkar stumbles, Indian sports fans find the cupboard nearly bare (which is not to deny the excellence of other Indian sports performers, but merely to note the over-riding and disproportionate importance of cricket in India in comparison with other sports).

Nevertheless the intensity of the Tendulkar cult in India is about much more than just cricket. Unwittingly and unwillingly, he has found himself at the epicentre of a rapidly evolving popular culture shaped by the intertwined growth of a consumerist middle class and an increasingly aggressive form of national identity. National aspirations and national frustrations are poured by millions into his every performance. It's a tribute to his strength of personality that he has not burst apart under the pressure.

As the inheritor of the classical tradition of Mumbai batsmanship, Tendulkar has seamlessly blended power and grace, efficiency and elegance, conscientious craftsmanship and quicksilver improvisation. He is the greatest run-maker the one-day format has yet produced, as well as a complete master of the long-established disciplines of Test-match batting. More importantly, he stands at the intersection of the two forms of the game; through him we have seen one enrich and extend the other. He is a modern man playing a modern game in a modern style in the modern world - and that's what makes him of supreme importance to his fellow Indians. He's a homegrown genius excelling in a global game, a world-beater bred in the heart of Mumbai's status-hungry middle class.

During this summer's football World Cup, there was much talk in Britain about the immense burden of expectation that Beckham carried whenever he stepped forward to take a penalty for England. As I tried to point out to football's somewhat parochial devotees, Beckham's World Cup burden was as nothing compared to the weight Tendulkar has carried throughout his career. I also tried to indicate that this weight was more than just a question of numbers. Yes, Tendulkar belongs with the Jordans, the Woods and the Beckhams as a high-value icon of personal success in a globalised economy. But his specific historical significance resides in his relationship to India and in India's relationship to the world.

In a sense, for non-Indians like myself, the joy of Tendulkar comes unadulterated. The awe he inspires belongs to no culture, carries no nationalist overtones, and is at once both intimately personal and transparently universal.

Mike Marqusee is the author of Anyone But England and War Minus the Shooting among other books
This article was first published in the September 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket