Sachin Tendulkar may have inspired others to write poetry but he batted in robust prose. Not for him the tenderness and fragility of the poet, the excitement of a leaf fluttering in a gentle breeze. No. Tendulkar is about a plantation standing up to the typhoon, the skyscraper that stands tall, the cannon that booms. Solid. Robust. Focussed. The last word is the key. He loves the game deeply but without the eccentricities of the romantic. There is a match to be won at all times!
But Tendulkar too was a sapling once. And his brother Ajit sheltered him from the gale, kept him focussed. Sachin looked after his cricket, Ajit looked after Sachin. Twenty two years ago, I was asked by Sportsworld to do an article on this extraordinary schoolboy. It wasn’t Sachin I had to speak to, it was Ajit. When the time for the interview came, at Shivaji Park at Ramakant Achrekar’s net, Ajit was there with a cyclostyled copy of Sachin’s scores. And Achrekar admonished me for spoiling his child, for fear that Sachin will get distracted.
The interview was done, Sachin was neither overwhelmed nor garrulous, indeed he was so limited with his words that you had to hold on to every one of them, it was sent to Sportsworld in Calcutta by courier (or was it just put into a normal post box?) and then came a request for two photographs. Again it was Ajit who produced two. When I got the cheque, I noticed they had paid me an extra hundred rupees for the photographs. They weren’t mine but Sportsworld had a policy of paying for them and so I wrote out a cheque to Ajit for Rs. 100! It was acknowledged and accepted gratefully. We lived in different times then!
It was also my first realisation that young men in the public eye needed to be sheltered so they could focus on playing cricket; that they needed an elder brother, or an equivalent, to put a gentle hand on the shoulder and, occasionally, lay one the backside. A lot of other young men today see Tendulkar’s runs, eye his wealth, but their brattishness comes in the way of noticing his work ethic. For Tendulkar’s life is not the story of extraordinary ability but of an extraordinary work ethic.
Twelve years later, on a cold evening in Bristol, preparing for a World Cup game against Kenya the next day, I saw him in dark glasses fiddling around with his kit. Aimlessly, like he was searching for something to do. At most times he would be bounding around with energy, bowling off eighteen yards, taking catches, shouting thoughts to other batsmen. I approached him hesitantly, I couldn’t see his eyes because they were shrouded by these huge dark glasses, probably the only time they were used to cover rather than to adorn for he had just lost his father. I asked him if he would talk to us about coming back to play. He nodded his head and only briefly took those glasses off. His eyes were red and swollen, you could see he had been crying copiously. For the interview, he put them on and once the camera had stopped rolling, admitted he didn’t want to return, that his mind was all over the place, that he felt anchorless. It was the only time he didn’t want to play for India but he had been forced back by his family; aware that only cricket could help him overcome his grief. When he got a hundred the next day and looked heavenwards, some other eyes were moist. Even in his grief, there was resolve for he wanted that century. It might only have been Kenya but he was battling himself, not the bowlers.
Four years later, he agreed to do an interview for a series of programmes I was then doing. Our producer thought we would make it special and to our surprise, and joy, Amitabh Bachchan agreed to introduce the programme. In the first break, Sachin whispered, “that was a beautiful surprise.” Little did he know there was more to come. Sometime earlier he had told me he was a great fan of Mark Knopfler and we thought it would be great if we could get the great Dire Straits man to talk to us. “I’m recording all night but immediately after that, before I fall asleep,” he said and somehow we persuaded Sachin to do the programme in the afternoon rather than in the morning! And when the moment came, we patched the line on and when I said, “Hello Mark”, Sachin looked puzzled. A minute later his eyes lit up when he realised which Mark we had on the line. And then he was like a child, tongue-tied, fidgety, excited, much like most people are when they first meet him! Even the stars can get starry-eyed!
And there have been moments of surprising candour. When asked, as batsmen tend to be, which bowlers had troubled him the most, he smiled an almost embarrassed smile and said “you won’t believe this.” When probed he said “Pedro Collins and Hansie Cronje!” “In fact,” he said “I once told my partner ‘will you please take Hansie for me, I don’t mind playing Allan Donald’!”
Tendulkar’s batting has been much chronicled over the years, indeed I believe he has been the most analysed cricketer in the history of the game. Yet, he has found the urge, and indeed the solutions, to play on for twenty years. Now that is a landmark to be celebrated, not the many inconsequential others that we exploit for our own need. It has been fantastic having a ringside view of this journey, watching a cricketer, and a person, grow. But one thing hasn’t changed. He still approaches every game like a child would a bar of chocolate; feeling happy and fortunate.