Sachin Tendulkar comes to the ground in headphones. He might make a racket in the privacy of the bus, who knows, but when he steps out he is behind headphones. Waiting to bat he is behind his helmet. The arena is swinging already to the chant, "Sachin, Sachin", the first long and pleading, the second urgent and demanding, but Tendulkar is oblivious, behind his helmet.
At the fall of the second wicket, that familiar traitorous roar goes round the stadium, at which point Tendulkar walks his slow walk out, golden in the sun, bat tucked under the elbow. The gloves he will only begin to wear when he approaches the infield, to busy himself against distraction from the opposition. Before Tendulkar has even taken guard, you know that his quest is equilibrium.
As he bats his effort is compared in real time with earlier ones. Tendulkar provides his own context. The conditions, the bowling attack, his tempo, his very vibe, is assessed against an innings played before. Today he reminds me of the time when … Why isn't he …. What's wrong with him!
If the strokes are flowing, spectators feel something beyond pleasure. They feel something like gratitude. The silence that greets his dismissal is about the loudest sound in sport. With Tendulkar the discussion is not how he got out, but why. Susceptible to left-arm spin? To the inswinger? To the big occasion? The issue is not about whether it was good or not, but where does it rank? A Tendulkar innings is never over when it is over. It is simply a basis for negotiation. He might be behind headphones or helmet, but outside people are talking, shouting, fighting, conceding, bargaining, waiting. He is a national habit.
But Tendulkar goes on. This is his achievement, to live the life of Tendulkar. To occupy the space where fame and accomplishment intersect, akin to the concentrated spot under a magnifying glass trained in the sun, and remain unburnt.
"Sachin is God" is the popular analogy. Yet god may smile as disease, fire, flood and Sreesanth visit the earth, and expect no fall in stock. For Tendulkar the margin for error is rather less. The late Naren Tamhane was merely setting out the expectation for a career when he remarked as selector, "Gentlemen, Tendulkar never fails." The question was whether to pick the boy to face Imran, Wasim, Waqar and Qadir in Pakistan. Tendulkar was then 16.
Sixteen and so ready that precocity is too mild a word. He made refinements, of course, but the marvel of Tendulkar is that he was a finished thing almost as soon as began playing.
The maidans of Bombay are dotted with tots six or seven years old turning out for their coaching classes. But till the age of 11, Tendulkar had not played with a cricket ball. It had been tennis- or rubber-ball games at Sahitya Sahwas, the writers' co-operative housing society where he grew up, the youngest of four cricket-mad siblings by a distance. The circumstances were helpful. In his colony friends he had playmates, and from his siblings, Ajit in particular, one above Sachin but older by 11 years, he had mentorship.
It was Ajit who took him to Ramakant Achrekar, and the venerable coach inquired if the boy was accustomed to playing with a "season ball" as it is known in India. The answer did not matter. Once he had a look at him, Achrekar slotted him at No. 4, a position he would occupy almost unbroken through his first-class career. In his first two matches under Achrekar Sir, he made zero and zero.
Memory obscures telling details in the dizzying rise thereafter. Everybody remembers the 326 not out in the 664-run gig with Kambli. Few remember the 346 not out in the following game, the trophy final. Everyone knows the centuries on debut in the Ranji Trophy and Irani Trophy at 15 and 16. Few know that he got them in the face of a collapse in the first instance and virtually out of partners in the second. Everyone knows his nose was bloodied by Waqar Younis in that first Test series, upon which he waved away assistance. Few remember that he struck the next ball for four.
This was Tendulkar five years after he'd first handled a cricket ball.
Genius, they say, is infinite patience. But it is first of all an intuitive grasp of something beyond the scope of will - or, for that matter, skill. In sportspersons it is a freakishness of the motor senses, even a kind of ESP.
Tendulkar's genius can be glimpsed without him actually holding a bat. Not Garry Sobers' equal with the ball, he is nevertheless possessed of a similar versatility. He swings it both ways, a talent that eludes several specialists. He not only rips big legbreaks but also lands his googlies right, a task beyond some wrist spinners. Naturally he also bowls offspin, usually to left-handers and sometimes during a spell of wrist spin. In the field he mans the slips as capably as he does deep third man, and does both in a single one-dayer. Playing table tennis he is ambidextrous. By all accounts he is a brilliant, if hair-raising, driver. He is a champion Snake player on the cellphone, according to Harbhajan Singh, whom he also taught a spin variation.
His batting is of a sophistication that defies generalisation. He can be destroyer or preserver. Observers have tried to graph these phases into a career progression. But it is ultimately a futile quest for Tendulkar's calibrations are too minute and too many to obey compartmentalisation. Given conditions, given his fitness, his state of mind, he might put away a certain shot altogether, and one thinks it is a part of his game that has died, till he pulls it out again when the time is right, sometimes years afterwards. Let alone a career, in the space of a single session he can, according to the state of the rough or the wind or the rhythm of a particular bowler, go from predatorial to dead bat or vice versa.
Nothing frustrates Indians as much as quiet periods from Tendulkar, and indeed often they are self-defeating. But outsiders have no access to his thoughts. However eccentric, they are based on a heightened cricket logic rather than mood. Moods are irrelevant to Tendulkar. Brian Lara or Mohammad Azharuddin might be stirred into artistic rage. Tendulkar is a servant of the game. He does not play out of indignation nor for indulgence. His aim is not domination but runs. It is the nature of his genius.
The genius still doesn't explain the cricket world's enchantment with Tendulkar. Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis are arguably not lesser cricketers than he, but have nothing like his following or presence. Among contemporaries only Shane Warne could draw an entire stadium's energy towards himself, but then Warne worked elaborately towards this end. Tendulkar on the pitch is as uncalculated as Warne was deliberate. Warne worked the moments before each delivery like an emcee at a title fight. Tendulkar goes through a series of ungainly nods and crotch adjustments. Batting, his movements are neither flamboyant nor languid; they are contained, efficient. Utility is his concern. Having hit the crispest shot between the fielders he can still be found scurrying down the wicket, just in case.
Likewise, outside the pitch nothing he does calls up attention. In this he is not unusual for the times. It has been, proved by exceptions of course, the era of the undemonstrative champion. Ali, Connors, McEnroe, Maradona have given way to Sampras, Woods, Zidane, Federer, who must contend with the madness of modern media and sanitisation of corporate obligation.
Maybe Tendulkar the superstar, like Tendulkar the cricketer, was formed at inception. Then, as now, he is darling. He wears the big McEnroe-inspired curls of his youth in a short crop, but still possesses the cherub's smile and twinkle. Perhaps uniquely, he is granted not the sportstar's indulgence of perma-adolescence but that of perma-childhood. A man-child on the field: maybe it is the dichotomy that is winning. The wonder is that in the years between he has done nothing to sully his innocence, nothing to deaden the impish joy, nothing to disrupt the infinite patience or damage the immaculate equilibrium through the riot of his life and career.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04