South Asia
BOOK REVIEW
The colossus of cricket
Sachin Tendulkar. Masterful, by Peter Murray and Ashish Shukla
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

"Sehwag used to imitate Sachin in front of a mirror ... he used to say that he will be Sachin one day."
- Virender Sehwag's mother

The visual and print media are hailing the new wonder kid of Indian cricket, Virender Sehwag, as the "Najafgarh Tendulkar", after the area in Delhi to which Sehwag belongs. To become a term of reference like this is a stupendous achievement for Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, whose mesmerizing batting feats, consistency and personal goodness have set new standards in the game of cricket and in the sports celebrity business. To call Tendulkar an icon is easily an understatement in cricket-crazed India, where his popularity and adulation outdoes the combined acclaim of all the film stars, politicians and holy men.

It is worth recalling that when Tendulkar debuted for India in 1989 as a callow 16-year-old, there was another term of reference for him, "Junior Gavaskar". I was a staunch Sunil Gavaskar fan at that time and thought it preposterous that a rookie in his first international season could begin to be compared to the legendary Gavaskar. I could not have been more wrong. In 13 years, Tendulkar has demolished more records and bowlers and won more hearts of cricket fans around the world than Gavaskar or any other cricketer in history, facts that propelled him recently to the cover of Time magazine. Sehwag may be explosive and imperious, but I am wagering that he will never quite be another Tendulkar, who is the legend of legends. Journalists Peter Murray and Ashish Shukla take a closer look at the making of this leviathan of cricket in a concise, glossy and highly readable biography.

Prodigy wrapped in values
Tendulkar was the third child of a middle class playwright father and an insurance agent mother, bouncing into the world on April 24, 1973. Growing up in the unsophisticated Bandra and Dadar localities of Mumbai, he imbibed the intensely moral and spiritual environment that his parents fostered at home. "An obsession with money or worldly matters was thumbed down. It was important that you were living every day of your life with grace and honor." (p.38)

Acknowledging that his inner calm and stoic nature were gifts of this ambience, Tendulkar would say later, "I think it was my background, the typical middle class virtues of an Indian home, which has shaped me as a person." He used to touch the feet of his parents before playing any match in Mumbai, a practice retained to this day after becoming an international celebrity. Money and fame took a backseat in the value system of the young Tendulkar, helping explain his current "karmic sadhu-like" detachment from the glamour and arc lights that surround him.

Faith also became central to his psyche from an early age. With typical self-effacement, he now claims that his talent and success are all because of Ganesh and Sai Baba, the two favorite deities he visits in temples of Mumbai by night to avoid shrieking fans and legions of autograph hunters.

According to Tendulkar's nanny, "When he was two-and-a-half years old, he insisted that I throw the ball at him. It was a plastic ball and he batted with a dhoka [washing stick]." (p.42) He clambered up mango trees, played hide-and-seek and local games like viti dandi and shigrupi with the neighborhood kids. He insisted on two plates for dinner, one for himself and the other for Ramesh, a childhood pal who was the son of the watchman and went on to become his secretary. Very soon though, his sporting interests began to crystallize around cricket. His mentor and elder brother, Ajit, took him to coach Ramakant Achrekar in Aagar Bazaar at the age of 10. He was "nervous as hell and couldn't do a thing right in the presence of his imposing coach". (p.1). At 11, he moved to his uncle's home near Shivaji Park to stay closer to Achrekar and his coaching classes, heralding the blossoming of a genius.

Achrekar believed in putting his wards through virtual match situations and made Tendulkar play as many as 13 matches in a single day, shifting him to the adjacent pitch as soon as he went out in one game. The coach would place a rupee coin on top of the stumps when Tendulkar batted, with the rule that the bowler who got him out would take it, and if no one could do so, then Sachin could keep the coin. Tendulkar recalls: "It was a big thing to get that coin for myself. I lost a couple of times but I have 13 coins with me. I didn't spend that money." (p.10) Under Achrekar's keen eye, Tendulkar turned cricket into religion: "My friends had music and films and I had cricket." Interestingly, the future batting wizard fancied himself as a fast bowler and even went to Australian Dennis Lillee's MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai for selection trials, only to be advised that he would be better off as a batsman.

During a school tournament in 1988, Tendulkar exploded on the scene in Mumbai with an unbeaten 664-run partnership with friend Vinod Kambli. Soon, past Test cricketers made appearances at venues where Tendulkar was playing to have a look at the precocious talent. India captain Dilip Vengsarkar invited the youngster to play in the nets of the national team in 1987 because "he appeared a genius to me at first sight. It was simply not possible for me to ignore him." (p.14) At 15, Tendulkar played first class cricket for Mumbai in the Ranji, Deodhar and Duleep trophies.

