Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tragedy and Tears || Gulu Ezekiel - 2

"It was my mother who prompted me to go and attend the nation's call"

The World Cup returned to England in 1999 after 16 years. It was in 1983 that the Indian team led by Kapil Dev stunned the world by lifting the Prudential World Cup.

The media and the advertising world's hype in India in the run up to world cricket's biggest event was simply mind-boggling. It seemed that every company worth its salt from televisions to soft drinks and everything else in between had spent their annual ad budgets in one massive splurge on cricket. The sum being tossed around was a staggering Rs 250 crores.

Expectations were sky-high and the whole atmosphere surrounding the Indians was one of hysteria and hype that inevitably got the better of reality and logic. This was not a great team and their recent performances at home and at Sharjah were pretty dismal.

The stars of 1983 who had never got the financial rewards which today's players were reaping also had their day in the sun once again. There were re-unions galore and even a match pitting the team of '83 against the team of '99 at Mumbai. Needless to say Sachin Tendulkar was the star with a century. That only confirmed what he said a few years earlier-that he took his batting seriously even in exhibition matches.

Once again Azharuddin lead the team as he had done in 1992 and 1996. There was no doubt in any cricket follower's mind though on whom the team's chances rested.

Tendulkar even made it to the cover of the May 17, 1999 edition of the American news magazine, Time (the Asian edition). Inside the players expected to dominate were profiled.

"The Bombay Bomber's blazing batting performances have earned him comparisons with Diego Maradona-it helps that they are both short, stocky and curly-haired. But unlike the Argentine ace, Tendulkar is a levelheaded, even bland professional who does all his hell-raising at the wicket.

He wields the heaviest bat in the game, both literally and figuratively and is a quick reader of bowlers and wicket conditions. Ask Shane Warne: regarded by most batsmen as unplayable, the leg spinner was brutalized by Tendulkar throughout the 1998 Australian tour of India. Later, Warne said he had nightmares about Tendulkar's flashing blade.

It's difficult to single out a standout Tendulkar performance, as there as so many-and so many to come. He already owns the record for most ODI centuries, and he has at least 10 years ahead of him. Gulp!"

India were in Group A with hosts England, Kenya, South Africa, holders Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

Group B consisted of Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, Pakistan, Scotland and Bangladesh.

The top three teams from each group would advance to the Super Six stage under a complex system of points and the top four would then go onto the semifinals.

India's opening match at Hove on May 15 was against South Africa, one of the favourites.

India started well after electing to bat first as Tendulkar and Ganguly (97) put on 67 runs. Tendulkar was caught behind off Lance Klusener for 28 just after striking a delightful cover driven boundary and the final total of 253 for five was a challenging one.

Openers Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs were both claimed by Srinath with the score at 22 before Jacques Kallis took over. When he was run out for 96, South Africa needed 27 from 26 balls. Klusener promptly struck his first three deliveries for four and his team were home by four wickets with 2.4 overs to spare.

This was a disappointing start to the Indian campaign. But then South Africa were undoubtedly one of the strongest teams in the tournament. The next match four days later at Leicester was against Zimbabwe and the Indian camp was confident it would earn its first points.

That was not to be. Not only did the African team stun India in a last over thriller, there was an even more shocking piece of news for the Indians the night before the game.

Sachin's father, Dr. Ramesh Tendulkar had died in Mumbai of a heart attack in his home in Bandra late on May 18 at the age of 66. He had been ailing for some time.

My first thought on hearing the news was an instinctive one that must have crossed the minds of millions of Indian cricket fans-would Sachin continue at the World Cup or return home? I immediately felt a pang of guilt and I am sure I was not alone in that either.

Sachin did indeed return to Mumbai to attend his father's funeral and miss the match against Zimbabwe.

He left in the early hours of May 19 with tears in his eyes. Few in the team were aware of this shattering blow. It was coach Anshuman Gaekwad who took the call from Mumbai at 10.30 p.m. local time and was asked to convey the tragic news to Sachin. But he did not have the heart to do so and requested Anjali to perform the difficult task. Both Anjali and daughter Sara were in London at the time. The three took the first available flight home from London early on the morning of the Zimbabwe match.

Ironically it was at Leicester (which has a large Indian population) where Dr. Tendulkar 10 years before had given a lecture on Marathi literature. He had retired six years earlier from Kirti College where he taught Marathi. He had also taught at Sidharth College.

Brothers Ajit and Nitin had been with the team at Hove. They were in Chicago when they received the news.

Even as the demoralised Indians were self-destructing against Zimbabwe, the talk on the street centred round the tragedy. It was as if the nation was in collective grieving for their favourite son.

The players had woken on the morning of May 19, stunned to hear the news and learn of their teammate's distress and departure.

