Friday, November 20, 2009

The Sachin Experience By Nirmal Shekar

Some time in the future, neuroscientists will perhaps have the answer. But right now it is impossible to say why there are distinctly different kinds of emotional reactions among Indian cricket fans while watching a) Sachin Tendulkar and, b) Other players.

The effect produced by a Sachin masterpiece - such as the against-all-odds 175 against Australia at Hyderabad recently - appears to be unique.

This is equally true of a Sachin failure. He doesn't just botch paddle-scoops, he plunges an entire nation of a billion-plus people into a prolonged spell of mourning. As Roger Federer said of himself, Sachin has "created a monster."

Moulding our moods

It is almost as if, as a people, we believe that we are as successful or unsuccessful as Sachin is. We owe him our ecstasy; equally, he is the cause of our despair. It is quite possible that the maestro activates a reward/punishment system in the cricket fan's brain that might be inaccessible to the lesser mortals of Indian cricket.

If you believe that this is a lot of mumbo jumbo, then take time off from watching Sachin and, instead, watch people watch him on television or in the stands. It won't take long for you to see the truth.

To be sure, there is no reference here to a particular brand of atavistic frenzy that all of us are familiar with - situations where a fired-up Tendulkar was leading run-chases and Team India was flirting with greatness against Pakistan or Australia. We will take no notice of such evolutionary excess baggage. The visceral anxieties of emotionally immature sports fans are not worth our time.

Nationalism and sport make for an explosive mix. It didn't take Hitler and the Berlin Olympics (1936) to prove this; it goes back to the very beginnings of our shared group identities.

'Peak experience'

But persist and see farther when Sachin is on song and you will slowly see the difference. Study a fan's face carefully as she goes through something similar to what Abraham Maslow described as "peak experience," even as the master makes room for a leg glance with the exquisitely refined sense of balance befitting of a Baryshnikov; or composes a consummate cover drive that Walter Hammond might have approved of. What the face registers on those occasions is nothing quite like what it might when anyone else is in action.

Awe? Admiration? Reverence? Or, is it an almost indescribable feeling that you are in the midst of something that is truly transcendental?

Whatever it is, this much is certain. If you have gone through the experience, you would be able to recall it even many, many years later.

There is a simple reason for this. When you watch Sachin at his best, the ego dies. This is not said in a mystical sense. It is not the oneness-with-the-universe phenomenon that spiritual seekers crave. It is a very material thing. The beautiful simplicity of his batting makes for an experience that shatters your ego in a sudden explosion of humility.

"Hey, someone is actually doing this," you whisper to yourself, suddenly aware of your own smallness even as it hits you, yet again, that the feat is way beyond ordinary mortals. Watch Sachin when he bats as he did in Hyderabad and you will know all about this feeling as you are carried to hitherto untrodden peaks of sports-watching experience.

"We outgrow love like other things. And put it in the drawer," wrote the poet Emily Dickinson.

It has been impossible to outgrow Indian sport's most celebrated Boy Wonder. When it comes to Sachin, at no point in our lives have we been able to say, "Ah, I've been there. I've done that."

New vistas

He has made sure that there is always some place else to go to, there is always something new to experience vis-à-vis his batting. After two long decades marked by remarkable changes in the game, that sense of wonder - Wow, how does he do it? - has not taken leave of us.

When Sachin was packing his bags to go on his maiden overseas tour - surely, he didn't need to worry about a shaving kit - to Pakistan in 1989, the Berlin Wall was still in place; reports appearing in these pages were mostly being typed on manual typewriters; apartheid was still in force in South Africa; and Pete Sampras hadn't yet won his first Grand Slam title.

Through 20 glorious years - although some of them were not quite as glorious as others - as participants in one of the country's most popular cultural rituals, Tendulkar-watching, we have noticed that his genius has been malleable enough for each of us to try and shape it to fit our own fantasies, our own imagination. Of course, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge pointed out, there is a difference between the two.

Your Sachin is a slightly different athletic/aesthetic package from your neighbour'sand so it goes on and on. No matter all this, we are all agreed on one thing: Sachin's astonishing achievements have created a new national benchmark for excellence over the last 20 years.

Peter Pan of world cricket

In recent years, we have seen him struggle, we have seen him play and miss, we have seen him fail more often. But an ageing Sachin seems impossible to imagine, perhaps because the image would render futile our own longing for immortality. Wrinkles, grey hairs and all, he is still the golden boy we first got to know of all those years ago.

Children born when he made the first of his record 42 Test centuries - a brilliant, unbeaten 119 at Old Trafford in 1990 - are now old enough to cast their votes in an election. In the event, it is time to toast the old boy again.

The Sachin Experience - there is nothing quite like it in the history of Indian sport.

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