An Australian sort of hero
From the beginning, the relationship was about something bigger than admiration and affection. When Sachin Tendulkar set foot in Australia he brought with him rain.
Lismore, a place of board shorts and stubby coolers, on the far north hippie trail of New South Wales, was the strange location for Tendulkar's maiden first-class innings in Australia. Lismore hadn't seen rain - the kind of rain that wet your shirt - in months. The Indians arrived on a Friday, November 1991, and all that morning it poured, drowning out the net session they'd scheduled. They moved indoors and it poured some more.
Local politician Reg Baxter used a homemade super-sopper to get play started. Conditions were grey overhead and green underfoot, which made predicting the ball's flight path tricky. The bowling was top-shelf - Whitney, Lawson, Holdsworth, Matthews, Waugh, Waugh - and the batting a little gormless, all except for the one who was 18. Under the Oakes Oval pines he took careful guard, his head still, his footsteps like tiny, precise pinpricks, going backwards mostly, unless the bowler overpitched. Fifteen hundred people saw this, the great Alan Davidson among them. Davo was dumbfounded: "It's just not possible… such maturity."
Tendulkar hit 82 that afternoon, when no one else passed 24, then 59 out of 147 in the second innings. When Australians hear Indians grouch about their hero going missing in an emergency and having no appetite for a scrap, it always comes as a shock.
The Tendulkar Australians got to know, the one with the baby footsteps, had played cricket in six countries already. Still he looked like his team-mates' little brother. He ran faster than them all, a gammy-legged bunch, and as he ran, his eyes would be wide and round, and darting, as if alert to the danger that his team-mates' barely muzzled huffiness might distract him from important things. And what was important to Tendulkar - and here Australians saw in him something rare and precious, a single-mindedness they fancied they recognised in themselves - was run-getting.
Every bolt and screw in the Tendulkar technique seemed put there to aid the getting of runs. Tendulkar was a run-getting machine, except no machine could also be so graceful - or instinctive, for that's what it was, instinct, which told him that the way to bat was to attack. He didn't learn this. He knew it, inside himself. Runs were what counted. So nothing outlandish would be tried for the sake of outlandishness. Those footsteps were only as big as they had to be, for footwork was simply the thing that moved your body from its starting position to its ideal hitting position. Once you got there, you kept out the good ones and hit the loose ones hard. And when you hit hard, you did so along the ground - because you cannot get caught and get runs.
This is the way of Bradman, the way of Hill, Trumper, Harvey, the Chappells and the rest. Give him a pair of bushy mutton chops and paint a weathered furrow or two on his brow, and Tendulkar could pose for the cover of How to Play Cricket Australian Style.
Tacky facial add-ons, or some bleach-blond spikes, say, have never been Tendulkar's go, and Australians like that about him too. Australia takes its cricket seriously. Your after hours are for sombre reflection and practising your forward-defensive, not for phone-chasey with sheilas or motel-room hijinks in your Playboy undies. You occasionally hear it said wistfully that Tendulkar is the Australian Shane Warne could have been. It is a neat line but it undersells what they have in common. For if any two modern cricketers might be soul mates, it is Warne and Tendulkar, grandmasters of their arts. Bowling legspin comes as naturally to Warne as batting does to Tendulkar, which is to say, as naturally as the rest of us find breathing.
Two sublime Tendulkar hundreds lit up his first trip: one, in Sydney, as serene as a stroll through rhododendrons; the other, in Perth, more pugnacious, less repeatable. He didn't tour Australia again for eight years. But he visited. He went, with Warne, the two of them in beige suits, to see Sir Donald on his 90th birthday. Tendulkar got as excited as any Australian boy - "I consider myself one of the luckiest guys on earth" - and he asked Bradman the questions any Australian boy would ask, stuff about his stance and his grip and his bats.
When next he came to play cricket he was captain of India, and perhaps that did distract him from the really important things. But it lost him no admirers. Asked his views on sledging, he replied: "One should expect that at this level. You are playing Test cricket, not club cricket."
Always when he went to the wicket, Tendulkar's was the scalp on which the afternoon's destiny hung. Fieldsmen dived further, getting hands to quarter-chances that would normally have eluded fingertips. Umpires concentrated harder - too hard probably, if you tally up the bat-pad rulings that never got a feather, the creative licence applied to some leg-before-wicket interpretations. One never-to-be-forgotten day in Adelaide, Tendulkar was adjudged shoulder-before-wicket. "You almost want him to get a few runs," Mark Waugh once remarked, "just to see him." Odd how a cricketer so Australian as Tendulkar could provoke such un-Australian sentimentality.
He has toured Australia on four occasions, as many times as Bradman toured England. Like Bradman, he has never gone home without a Test hundred to his name.
One particular hundred - Sydney, 2003-04 - might outlive the others. When someone bats for 613 minutes, strung across three sweltering January days, the mind can wander, and as Tendulkar trudged on, making do without the cover drive, for it had caused his downfall too many times already, this mind wandered to Leichhardt and Giles and the famous explorers, who made do without company, without water, surviving on single-mindedness and instinct. He could do things to your imagination, this boy who knew how to make it rain.
Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009