Cricket in India has never been just a sport and its cricketers, at least the really good ones, are much more than mere sportsmen.
They have been the repositories of the nation’s dreams, ambitions and insecurities; mirrors of how we see, and would like to see, ourselves.
M.A.K. Pataudi was an exciting batsman and a tiger on the field. But we also admired him for his sophistication and his Balliol College breeding. He was our answer, in those days afflicted by a measure of cultural cringing and colonial inferiority, to the white man. Losing may have been a way of life in those days (today, our youth treat winning at cricket as some sort of generational birthright), but as his son Saif Ali Khan recently suggested, his presence comforted us, gave us a measure of confidence on the cricketfield.
But it was Gavaskar who showed us the empire could really strike back. He had the qualities that were absent in our cricket and possibly felt were lacking in the nation — patience, purpose, perseverance. I remember cricket commentators in those days repeating ad nauseam that here was a man who knew where his off-stump was. But I felt that they missed saying that he also knew where his head was; Gavaskar was the first Indian batsman I saw who was never intimidated by fast bowlers and bouncing tracks. He was also never swayed — at least not until his uncharacteristic flamboyance in the farewell series — to play to the gallery.
Kapil Dev, who shared an uneasy relationship with Gavaskar, was the antithesis in a way. He was schooled in anything but classicism, the rustic earthiness and spontaneity of his character reflecting in his flashing toothy grin and in his delightfully reflexive game in a most endearing way. Kapil was a symbol of the nation finally beginning to shake off its hang ups about a certain kind of western sophistication.
It is really hard to fit Sachin Tendulkar in this narrative about cricket in the context of the attitudes and the anxieties of the nation. You can do this for people who came after him. Sourav Ganguly’s edgy aggression, reminiscent of the finger-wagging Arjuna Ranatunga, reflected a nation that was growing in confidence and strength both on and off the field. Now, this has matured into a hip and breezy self-assurance under Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who may not lead the world’s best team but is fully aware that he is captain of the world’s only cricketing superpower.
Tendulkar’s style, and this is perhaps the true measure of his greatness, demanded we assess nothing but his cricket. Yes, it is routine to affix such descriptors as humble, gentlemanly, focused to his character but I suspect we never really knew him — or needed to know him — like we knew the others (or thought we did). Tendulkar, to use that dreary cliché, let his game speak for himself.
While batting, Tendulkar seemed to lose his personality to the game. He urges us to focus on the essentials — his exceptional sense of balance; the exacting economy of his movement; the uncanny way he is able to make even his free-spirited innovations appear breathtakingly classical and orthodox.
In this, and some other respects, he reminds me of another genius in another sport — Roger Federer. In an era where power matters more, arguably much more than it should, Tendulkar and Federer are reminders that this can be achieved by other means. Not by clump and thump, bash and bludgeon, but by the delicacy and precision of timing.
The sporting wisdom is that it is impossible to compare players of different generations. But Federer, who will probably retire shortly as well, and Tendulkar would have been great in any era of the game.Imagine a Rafael Nadal performing his laboured contortions with a wooden racquet. Or Virender Sehwag batting as freely or fearlessly as he did without a helmet.
There is a timelessness about the way Tendulkar and Federer play the game. It explains why they have lasted so long — yes, all right, a little longer than they should have. And it explains why we feel sport will be diminished by their absence.