Raj Singh Dungarpur, high-profile head of the Indian Cricket Board, then gave Tendulkar the ultimate break, appreciating the sharp cricketing acumen with which someone so young could check his shots while driving to mid-off and mid-on so that he could pick up singles. A legal battle between senior Indian cricketers and the board in 1989 over unofficial tournaments allowed Dungarpur to name Tendulkar, at the age of 16 years and 205 days, to the national squad touring Pakistan. Tendulkar's contract with the board was signed by his father due to his legal status as a minor who did not even have the right to a driving license!

Although tense and overawed at all the famous names playing with and against him, Tendulkar felt "I was too young at 16 to be frightened by anything". (p.26) His first innings fetched only 15 runs in Karachi as he instantly realized how quality cricket at the highest level differed from school or first class matches. He initially felt "out of depth" at that class of cricket, but soon notched up a half century in the second Test, surviving a barrage of verbal assaults and taunts by fiery fast bowler Wasim Akram. A star was born.

Test match mogul
With 30 Test centuries and 8,000-plus runs at a career average of 58, Tendulkar is today the nearest the cricketing world has seen to the great Australian, Donald Bradman. What set him apart from several other talented youngsters who shot to limelight in the early 1990s was intensity and run-hunger.

He still indulges in "mental rehearsal" against bowlers and the pitch and is unable to sleep on the eve of a Test match. "He wants to eliminate all possibility of failure, as if it would discredit him in his own eyes." (p.56) His first century, at Perth against Australia, came in 1992, an innings that would be hailed as one of the greatest ever seen Down Under. In three and a bit hours he hit 14 fours to the fence against such dreaded bowlers as Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes and Paul Reiffel, even as batting partners departed regularly at the other end. In days to come, the "lad with so few seasons behind him" was bruited as the "new Bradman", by none other than the Don himself.

Tendulkar's next epoch-making innings came at Edgbaston, against England in 1996, his ninth century at the age of 23, compelling many to call him the "most outstanding right-hander in the game". He got under the skin of the English attack, displaying supreme control, power and authority, bringing out to the open the frustration of England captain Michael Atherton. The authors, who witnessed that innings, say that it was "worth a memory of a lifetime" because "rarely does one see a domination so complete, an authority which mocks at any challenge". (p.72)

Appointed captain of India after the disastrous 1996 World Cup, Tendulkar was, however, checked in his relentless march to batting zenith by an annus horribilis. He did not bargain for "the dark, sulking disposition of Mohammad Azharuddin, who was smarting at the loss of captaincy", and also a slight decline in his own form, which critics attributed to the pressures of being skipper. In the second Test match against South Africa at Cape Town, Tendulkar partnered with Azhar for a memorable 222-run partnership that included an exciting duel with fast bowler Allan Donald. But it soon came home that series white washes in South Africa and the West Indies were partly the result of non-cooperation of Azhar and wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia.

Sacked as captain, Tendulkar underwent a renaissance in 1998, notching up mountains of runs. The home series against Mark Taylor's Australia saw him at his belligerent best, scoring 155 in the first Test (four sixes, 14 fours), and destroying the spin legerdemain of Shane Warne by repeatedly dancing down the track and hitting him against the turn. Shukla and Murray note how "inspired by the occasion and the stature of his opponents, Tendulkar took batting to a rarefied zone on that day". (p.85) Warne accepts that he still has nightmares about Tendulkar stepping out and hitting the ball over his head.

No account of Tendulkar's golden knocks, though, is complete without the Chennai Test against Pakistan in 1999, where India lost despite his heroic, injury-defying 136, built painstakingly during 405 minutes at the crease. Winning captain Wasim Akram stated at the presentation ceremony, "Today we saw one of the best innings I have ever seen played." The man of the match was lying on the physiotherapist's bench with severe back injury, shattered by the narrow defeat and facing an uncertain future with the fitness problem. Over the years, Tendulkar's trademark pulls and hooks off short balls placed unreasonable demands on his back, forcing him to miss a few series in the past three years and attracting speculation that, like West Indian Brian Lara, he was "past his prime".

