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Tribute

The stranger we kept calling by his first name

He was, for most of us, not just a cricketing idol but a member of our family - one we could turn to for hope and comfort

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
24-Apr-2023
Sachin Tendulkar: could score runs and make things less awkward for you  •  Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Sachin Tendulkar: could score runs and make things less awkward for you  •  Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

There is an essential component to fake news. The consumer has to want to believe it. So it needs to be something seductive. Something evocative. Something that feeds into the popular belief.
When Barack Obama was the US president, a quote was once ascribed to him, where he wanted to understand why his country's GDP went down every time Sachin Tendulkar went out to bat. (Presumably because all the Indian Americans were too busy watching cricket to be productive at work.)
There is nothing in the public record to substantiate a single word of this. Yet it caught on like a college nickname. Doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense, it's out there now and everybody else likes it.
Somewhere in the meme-ification of this story is the truth of what one man meant to more than a billion people. We didn't stop at any of the red flags. We saw a world leader known for being thoughtful and genuine praising our childhood hero and we wanted it to be true because it made us feel good.
Sachin just made us feel good.
It's his birthday today. His 50th. And there is a thing he used to do whenever he reached that milestone on the field. He'd tilt his head to one side, raise his bat but not all the way up, just sort of shoulder-height, with the face tilted down. And if the sun caught him at the right angle, the shadow from the visor of his helmet would hide his eyes, giving off major boss vibes.
It has been ten years since he retired, but the biggest batting records continue to bear his name. Most runs. Most hundreds. Most fifties. Some of those records might stand all the way until the end of time. And some of them are only under threat because, a) his successor is also ridiculously prolific, and b) the white ball don't reverse-swing no more.
Statistics, though, are only tools. They can, at best, guide us when there is a choice to be made. The decision itself comes from a far more primal place.
Look and feel.
And Sachin offered up a ton of both. Straight drives with so little fuss it felt like the fulfilment of a pact. "Just be a good ball and go for four, okay?" Back-foot punches that combined the grace of a ballet dancer with the power of a heavyweight fighter. And those flicks. If they could talk, they'd be like, "Come on, man. Don't make it this easy." He was geometric perfection. But also a bit cheeky. Sometimes, when the required rate was getting to him, he would play a shot that didn't make sense even as it happened right before our eyes. An inside-out drive for six over cover to a ball pitching outside leg stump. That stuff was freestyle. That stuff was gangsta.
Plus, he went and did all this to the best of the best. Wasim Akram. Shane Warne. Courtney Walsh. Glenn McGrath. Muthiah Muralidaran. This five-foot nothing prodigy made world-beating his day job, and that at a time when Indians didn't fancy themselves capable of such audacity. This is how he made people who had no connection to him want good things for him. By that definition alone, he became like family. He became the stranger we kept calling by first name.
Legitimacy helped. Especially when it came from the greatest batter in history. "I've only seen Tendulkar on the television," Sir Don Bradman said, "And I was very, very struck by his technique and I asked my wife to come and have a look at him because I said, 'I never saw myself play but I feel that this fella is playing much the same as I used to play'."
Suddenly Sachin's greatness started to make sense. He got so good because he wanted to make everybody - including himself - happy
Legendary innings helped. Sharjah 1998. Chennai 1999. Centurion 2003. But really, the relationship between a player and a fan - more specifically between Sachin and his fans - was personal. Some 19-year-olds right now probably owe their very existence to that six he hit off Shoaib Akhtar.
I went to a house party in college. My crush was there. I was worried I'd spend the whole thing gawking at her and being weird. Fortunately the TV was showing a rerun of the CB Series final of 2008, allowing me to gawk at that and be weird in a less embarrassing way.
I have not seen peak Sachin first-hand. The Perth century. The Qadir takedown. The Desert Storm. My memories of him are all of the accumulator that he became later in his career. The artist who became a technician, culling all the risk out of his game in order to increase productivity. But there was still some magic left. Like Chennai 2008, where his only Test-match-winning century in a chase came just a few days after a terror attack on his city.
It was one of his more bespoke innings. He left nothing to chance. Not even the fate of his non-striker. For 42 overs, he was the voice inside Yuvraj Singh's head. And when it was done, he dedicated the win to the people of Mumbai and hoped it might in some small way ease their pain. Stone-cold precision born out of warmth, feeling and empathy. Suddenly Sachin's greatness started to make sense. He got so good because he wanted to make everybody - including himself - happy.
He has tried to do the same after the end of his career as well, but it has probably not had the same effect. Mindful of the way the Indian media functions, grabbing anything he says and turning it into a headline, he exercises an abundance of caution in all of his public appearances. He tries so hard not to say the wrong thing that he ends up barely saying anything.
We are pushing it, of course, asking a private citizen to be more vocal just because at one point he used to carry all of our hopes and dreams. And it feels very on brand that even on his birthday, we're the ones asking for presents. It was deeply unfair for us to burden him that way in the first place and it was remarkable that he was able to shoulder that weight for so long. Sachin doesn't belong to us anymore. He belongs to Anjali, Arjun and Sara now. And he's earned the break. Twenty-four years of being at our beck and call is enough. Probably.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo