Blood on his face, a fresh-faced boy on the vicious pitches of Pakistan signalled his arrival with two squeaky words, ‘Main khelega’. He stood and he’s still standing. Tall. A paean to the man who epitomises national pride
My first encounter with Sachin Tendulkar was at the age of 11. The year: 1987. As a child growing up with cricket, it was inevitable that I’d be mourning Sunil Gavaskar’s leaving our cricketscape. Indian cricket, overnight, was in need of a saviour. Sure, Vengsarkar was in great form, Manjrekar had his sound technique and Azharuddin had magic wrists. But truth be told, none of them were in the league of the just retired Gavaskar. It was then in a Mumbai newspaper that I read about Tendulkar. A child prodigy, he was being touted as the next big thing in Indian cricket.
Then came his debut series in Pakistan. It was a terrifying thought to think how a boy of 16 would stand up to the likes of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and the express debutant Waqar Younis. My worst fears came true when in one of his very first Tests, in Sialkot, he was hit on the nose by a Waqar scorcher. Navjot Singh Sidhu, batting at the other end, recounted later: “My immediate reaction was he has to be rushed to hospital. I was about to run to the other end when I saw Sachin raise his hand. In his squeaky voice, he said, ‘Mein khelega’. He had blood all over his face but never once did he think of leaving the field.” These two simple words, “Mein khelega”, best sum up Tendulkar, who has always worn his nationalism on his sleeve. Watching Sachin continue to bat and then cream a four off the very second ball through cover, I realised we were finally seeing our saviour in action.
This realisation was firmed up when Tendulkar scored a match-saving hundred in England in 1990. In only his ninth Test match, he stood unbeaten on 119, an innings that successfully sent the cricket world a message—its next superstar was here.
But all these were trailers to the real movie: Australia, 1992. India reached Perth, down and out. The hallowed turf of the WACA, the Australian fortress which offered the bowlers pace and bounce and where Australian gladiators tested the world’s best. Only real men survived. Tendulkar, then 19, scripted a fantastic 114, a knock of incredible brilliance that made up for a tame Indian surrender. We finally had an answer to the Australian fast men: Tendulkar. His Perth hundred remains special to him and we have talked about it many times since. Even during India’s last tour Down Under, Sachin walked up to me at the WACA and asked if I could help him get a tape of that innings. He wanted to show it to his teammates to inspire them after the controversial loss at Sydney.
By the mid-1990s, Sachin had become my hero, a singular icon we could trust with all our lives. The best, however, was yet to come. It came when a desert storm stalled India’s run chase at Sharjah in a crunch game against Australia in the Coca Cola Cup in April 1998, an innings Mahendra Singh Dhoni considers his favourite. I remember the players lying on the ground with the storm blowing across the stadium. India’s chances of making the final were remote. But Tendulkar wasn’t done. Soon, an even fiercer storm hit the Australians. Not only did he propel India to the final but as an absolutely stunned Tony Greig said, he was also going for victory in a manner only he could. He did achieve the elusive triumph for India on his birthday a couple of days later, with a century that gave the legendary Shane Warne nightmares about Sachin. Then, once again, during Australia’s Test tour of India in 1998-1999, he destroyed Shane Warne.
But it was the 1999 World Cup that brought to light his unrivalled commitment to the nation. Forced to return home after his father’s demise, Tendulkar was back in action within days. His look up at the sky after completing that fantastic hundred against Kenya, a century he dedicated to his father, brought tears to the eyes of every Indian cricket fan. He had played out each word of what he says in the advertisement he does, “My name is Sachin Tendulkar and I play for India.”
Cut to the miracle tour of 2001. While we love to talk of Laxman’s 281 and Dravid’s 180 at Kolkata, it was Tendulkar’s five-over burst in the last session of play that complemented the very special Harbhajan Singh effort in bringing India victory. Of his three wickets, my favourite remains his dismissal of Warne with a googly Warne would have been proud of. In the last Test of the series, Tendulkar hit a masterly 126, setting up one of India’s best series victories of all time.
Some cynics continue to say Tendulkar is vulnerable in times of real pressure. Indian cricketers have hardly been under greater pressure than at Centurion in South Africa in the game against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup. Kargil was still fresh in our memory and the match epitomised what George Orwell called “war minus the shooting”. Chasing Pakistan’s respectable 273, Tendulkar was well and truly up against it. And in that one Shoaib Akhtar over, the second of India’s innings, he stamped his mark on the game. That famous six off Akhtar over thirdman has had entire TV programmes made on it. His 98 was an outpouring of Indian emotion, an innings of incomparable passion and intensity. Winning player of the tournament, Tendulkar was instrumental in leading India to its second ever World Cup final, a match that remains a sore memory for the legend. It is this missing piece of silverware that serves as injection day in and out, inspiring him to continue. Tendulkar, hands aloft at the Wankhede with the 2011 World Cup, a frame for which all Indian cricket fans will be keen to bet their all.
How best to sum up what Tendulkar means to us all? For many like me growing up in an India that was falling prey to turmoil and secessionist movements, he was a ray of hope, helping craft a national imaginary that looked solid and resolute. He was a sign of India’s resurgence, a quiet reassurance that things, if not alright yet, were certain to get better.
In the first Test played on Indian soil after the 26/11 attack, it was imperative that India played well to get the country back to a sense of normalcy. The English set a mammoth 387 to chase. Following up on a Sehwag blitzkrieg, Sachin was unbeaten on 103 when India chased down the highest ever fourth innings total on Indian soil. Facing the cameras on his way back to the dressing room, Sachin took only a second to dedicate the knock to the victims of 26/11.
As he celebrates his 20 years in international cricket, it needs to be put on record that Sachin is the only cricketer who, when he steps out to bat in Sydney, Barbados, Lahore, Cape Town or even Lord’s, gets the same standing ovation. The pressure he has played under places his acts on the same pedestal with Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the colour line in 1947 or Jesse Owens’ defying Hitler in 1936.
I have often been asked where I’d place Tendulkar in the world sporting pantheon. My answer is: at the very top. For a country with a sporting record such as ours, he has given us a dream and has helped us turn it into reality day in and day out, year after year. He, as Sourav Ganguly says, is “The King of Cricket”. But it’s time we go a step further and place Tendulkar on that unique pedestal that no Indian has ever aspired to, the one reserved for Owens, Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, Carl Lewis, Greg Louganis, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. He is India’s contribution to the history of world sport, a man who gave us recognition on the pitch for 20 long years and continues to do so in anything he does.
He is Sachin Tendulkar and he plays for India.