Understandably, Gaekwad was in no mood to ask Sachin if and when he planned to return. There was no pressure from the Board either.

"I know how close he was to his father. We have to wait for the funeral before we can even think of asking him. I shall keep in touch with him", the coach told the reporters from India.

A minute's silence was observed before the match at the Grace Road ground. S. Ramesh had the unenviable task of being asked to replace Tendulkar at the top of the order and did a pretty competent job as he top scored with 55.

All through the flight from London to Mumbai, Sachin's mind was on the progress of his team. One of the flight pursers kept coming to him with the latest score.

"Through him I came to know that we lost closely. I was sorry I could not do anything under the circumstances."

Chasing Zimbabwe's 252 for 9, India who had been docked four overs for a slow over-rate by their old nemesis, match referee 'Cammie' Smith, lost by three runs with their last three wickets thrown away in the final over bowled by Henry Olongo.

Back in Mumbai, the funeral of Prof. Tendulkar was a family affair with just a few close friends (Vinod Kambli and Amol Muzumdar) and Mumbai cricket officials in attendance. The time had been brought forward to dawn to avoid the media scramble. A sign was put outside the family residence of Sahitya Sahawas requesting people not to pay their condolences.

Eldest son Nitin performed the last rites at the Shivaji Park electric crematorium in Central Mumbai. The mourners were personally thanked by Sachin who stood at the exit along with Ajit.

In a touching tribute under the headline: 'God rewarded Prof. Tendulkar' (The Times of India, May 28, 1999), Sunil Gavaskar wrote: "The late Ramesh Tendulkar did not watch too many of his son, Sachin's innings at a cricket ground. Even at home he used to watch the highlights rather that the live coverage on TV.

Now he would have seen how not only millions and millions of Indians but even the Gods stop everything to watch his son play. He now has a special place to see his youngest son go on to become the greatest batsman the world has ever seen."

Gavaskar recalled how Prof Tendulkar (when he was teaching at Sidharth College in the 60s and 70s) helped the cricketers of Bombay University. "He would take extra classes and tuition to these cricketers (who were playing in the inter-varsity Vizzy Trophy) to ensure that they were able to catch up with their studies and get through and not lose a year. So when young Tendulkar started to bat the way he does, plenty of people who knew about the senior Tendulkar's contribution were sure it was God's way of rewarding him with a son as talented as Sachin."

Prof. Tendulkar had last been seen in public with Sachin and Anjali at a cricket awards function in Mumbai a month before his passing.

A low-profile man, he stayed out of the spotlight even as he watched his son grow up to become a national icon.

Someone who knew Prof. Tendulkar for many decades was Atmaram 'Bapu' Bhende, the doyen of Marathi theatre. Mr. Bhende is married to my father's sister, Dr. Asha Bhende and I asked him to share with me his memories.

(In September 2001 when I met Ajit Tendulkar in Mumbai and told him of the relationship his reaction was: "Bapu? He is a great legend")

Mr. Bhende recalled in a letter sent to me in November, 2001 how he first met Ramesh Tendulkar when he invited him to attend a kavi sammelan (poets' meet) organised by the Indian National Theatre (of which he was Secretary of the Marathi section) in the mid-50s.

"I was charmed by his gentle, soft spoken and cordial manner. A true gentleman, ever ready to extend a helping hand to anyone who needed it. I was particularly impressed by his frank but without malice opinions of the work of other poets. I was particularly interested in bringing together budding poets with the specific intention of bringing them into the limelight. Ramesh Tendulkar was helpful in identifying such poets and contacting them…Those who knew Ramesh Tendulkar intimately, know that Sachin's modesty is a gift from his father."

"I met Ramesh quite accidentally just a few days before his untimely death. We were both invited to a suburban college literary function. The car organised by them first picked up Ramesh and then arrived at my residence. Ramesh rushed into my living room and we met like two long lost friends. Certainly, a moment to cherish. And remember, Ramesh had not changed-the same handsome face, winsome smile, the same warmth, the same genuine friendliness. The long years in between just melted away.

"One seldom comes across such a straightforward and unassuming person, who in reality had so much to boast of! His death was not only a great loss to his family and the Marathi literary world, but also to his large circle of friends, admirers and well wishers."

Since his death, his children have brought out his Marathi poems in book form. The eldest, Nitin's poetry writing was obviously inspired by his father.

The Indian World Cup campaign appeared to be heading for an early and inglorious end after two defeats in the first two matches.

In India there were strident calls for Azharuddin to be axed before the next game against Kenya on May 23. Passions were running high and the phone calls from viewers to the morning television show I was hosting were getting increasingly irate and abusive.

I realised just how ugly things were becoming when a furious fan at a petrol station near the studios accosted me. He was demanding to know why I was calling for the Indian captain to be retained. It was all getting out of control.

