Odysseus left to fight the Trojan War when he was a young man. By the time he thought of the wooden horse that allowed the Greeks to win the war, it had been 10 years. It took him another decade—full of the adventures, examinations and travails that Homer writes of in the Odyssey—to return home to Ithaca.
By the time Sachin Tendulkar steps on to the turf at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in Mirpur, Bangladesh, on 19 February, his quest for World Cup glory will have lasted nearly 19 years. He was still a teenager when he faced England at Perth in 1992. A month earlier, he had scored a dazzling century there against a formidable Australian Test attack and his first bow at the World Cup was an assured 35. But Ian Botham had him caught behind and India’s pursuit of victory unravelled. It was a pattern that would repeat itself throughout a dismal campaign as an Indian team enervated by a long tour failed to find a strategy that could best exploit the young man’s undoubted potential.
One last chance: Sachin Tendulkar celebrates his century in the fifth ODI against Australia in Hyderabad in 2009.
Even those who glimpsed his quality all those years ago—when Michael Jordan was still the world’s pre-eminent sportsman and Imran Khan and his “cornered tigers” did Asia proud—would have struggled to predict that he would still be around two decades later, keen as ever and with skills and temperament yet to be corroded by the passage of time.
Back then, we were speculating as to how great he could be. These days, we struggle to make sense of what he has become. In those days, five One Day centuries made you a great player. Scoring 20 would have been like walking on the moon. Scoring 46, as Tendulkar has done while severely rationing his appearances over the last couple of seasons, begs belief.
In recent times, his priority has clearly been the Test arena, where his renaissance is as startling as the work that a middle-aged Paul Gauguin produced after running off to the South Seas. Despite that, there was never a smidgen of doubt that he would be back for the World Cup. Like a canny old marathoner pacing himself for the final burst into the stadium, he has never lost sight of the final on home soil in Mumbai on 2 April. For a One Day career without parallel, it would be the perfect bookend.
Kapil Dev was one of his teammates in that first World Cup game, and it’s impossible to overstate just what the 1983 success meant to those of Tendulkar’s generation. If it was the abduction of Helen that sent the Greeks to war, it was Kapil lifting the trophy after the giant-killing of the West Indies that gave birth to a million cricket dreams.
“I was inspired to take up playing the game with the hard ball after the 1983 World Cup victory,” said Tendulkar at a function in Mumbai a couple of years ago. “Had it not happened, things could have been different for me. I have fond memories of that victory. I was just 10 years old when they won the World Cup and I did not even know at that time there were 11 players in the team. It was truly an incredible experience. That generation of cricketers was instrumental in inspiring youngsters to take up cricket.”
As the years have passed, inspiration has also become burden. England’s footballers forever get compared to the boys of 1966. Each time India approach a World Cup, talk turns to Kapil’s Devils and the halcyon summer of 1983. As Coleridge wrote in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung.”
Indian cricket’s golden generation could never shake it off. Anil Kumble was the leading wicket-taker in 1996 when India went out in the semi-final, and a frustrated watcher from the bench as Australia romped home in the final seven years later. V.V.S. Laxman was so upset by his exclusion from the 2003 squad that he took off to visit old friends in the US.
Sourav Ganguly took India as far as the summit clash in 2003, but was part of the shambles that was the Indian shipwreck in the Caribbean four years ago. As for Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar’s partner in a memorable partnership at Taunton, UK, in 1999, he wasn’t even given a proper One Day farewell.
Four giants for whom the World Cup means only the strains of Ghalib’s Yeh na thi hamari kismat (it wasn’t meant to be). Only Tendulkar remains, the boy-man who has outlasted them all, whose capacity to reinvent his game subtly has seen him through Power Plays, free hits and fielding restrictions.
The greatest of careers too needs a Eureka moment. For Tendulkar, it came at Eden Park in Auckland 17 years ago. Navjot Singh Sidhu was suffering from a stiff neck, and the 21-year-old who had just been appointed vice-captain went to see his leader and coach. “I asked Azhar (Mohammed Azharuddin) and Ajit Wadekar to give me one chance to open,” he says. “Then I would not ask them again if I failed.”
He didn’t, scoring a stunning 82 from 49 balls. With a few exceptions here and there, he has stayed at the top of the order since, smashing Shoaib Akhtar for six at Centurion, taking Glenn McGrath to task in Nairobi and slamming the first-ever double-century in the format against South Africa last year.
Along the way, he has finished top scorer in two World Cups, 1996 and 2003, and been the focal point of all Indian hope. Apart from maybe Zinedine Zidane in the French football team of the last decade, no one individual has become so totemic. What’s more, he’s handled the pressure with grace. Zidane had his head-butt, and Mike Tyson his bitten ears. Tendulkar has stayed serene.
Aldous Huxley once suggested that we make the ceiling of yesterday’s desire the floor of today’s expectations. For Indian cricket’s Peter Pan, the ceiling was always sky-high, and it’s testament to his greatness that he stayed so grounded while reaching for it. Now, one final chapter remains in his odyssey..
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor, Wisden International.
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