Proving detractors wrong was an incidental hobby of the master, and soon enough he compiled a scintillating 155 against South Africa at Bloemfontein in 2001, putting ace bowlers Donald, Shaun Pollock and Nantie Hayward to sword. It was "a position of utter hopelessness transformed by the brilliance of a single individual". (p.97) Shukla and Murray published the book before the recent Headingly Test match against England where Tendulkar pulverized the home team with a magnificent 193, yet another special innings confirming his unparalleled skills and run-gathering power.

One day international blaster
The reason that Tendulkar is considered the most complete batsman ever is his awe-inspiring record in both Test and one day international cricket. With 32 centuries, more than 11,000 runs (average of 44) and 105 wickets in the shorter version of the game, Tendulkar has left his nearest competitors light years behind. In 1994, he pleaded to be given a chance to open the innings in a one day game at Auckland against New Zealand. Navjot Sidhu, the regular opener, luckily pulled out due to a neck strain and Tendulkar smashed 82 off 49 balls, captivating audiences with style and aggression. His 73 against archrivals Pakistan in Sharjah (1994) was long hailed for the fabulous battle with Akram's pace bowling.

In 1998, the "essential Tendulkar" who revels in tough conditions against big opponents, came down in a deluge to drown Australia, whom he single-handedly subdued on many occasions. At the Kochi one-dayer, he "bowled leg spin at the right-handers and off spin to the left-handers" and ended with figures of five wickets for 32 runs in 10 overs, flummoxing the Waugh brothers, Michael Bevan, Damien Martyn and others. In the last league match at Sharjah, his 143 from 131 balls (nine fours and 6sixsixes) was an onslaught the Australians never forgot, for as the humidity rose to unbearable heights, instead of getting tired, his forearm seemed to impart more swing and power. He bettered the performance with a dazzling 134 from 131 balls in the finals (12 fours, three sixes), an innings that evoked uncharacteristic admiration from Aussie skipper Steve Waugh: "There is no shame being beaten by such a great player." At the mini world cup in Dhaka, it was an encore against the baggy greens of Australia, with Tendulkar getting 141 in 127 balls (13 fours, three sixes) and then capturing four wickets as a bowler. Tendulkar's epic unbeaten 186 against New Zealand at Hyderabad (1999) was described by the press as "batting mayhem", another stroke-studded knock that is his career best.

Coping with fortune and demigod-hood
Companies such as Britannia, HomeTrade, Boost, MRF, Adidas, Visa, Pepsi and Fiat have signed endorsement contracts worth millions of dollars with Tendulkar, who is the richest cricketer on earth. They have ridden on his image and ever-surging popularity both in the Indian and world consumer markets by packaging him just the way he is in real life: modest, unassuming and moral. It is not just his exploits on the pitch but also his off-field demeanor, simplicity and humility that make him "cricket's most marketable commodity". (Mark Mascarenhas). To Deepak Jolly of Pepsi, he is a role model due to the dignity with which he has handled extraordinary success. His poor childhood nanny glows with pride how the darling of millions still stops the car and comes to visit her when he is around Bandra: "He places his hand over my head and pats my cheeks. He hasn't changed. He is still like my son." (p.44)

Shukla and Murray think that "Tendulkar fills a vacuum in a nation bereft of role models" and that he is a "unifying symbol" across the diversity of India. He will never be as rich as US basketball star Michael Jordan, and yet he escapes the censure which that legend faces about being too greedy and lacking social responsibility. In his quiet, unobtrusive way, Tendulkar assists programs to help Mumbai slum children and insists that his family never give any press interviews. On field, hardly anyone has detected contretemps by him, with the two ball tampering charges against him by umpire Mike Denness and bowler Abdur Razzaq not standing objective scrutiny. When present England captain Nasser Hussain sledged and abused Tendulkar in a recent Test series, the latter responded by praising Hussain as "a very fine captain, I think".

How many individuals have the honor of having biographies written about them when they are 29? How many sport stars can singularly lift a nation's mood? How many cricketers can dream of earning the ultimate eulogy, as from former South African cricket hero Barry Richards, that "for sheer entertainment, Sachin will keep cricket alive"?

Had the classic cricket writer, Neville Cardus, been alive, I wonder if he might have fumbled for apposite language to describe Tendulkar. We are fortunate to be living in his age and watching him live, for cricket will never be the same after he hangs up his bat. In the words of his Mumbai and India colleague, Ravi Shastri, "He is someone sent from up there to play cricket and go back." The day he goes back, cricket will be poorer.

Sachin Tendulkar. Masterful, by Peter Murray and Ashish Shukla, Murray Publishing, Adelaide, 2002. ISBN: 0-9580348-0-X. Price: US$19, 168 pages.

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Oct 5, 2002


 

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