Tyrant and technician, thug and sculptor, India's deliverance... Tendulkar at 30, 2003

Batting for a billion

Rohit Brijnath

Sachin Tendulkar: both tyrant and technician, batting with a thug's ferocity and a sculptor's finesse © Getty Images
Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is now 30, he has a wife and two children, his face is wreathed in a goatee and faintly lined by time and travel, but to the world, and to India in particular, he is still a boy wonder. Thirteen years and 105 Tests have passed since he first took guard at Karachi in November 1989, but the poet's son with the almost-falsetto voice and the supremely dignified manner continues to write an elegant, belligerent and unprecedented history. When he walks to the crease - one eye occasionally turning to the sun, one hand hitching up his box - it is cricket's equivalent of Michelangelo ascending a ladder towards the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He is short, 5ft 4in, and his stance is a study in stillness, his body finely balanced, his muscles relaxed. His mind has already mapped the geography of the field: as the ball is bowled, rarely does tension or indecision impede the instructions from brain to body. Only sometimes, so it seems, will he silently struggle within, caught between the responsi-bility he carries for his team and the force of his natural attacking instincts.

Then he plays. He is both tyrant and technician, batting with a thug's ferocity and a sculptor's finesse, though sometimes he fails to strike the necessary balance between the two. In his room, he occasionally takes one last look at his technique in front of the mirror; on the field, most days, we see that genius reflected.

He will uppercut the ball gleefully for six with muscle, and next ball, in a perfect marriage of feet and bat and judgment of length, slide it softly past the bowler for four. He will generously shoulder arms and allow the ball to pass him as if it is not worthy of being struck, then explode into a flurry of shot-making that has the scoreboard ticking over like a slot machine. In full cry, his bat looks wider than the laws allow, though he hardly needs its full extent: as Greg Chappell once put it, he would do well batting with a single stump, like Bradman in the backyard.

The crowd is a blur, the roar a hum, for he is too busy, as he said years ago, "reading the bowler's mind", or, better still, manufacturing shots that "compel the bowlers" to bowl where he wants them to. It is not so much that there are shots he does not have; it is merely that he has chosen not to play them.

Many things are unique to Tendulkar, and most of all the fact that the man has stayed faithful to the gifts he was given as a boy. Once, according to a possibly apocryphal story, a junior Indian team on tour was awakened by a thumping on the roof. On investigation, it was Tendulkar lost in some midnight practice.

Later, too, he took little for granted. When Shane Warne toured India, Tendulkar went into the nets, scuffed the pitch on the leg side and had a spinner pitch it there; before India toured Australia, Tendulkar had the seamers deliver the ball from closer to his end, artificially manufacturing the pace and bounce he expected to face. The net has remained his temple. Asked about this once, he was gently annoyed that people felt it all came so naturally to him, thus discounting how disciplined his journey had been: his gifts, he explained, were oiled with sweat.

He will never be the greatest batsman in history: that seat is taken. But as much as Donald Bradman's Test average (99.94) outstrips Tendulkar's (57.58), the gap diminishes substantially when other factors are taken into account. Tendulkar travels more in a year than Bradman did in a decade; he has had to manage the varying conditions of 49 Test grounds, to Bradman's ten; he has already played twice as many Tests as Bradman, and over 300 one-day games, nearly all of them under the unrelenting scrutiny of television. And whereas Bradman had to cope with the expectations of a small populace, not given to idolatry, in an age of restraint, Tendulkar must play god to one billion expectant worshippers.

Steve Waugh has said, "You take Bradman away and he is next up, I reckon," though those who swear by Vivian Richards are not completely convinced. Still, his peers - Brian Lara in particular - have been pushed aside by sheer weight of consistent numbers. Tendulkar has 32 Test centuries to Lara's 18; by the end of the World Cup, he had 34 one-day centuries, with his nearest rival his captain, Sourav Ganguly, on 22. But one statistic will please more than most. Starting when he was 20, in 1993, his Test averages for each calendar year read like this: 91.42 (8 Tests), 70 (7), 29 (3), 41.53 (8), 62.50 (12), 80.87 (5), 68 (10), 63.88 (6), 62.69 (10), 55.68 (16). The year when he averaged 29, he had only two completed innings. Otherwise, in the worst of years, his average is 41 - the usual benchmark of a very good player. This, better than anything, reflects the unwavering purity of his purpose.

