Sachin Tendulkar is not the first of India’s sporting heroes: there were several before him, and even some after 1989, the year he made his international debut.

Sachin Tendulkar is not the first of India’s sporting heroes: there were several before him, and even some after 1989, the year he made his international debut. That he became a nonpareil sporting icon is not only due to his feats on the cricket field, which were without doubt many, but also because of the times he lived in. Tendulkar’s rise as an unprecedented nationwide hero-phenomenon coincided with India’s growth into a major economy, a period when the country’s rapidly growing middle class followed the game on television and drew in advertisers and sponsors. The master-blaster gave ordinary Indians a chance to think of themselves as world-beaters, even if not in a truly global sport. For them, Tendulkar filled a void larger than the hole in the Indian team’s middle-order. For a generation starved of heroes, and short on confidence, he served as a source of inspiration and motivation. Even when Indian cricket got mired in charges of fixing and bribery, Tendulkar was left untouched. And in the eyes of his fans, he could do no wrong, whether on or off the field. The extraordinary outpouring of emotions at his farewell match on his home ground in Mumbai was thus not unexpected. Indian cricket is now on a high, and he might not leave as big a hole as the one he filled 24 years ago, but for India’s cricket fans the game would not be the same anymore.

Given his popularity and iconic status, the Central government obviously did not want to lose even a day in honouring him with the Bharat Ratna. For some years now, the cricketer’s fans in high places have been quite vocal in demanding a Bharat Ratna for him. Indeed, the rules governing eligibility for the highest civilian award were modified two years ago apparently to keep the doors open for Tendulkar to receive the honour on his retirement. As per the revised criteria, it can be awarded for exceptional performance in any field of human endeavour. After having nominated him to Parliament last year, there was little doubt that the Congress-led government would take the first opportunity to honour him. And that opportunity came the day the Mumbai Test, Tendulkar’s 200th, ended. To be conferred the award is one thing; to force a change in the eligibility criteria for the award is quite another. It was almost as if the award would lose some of its sheen if Tendulkar were not among the recipients. At 40, the cricket icon is the youngest ever to receive the award. Unlike many others who have received the honour in the last six decades, he did not have to wait for the award; the award waited for him. The honour was India’s, as much as Tendulkar’s.

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