Every time he came bat-in-hand, he needed to show his admirers he could do better what others could do well, and do well what others couldn’t do at all
As Bertolt Brecht would have said, unhappy is the team that is in need of a hero. But India’s cricket fans would not have wanted it any other way: Sachin Tendulkar, with a raised bat, alone amidst the ruins of a batting collapse. Even more than they want India to win, Indian fans yearn for a hero they can watch in awe.
Actually, Tendulkar is fortunate to have played a major part of his career alongside other cricketing greats such as Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, and Virender Sehwag. But, for his fans, he needed to stand tall among his peers; he needed to succeed where others failed.
And what if the others did not fail? When people talk of the weight of expectations on Tendulkar, of carrying the hopes of a billion people, they don’t speak of his having to bat under the pressures of a match situation. Whether he walks in at two down for zero, or two down for 200, Tendulkar does not have the luxury of playing a callous shot.
Every time he came bat-in-hand, he needed to score more than the others, to repeatedly show his admirers he could do better what others could do well, and do well what others couldn’t do at all. And often enough, he obliged his fans. With an economy of movement of the heavy bat, he seemed to be able to will the ball to the boundary.
For quite some time, Tendulkar was the tragic hero. After the heady days of the 1983 World Cup win, and the 1985 victory in the World championship, when he made his international debut in 1989, India was back where it seemed to belong: as close to the top as it was to the bottom. Not infrequently, his best performances were in drawn matches or in losing causes. In Cape Town in January 1997, his 169 with more than a 100 runs in boundaries, was good enough to help India avoid a follow-on, but not to save the match or keep the series alive.
But when Tendulkar is at his best, even a loss could seem like a win. And, in the Coca-Cola Cup in Sharjah in 1998, it certainly did. India lost the match against Australia by 26 runs, but as Tendulkar made an astounding 143 with little or no help from the others, it qualified for the final on the basis of net run-rate ahead of New Zealand. And in the final, when a loss would not have meant anything more, he came up with a 134 that left Australia thinking how things might have been if only New Zealand, and not Tendulkar, had been its opponent.
These magnificent victories in meaningless tournaments allowed Tendulkar’s fans to keep their faith. If it was not Tendulkar the batsman, it was Tendulkar the bowler. In a Benson & Hedges World Series match in 1991, he got the wicket of A.C. Cummins in the 41st over to leave the match with the West Indies tied. But more memorable was the Hero Cup semifinal against South Africa in 1993. When South Africa looked the favourite when it mattered the most — in the final over — Tendulkar got to bowl. In six dramatic balls, he gave away just three runs, and South Africa lost by two. South Africa’s reputation as choker was cemented that very day. Needless to remind readers, India beat the West Indies in the final.
The Tendulkar era would not have been complete without a World Cup win. Under M.S. Dhoni, in what even in 2011 seemed Tendulkar’s last World Cup, India ended a 28-year wait. Even those who were not India’s fans were glad for Tendulkar. He didn’t do anything of note in the final, but it was Tendulkar, and not Dhoni, who rode on the shoulders of team-mates in the victory lap.
And, with India having stayed on top of the Test championship table for close to two years till August 2011, there is little left now for Tendulkar to achieve. At 40, even his thoughts would have occasionally focused on retirement. At 16, when he made his Test debut, he was the youngest by far in the Indian team. Now, after the retirement of Rahul Dravid, he is, by far, the oldest in the team.
Since my adolescent years, I’ve not been inclined towards hero worship. But I can understand what Tendulkar’s young fans must be going through now. I felt the same when Gundappa Viswanath was struggling against Imran Khan and company (including Mudassar Nazar!) in Pakistan in 1982-83. But, then, only a few sportsmen have timed their retirement to perfection.