He has not really known bad years, has never woken to a slump, though in the West Indies in 2002 he had successive Test scores of 0, 0, 8, 0, which - as if to prove the point - was enough to make eyebrows rise in astonishment. So true has his form been that it is easy to overlook the distinctive burdens he has carried. Wasim Akram once suggested that when Tendulkar is out, heads droop in the Indian dressing-room. Rarely has Tendulkar had the comfort of knowing that the men who follow him are as certain in rising to a challenge.

More demanding is his nation, for when Tendulkar plays, India stills, it quietens, till it is almost possible to hear a collective exhalation with every shot. In a land where governments stutter, the economy stagnates and life itself is an enduring struggle against failure, he is deliverance. For most of a billion people, unmoved by any other sport, he is escape as much as he is hope, standing like some solitary national advertisement of success. Tendulkar is not allowed to fail.

His genius has caged him, for he cannot walk any street without sparking a riot, nor sit unmolested in any restaurant. That he must indulge his passion for cars by driving through Mumbai's deserted streets in the hours before dawn points to the absurdity of his existence. It is easier written than lived. But he finds no refuge in rages or sulks; his serenity is startling for a man surrounded by an audience prostrated in hysterical worship. It points to a gift of temperament but also to his balance as a man. When a spectator invaded the field and escorted him off the ground at Lord's in 2002, he did not flinch or fuss, brandish his bat or bellow, but coolly walked on, the very picture of a warrior monk. Later, he said the fellow meant no harm.

It may well be that the sight of Glenn McGrath at the other end does not offer so much a threat as relief. If Tendulkar is India's escape, it may well be that the crease is his escape, the place where he finds his full expression. Only once, under persistent interrogation, did he admit: "People expect too much of me, a hundred every innings. They call and say, 'you scored a hundred in Kanpur, so why not in Delhi?'. They must accept my failures."

And there have been a few. His career has been marked by two curious blemishes. In 105 Tests, he has won only nine match awards, and although there are mitigating factors - India have mostly been abysmal abroad, as tradition dictates, and their spinners have claimed most of the honours at home - it is still an incongruously low number. It is linked to a more damning charge, that his batting, in contrast to Lara's, has wrought too few victories. It suggests that his beauty is often ineffectual, painting masterpieces in isolation, and that he is apt to leave more of a memory than an impact. Two matches are repeatedly cited as evidence: Barbados, March 1997, when he made four on a dicey wicket as India failed to chase 120 for a historic win; and Chennai, January 1999, when he made a stirring 136 against Pakistan, chasing 271, but then played a shot of poor discipline and fell with just 17 needed.

He has said, "I have been disappointed with myself... I have to learn to finish Tests," and it must eat at his stomach like an acid. This is the boy who, on his first tour of Pakistan, lost a set of tennis to Sanjay Manjrekar and then pleaded with him to play on to salvage his honour. He is a proud man, but too graceful also to state the obvious. Many of his 31 Test centuries have either set up wins or fended off defeat.

In March 1998, in Chennai, Australia were 71 ahead of India on first innings, and as Tendulkar explained then: "They had a lead and I said this will be the innings of a player's life. Because 75-plus by any player would be a big score in the second innings and would help us win the game."

In a quiet moment, the Indian coach, Anshuman Gaekwad, corralled Tendulkar and told him, "I want you to score." Tendulkar, who was still only 24, replied: "I will get it for you, don't worry." He scored 155 and India won the Test.

Still, if we are intent on nailing Tendulkar, then we must crucify his team as well. If he has failed us, they have failed him, specifically in their willingness to turn an ensemble piece into a one-man show. Perhaps we should acknowledge too that our own expectations distort the picture. To indict him for getting out for 136 against Pakistan is to disregard the fact that the rest of the team contributed 86 runs between them, and 52 of those came from Nayan Mongia. Similarly, if we are quick to remember Tendulkar's cheap dismissal in Barbados in the second innings, we are quicker to forget that, in a low-scoring match, he had already made a valiant 92.

He stands now, closer to the end of his career than the beginning, with 8,811 Test runs, sixth on the all-time list. The only current player ahead of him is Steve Waugh, who is nearing retirement. Barring catastrophe, Tendulkar will surpass Allan Border's 11,174 with some ease; Sunil Gavaskar's record 34 centuries will be outstripped as well. In the one-day game, Tendulkar already stands alone and untouchable at the summit - Border and Gavaskar rolled into one, with more than 12,000 runs, while nobody else has 10,000, and 34 centuries. He even has a hundred wickets.

In the Test arena, Bradman will never be equalled. In Tests and one-dayers together, the reality of international cricket today, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar will take some catching, too.

Rohit Brijnath, former sports editor of the India Today magazine, is now a freelance writer in Melbourne. He has interviewed Tendulkar several times.

© John Wisden & Co