Back in Mumbai, Sachin had made the decision to fly back to England. It came as a huge relief no doubt for the team and its followers. For 24 hours after his father's funeral it seemed no one could talk of anything else.

At the Times of India office in the heart of New Delhi, traffic came to a standstill.

'Sachin flying back' was the headline on the giant electronic bulletin board. Buses and cars screeched to a halt, people stood and stared as if they could not believe their eyes. Salvation for the beleaguered Indians was on its way.

"It was my mother who prompted me to go and attend the nation's call. She said even my father would have liked me to go and do my duty," Tendulkar told reporters at Heathrow Airport on his arrival back in England the morning before the crucial game against Kenya. "I realise this match is important and we are keen to make a winning impression. We have to win all three matches and keep the hopes of our supporters high. It's not going to be easy to put behind the tragedy and concentrate on the job at hand."

Tendulkar added: "The entire country wanted me to play. The World Cup is very important to India. I therefore completed all formalities and took the first available flight to be here with the team.

Gaekwad marveled at Sachin's composure and said he had no words to describe his star player's gesture. "We will do everything to keep Sachin's mind occupied. In any case, he is a restless person."

"I thought he might make it for the match against Sri Lanka on May 26. Even in this hour of grief Sachin could not resist coming to the rescue of the team which, as has been proved, cannot do without this man."

Ten days into the World Cup and the first century had been recorded. That it was scored by a man who had attended his father's funeral just a few days earlier was a monumental tribute to the skills, the discipline and the mental strength of the world's best batsman.

India won by 94 runs to breath fresh life into her campaign to reach the next stage. A full house at Bristol (8,508) gave Tendulkar three standing ovations-first when he walked to the crease, then when he reached his 22nd century and finally when he walked off with fellow-centurion Rahul Dravid at the end of India's innings of 329 for two-Tendulkar on 140 and Dravid on 104. The stand of 237 unbroken in 29 overs was the highest ever in the World Cup (till India's next match against Sri Lanka).

This was his first ODI century that had not come as an opener. After his half-century against Zimbabwe it was decided to retain Ramesh as Ganguly's opening partner.

The first 50 came in 54 balls, the second took 30. A look heavenwards in silent tribute to his father marked the completion of the masterly century. "I just looked up. It's very difficult to explain what I felt." The last ball of the innings was flicked disdainfully over mid-wicket for six, just as Viv Richards had done in the 1979 World Cup final.

The century was dedicated to his father. Chocking with emotion at the post-match awards ceremony-even Tony Greig appeared overcome when interviewing him---he said he had been motivated by his mother's words when he reached Mumbai for the funeral.

"The first question my mother asked me was whey did I come back. She said even your father would have wanted you stay on. I had gone home because I was committed to my family. Similarly, I also have commitment towards my country and countrymen."

He admitted it had not been his best hundred. "But under the circumstances it was special."

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sent a congratulatory fax to the Man of the Match.

"Not only did you not let the deep personal loss caused by your father's sudden demise deter you but you actually used it as an inspiration to scale another summit in cricketing excellence. The whole of India is proud of you."

Less than three years later, another tragedy would cast its shadow across Tendulkar's life.

India duly won their next two matches against Sri Lanka and England to make it to the Super Six.

They were joined by Zimbabwe and South Africa from Group A and Australia, Pakistan and New Zealand from Group B.

Australia simply blew away India in the first of the match in the Super Stage game. The big breakthrough came when Glenn McGrath had Tendulkar caught behind for his fist duck in 22 innings with just one run on the board. His three previous innings against Australia had produced centuries.

Australia had piled up 282 for six. No team had scored 283 to win an ODI in England and now with his first four overs McGrath ensured it would not happen at The Oval either. India were staggering at 17 for four and were all out for 205.

India's chances of qualifying for the semifinals were now all but dead. But their next match against Pakistan took on an extra edge. The conflict in Kargil was still raging back home and the Old Trafford authorities were concerned over a flare-up between rival spectators.

It never happened and India won a tense match by 47 runs. It was the third time India and Pakistan had met in the World Cup and each time India had come out on top. Tendulkar was back in the opener's slot and blazed briefly for 45.

Despite the win, India were playing only for pride in their final match against New Zealand who had to win to reach the last four. That is just what they did.

Australia would go onto win the World Cup for the second time, beating Pakistan in a lop-sided final.

The Indian campaign had started and ended with a whimper. In between there were some wonderful moments, notably Tendulkar's century against Kenya and the victories over England and Pakistan. But overall their cricket was disappointing and lacked consistency, as always. All that pre-tournament hysteria rapidly fizzled out.

Tendulkar's form too was patchy. He had 253 runs at 42.17. But under the circumstances, it was a huge credit to him that he made it back at all after his father's loss.

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