On Sachin Tendulkar and how he has mattered to India, and the writer, for 24 years

If Saleem Sinai was midnight’s child, I was Sachin’s. In November 1989, when Sachin took his first steps as a prodigy unleashed into the forbidding world of international Test cricket, I was five and developing my earliest memories — of cricket and of life. The memory of that Pakistan tour is primarily one of eagerly awaiting the outcome of a nerve-racking confrontation between Waqar Younis, also making his debut, and Tendulkar — a proxy war between India and Pakistan, then more equal nations. It was a genuine fight for one-upmanship and now seemingly trivial national pride. I don’t remember who came out on top though I cared terribly — watching highlights of Tendulkar’s batting and reading about it in the papers the next day made me proud that Sachin, a supremely talented and yet immensely hard-working 16-year-old belonging to India’s then not-upwardly mobile middle class, had marked his guard as the next big thing in world cricket. He epitomised the new India of the late 1980s — quietly coming of age in the world, swashbuckling on occasion, yet never veering from its fundamental attributes of civility, respect and humility.

In pure cricketing terms, Sachin was genius but never my favourite batsman at the time. As a regular at Eden Gardens, my idol was Mohammad Azharuddin. I can picture many a delightful flick of Azhar’s wrist that mesmerised me. Growing up, we stood by Azhar through thick and thin — when he went berserk during South Africa’s tour of India playing without a care in the world, and of course when he was indicted for match-fixing and subsequently banned by the BCCI.

And then there was Dada. He was our pride, our joy, the messiah who rose, despite the establishment’s best efforts to put him down, to world domination. At a time when Calcutta was losing its intellectual fervour and some of its sheen, the city and its people living off shreds of nostalgia, increasingly de-hyphenated from Delhi and Bombay, Ganguly gave us a new lease of life. Azhar and Dada were Maidan heroes — aesthetically pleasing, immensely talented, but above all, flawed human beings whom we related to. Sachin, in comparison, was too perfect. His stroke play was a thing of beauty; his commitment to the game, unquestioned. His love for the country was second-to-none, and his status as India’s finest ambassador on the world stage unparalleled. You loved him the way you loved a favourite stuffed toy — you knew it would be there whenever you looked to it.

Becoming human

Over time, however, Sachin, variously described as god, or an epithet analogously godlike, became increasingly human. I cried for him when he failed as captain, clearly unable to rally the troops, expecting levels of performance that only he had the talent to fulfil. I felt proud to be an Indian, when in the first of two blistering performances in Sharjah, having guided India into the final and severely cramping, Sachin got out and walked back to the pavilion with only two words on his lips to incoming batsman Hrishikesh Kanitkar, “match jita”; I cried for him again during the 1999 World Cup when he looked to the heavens after scoring a century against Kenya, days after his father had passed away; and when a hitherto obscure Zimbabwean left-arm spinner, Raymond Price, tormented him like no other bowler in recent memory, I no longer needed further proof of his mortality. Sachin was no longer a god whom I worshipped, a stuffed toy I loved. He was a mortal whom I raucously supported and sometimes cursed, who delivered and on occasion, disappointed, who was undoubtedly a genius, peerless but not perfect. And I loved him for that in a way I hadn’t loved him before.

And it was not just his mortality that hit home, it was the kind of mortality he exemplified. Sachin was the leading light of a team and a generation that defined India. Along with Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Kumble, Srinath and Prasad, he exemplified all the values that defined one as an Indian on the world stage — hardened competitors but never abrasive; primed to win, but not at any cost; civil, despite the heat of battle; understated as a principle but capable of self-assertion when necessary — an India that was aware of its strengths and equally importantly cognizant of its weaknesses, that knew its limitations and constantly strived for self-improvement. The cricket team was the perfect advertisement of a newly globalising India, coming into its own in the world, but on its own terms, happy to do it in its own time. Which is why for me the most memorable time in Indian cricket in the last two decades was neither the victory at the 2011 World Cup nor the Inaugural T20 World Cup win in 2007 — though both of these were stellar achievements. For me, it was the 2001-2004 period when India defeated Australia at home, reached the final of the 2003 World Cup, won away at Pakistan, England and Australia. It was a beautiful time for India, and its cricket team led the way, allowing its talents and, on an exceptional occasion, some half-naked shirt-waving on a Lords’ balcony to do the talking.

At Wankhede

Unfortunately, over time the jingoistic shirt-waving is no longer the exception but the rule; it has come to define India and its cricket. When Sachin exited the Wankhede Stadium after his knock of 74 for the last time as a batsman and Virat Kohli, walked in, the symbolism was obvious. Kohli, the new youth icon, like Sachin was in my growing up years, is supremely talented. But unlike Sachin, he lets the world know that. He abuses, irrespective of whether he is happy or sad, shows little respect for the opposition, wears his Indianness on his sleeve in a manner that suggests a woeful lack of understanding of what it means to be Indian. Or perhaps, a reflection of an understanding of what it means to be Indian today — the India that in its quest to be accepted as a superpower seems to have lost its own identity, that is assertive on the world stage but quick to play victim, where nationalism means scoring brownie points against external enemies, crassly announcing one’s presence on the world stage and expecting recognition at best, genuflection at worst. This is the India we live in, where the most popular leader advocates a muscle-flexing nationalism that is anathema to our Constitution and our ethos.

In an otherwise celebratory atmosphere, my views on India today feel much like Sachin’s presence in the current Indian team: anomalous. Sachin wasn’t ruthless, loud and assertive; on the contrary, he was subtle and understated, much like that beautiful straight drive, head over the ball, low backlift, minimal follow through and the sweet sound of ball striking the middle of his three-pound-heavy bat. There will surely be other straight drivers and other fine ambassadors of what it means to be Indian in the future. I’m just lucky that I was around when Sachin Tendulkar was, old enough to remember his debut, and now having experienced life enough to reflect on his retirement.

(Arghya Sengupta is research director and senior resident fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.)

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