Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sachin Tendulkar – Numero Uno

I have often wondered why Sachin Tendulkar attracted so much pontification. Why do the most reticent of men get drawn into animated discussions about issues concerning the little master? I myself have been part of numerous road side debates, dinner table discussions, rigorous statistical analysis, and never-ending argument sessions over the Internet dissecting his performances and trying to answer questions of paramount importance like, "Should he be opening the batting because he is best suited to play there, or chaperone a fledgling middle-order by playing lower down the order?” "Has captaincy affected his performance or is he just suffering because he is a great player in a mediocre team" or the eternal "Is he an all-time great, or is he merely a good player of his era?"

Even in a country besotted by cricket, it is perplexing that one single individual should be given so much attention. Even in the current Indian team that had quiet a few personalities, he was still the one batsman millions of fans identify with. Sehwag drew the crowds in and got the adrenalin flowing, Laxman brought a wristy elegance and a subtle grace to batsmanship, Dravid was the perfect blend of classicism of the past and professionalism of the modern, Ganguly chimed in with the passion and controversy, but if there is one person who embodied the heart and soul of Indian cricket, it was Sachin Tendulkar. A fan running out of a train after a 6-hour train journey to check the score of the latest ODI (we Indians tend to do that) would no doubt ask for the score, the context of the match, the batsmen playing right now, the required rate, the odds-of-winning etc. But more often than not, he will follow up with the one question that has been most asked by desperate Indian cricket fans - "How much did Sachin score".

For Indian fans, the match context is never really over until the postscript about Sachin's performance is added. Though the match context is the information we desperately seek, it is this sub-plot about Sachin that quenches our thirst for drama. He is the man that amplifies the vicissitudes of Indian performance. Every Indian victory is sweeter if Sachin had a hand to play, likewise every defeat harder to take when Sachin's efforts go in vain. Even in 2006, when there was a slow realisation that the master is perhaps past his prime and that Indian cricket is going to eventually move on from the "Sachin" era, the focus on his individual performance was enormous. He is Indian cricket's answer to Maradona.

What was it that made Sachin special? Perhaps it was the time of his entry into international cricket, arriving at a moment when the cricketing and media establishment of the nation realised that this near-religious zeal of Indian cricket fans can be monetized -- a realisation stemming from the enormous commercial success of the 1987 Reliance World Cup, and helped in no small measure by the entry of cable TV. Perhaps it was the bewitching combination of a precocious talent swathed in an endearingly humble personality. Or perhaps it was just the sheer drama of a 16-year old man-boy playing the fastest bowlers of the world and taking them on, something the Indian fans had not been accustomed to barring short glimpses during the chequered career of that old warrior, Mohinder Amarnath. Whatever the exact trigger was, Sachin Tendulkar captured the imagination of the entire nation very early in his career and suffice to say that he did not relinquish till his retirement.

His brutal assault of Abdul Qadir in his very first series, a back-to-the-walls innings in his first series against Wasim and Waqar, his first test century in England, his masterpiece at Perth all soon became stories told and retold. He was soon earmarked for greatness; whatever he did on the field seemed to exude confidence. Off the field, he was a huge commercial success. Across the nation, he appeared on Television ads, billboards, hoardings, chat shows, documentaries and what not. But, oddly enough, never suffered from the affliction called "over exposure" that affects the biggies of that "other" entertainment industry in India, Bollywood. People just lapped it up. He was everywhere, but not enough for people to say, "Oh, there he is again". He had become a consummate pro at advertising, but never ceased to have that innocent boyish look on screen. In short, India's first sporting Icon had been born and the nation loved him.

The on field presence of Sachin was due to the fact that he could enthrall laymen and critics alike. If the purists loved the bat arc of his straight drive, and the high elbow in his cover drive, his uninhibited stroke play and an innate desire to dominate bowling attacks made him a darling of the masses. He brought in skill and precision to his batsmanship without sacrificing his instinctive flair. He was calm and composed at the crease, yet there was an air of unpredictability about his batting. Whenever he had a role to play in the match there was an air of anticipation all around. The generous applause afforded by Indian crowds for the fall of the second Indian wicket was not mere appreciation; it was an act of reverence, an involuntary warming up of the crowd in expectation of what was to come. For a number of Indian spectators, the match really started only when India lost two wickets, and the master could come in and display his wares. The openers were merely there to set the stage - like the title song before the action begins.

There was a presence that the man exuded that made grown men suspend rationality temporarily. I have witnessed a few men wishing out aloud that the Indian openers would get out soon so that Sachin could come in. The rationale offered was "This is Sunday afternoon. We cannot watch the match if the openers play out the day" - only that when these people say, "match", they mean Sachin's batting.

It was this presence that to some of his die-hard fans symbolizes the very basis for watching sport- an active distraction from the drudgery of regular life, a few moments of magic and adrenalin that drowns out the monotony of routine. A presence that often transcends the match scenario or context, a presence that consigns the match status to being incidental, a mere prop to the stage on which the master performs. A presence that in some perverse way, would help the fan get solace - even rejoice, on occasions, from a Sachin half-century, even if India ended up losing the match. In as much that the result of the match did not matter so much to the Indian fan as Sachin's performance in the match, this could be called as cricketing Karma.

In many ways, this pre-eminence accorded to Sachin by dint of his precociousness is the principal bone of contention for his critics. To the critics, the subordination of the result of the match to the performance of one individual was a travesty. The critics could not take the fact that Sachin's performance superceded the match result, and more importantly that Sachin was absolved of all blame whenever the team sank to defeat. This elevation of Sachin to demi-god status seemingly shielded him from criticism, which further irked the critics who began laying in wait for every slip of the man where they could bring out the old knives.

The average fan's internal response India's defeats and average performances was to go into a state of denial and distract himself by way of celebrating Sachin's performance. Fans would talk about how Sachin batted admirably and did not receive any support, about how some shots were pure magic. Newspaper columnists would mention India's defeat in passing and dwell on Sachin's performance for pages. The critics, on the other hand, would insist on pointing out that the effort, though admirable, was in vain. To one, the batting was a celebration; to the other it was a pointless exercise, as it did not lead to victory. Reality, as in many such cases of debate, is, perhaps somewhere in the middle.

On occasions when there was a happy correlation between Sachin's and the team's performance - an event that has dotted his entire career if you listen to his fans, an event made remarkable only by its rarity if you listen to his critics - the entire nation was a happier place. The critics would convert for a day and write reams about the brilliance of the individual. The fans would thoroughly savour the moment and relish in pointing out that Sachin's performance was, in fact, crucial to the team's performance; the more pedantic among them would treasure the details to fight another statistical battle. Another day, another match, a Sachin failure and Indian defeat, and we were back to square one, with battle lines redrawn.

And herein lay the reason why the country discussed him so much, everyone aboard celebrated the victory, yet polarisation of opinion was never far away. When things went well, celebration centered around him, when things went badly debate surrounded him. Much like alcohol.

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