Our tennis series has been interrupted. Only one man could have done it.
He was always Sachin. Not Dravid, Ganguly or Laxman, but Sachin. Though his teammates’ achievements were worth their weight in gold, Sachin produced a sense of unparalleled intimacy. Fans preferred to call him by his first name. He might as well be speeding away to a hundred at the MCG, yet he was close. Closer than you would imagine.
When he played and missed, you pleaded, “Yaar, aisa mat kar Sachin. Dhyaan se khel.” His failures may force you to chide him occasionally, but it would not affect your affection for him.
What made him different, though? After all, if India was 100 for four while chasing 270 on a fifth-day track, Sachin would not be the automatic choice to rescue the team. Those situations seemed to bring the best out of a Dravid or Laxman.
Yet, Sachin remained the undisputed darling of Indian fans. The star remained undimmed, largely due to two factors which illuminated his career.
Until the arrival of the other leading lights of Indian batting in the past decade or so, Sachin was the captain of a sinking ship. Yes, Mohammad Azharuddin was equally destructive at his best but those days arrived not as often as Sachin’s. Azharuddin finished his career with good but not great numbers (average- 45.03 in Tests, 36.92 in ODIs).
Sachin engineered acts of heroic failure, most notably his 136 against Pakistan in a Chennai Test in 1999. Suffering from a severe back pain, Sachin arrived to bat with India tottering at six for two in pursuit of 271. Dravid, Azharuddin and Sourav Ganguly soon left him alone to battle Saqlain Mushtaq in a tormenting form. However, the hero guided India from 82 for five—with Nayan Mongia proving an able ally—to 254 for six. Victory was nigh, but Sachin was caught at mid-off and the lower-order batsman were pliable enough to be dismissed quickly. India lost by 13 runs. The ship had sunk, but the captain remained afloat.
Sachin’s marvellous 169 in the first innings against South Africa at Cape Town two years earlier—Azharuddin scored 115 as the duo added 222 for the sixth-wicket after India was reduced to 58 for five—could not avoid a thumping 282-run loss either. Your heart went out to the team’s talisman. Years later, when India began to dominate world cricket, many claimed that Sachin had finally received the justice he deserved for all those years of excellence without results.
Considering Sachin’s record in Tests, it would seem rather daft to suggest that he wasn’t the best batsmen in this format for the last two decades. Yet, the excellence of Brian Lara ensured he was never “the greatest” but “one of the greatest Test batsmen” of his era.
But, the debate hardly ever began when it came to ODI cricket. Not only did Sachin establish never-to-be-bettered numbers in the shorter format, he regularly defined ODI batting. From the early 1990s when four runs per over was the norm to the current age, Sachin has undergone the various adaptation processes with an adeptness seldom seen.
His popularity among the Indian fans was augmented by the increasing popularity of ODI cricket. Sachin excelled in the favourite format of Indian fans. In contrast, Dravid’s style of play clearly suited Tests while Laxman never got to grips with the 50-over game. Virender Sehwag excelled in patches. Ganguly was the only one to come close to replicating Sachin’s consistency over a considerable period of time, but he failed to do so throughout his career.
Hence, the icon of Sachin thrived on its experiences with tragedy and the changing face of the sport. He was adept than most to modify his game in concurrence with cricket’s evolution, a hallmark of greatness in any sporting discipline. It’s tough to encapsulate such an illustrious career within an article. But, hopefully, this helps one to understand why the masses called him Sachin and not Tendulkar.