Sachin Tendulkar | Genius in residence
Here’s what it was like to be around the great batsman whose vocabulary seemed distilled to a single Marathi word—‘shambar’. It means hundred
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I can compel a bowler to bowl a delivery?
If he wasn’t naturally coated by a suburban modesty, if he wasn’t truly a genius capable of such deception, well then you’d have to say he was showing off.
It is 1998, it is late November in Mumbai and this man, who cricket belongs to, is having one of his expressive days. Pressure, goals, the zone, visualization...he wants to talk. The discussion shifts to his choice of shot, his judgement, for sometimes it’s as if he’s a clairvoyant who can read cricket’s next move on a field.
Not just anticipation, something else. “It also depends on the previous four to five deliveries and what you’ve done and what the bowler feels about it and what he’s going to do. And accordingly you react. And because you’re ready it looks like you had a lot of time.
“It is not just that I expected him (the bowler) to do this. Sometimes I compel the bowler to do this. I play in a particular fashion intentionally so he does something and I am prepared.”
What the hell?
I return to Delhi and replay the tape at home in 1998 and grin. It is nine years since I first met him but Sachin Tendulkar is still educating me, taking me where I want to go and rarely travel, inside excellence, just a peek into its corners, just a faint idea of the architecture of the competitive, creative mind. No one, not as frequently, would do this for me in the 1990s. No one could.
He was a national conversation who was himself capable of cliche, occasionally uninteresting, yet often articulate and detailed. Once, in the late 1990s, he gives cricket columnist Amrit Mathur a telling recounting of his choice of bats, of how he prepared, and even now Mathur remembers: “What came out was that he was a genius who thought deeply about his craft. His mind was like an advanced computer which absorbed information, processed it, saved what was important.” Tendulkar did to Mathur what he unwittingly did to me: He cannot make us good writers, but he will make us better ones. For me, and for an entire swathe of Indians of a particular age, he will be our close-up, intimate, first education into genius.
We meet first in late February, 1989: I am three years into a sports writing career and 26; he is eight months from an India debut and two months from 16. He merits a cover story in Sportsworld, a weekly magazine in Calcutta staffed by 20-plus year olds who are intoxicated by Sun Lager and long-form writing. We think we are stylists, except my Tendulkar story is flat, failing to capture him or appreciate the coming phenomenon and he is too young to wear blame as a hideous interviewee.
But no interview, not even later monosyllabic brushes with Mohammad Azharuddin, is useless and this journey to Mumbai for Tendulkar is not wasted entirely. First because I meet his father, Ramesh, and take with me a memory of calm and a quote from the professor that offers a tiny insight into his son: “I love my children and look upon them as my friends. I am against giving advice and leave the choice of their careers to them. It must be their own experience. If they have a problem they will come to me. My son’s education is important but if the priority is cricket then that must be pursued. If he fails one has to accept it.”
Second, I have no concept of prodigy beyond Boris Becker and now unsettlingly I must deal with a home-grown boy ahead of his time. How do you relate to a 16-year-old with adult gifts? And so Tendulkar will force me to read on female swimmers and Mozart and ice hockey champion Wayne Gretzky, rummaging through history to comprehend precocious performers who cannot utter a coherent sentence, whose bodies are unformed, yet whose complete expression of themselves in public is staggeringly grown up. Tendulkar’s youth—apart from emboldening his peers as Rahul Dravid once told me—is what baffles us then, his audacity is exhilarating yet confusing, for we are not used to this in an Indian world where young people are supposed to know their timid place.
In 1989, when Tendulkar arrives, it is two years since Sunil Gavaskar retired, nine years since Prakash Padukone’s All-England badminton win, 28 years since Ramanathan Krishnan reached the Wimbledon semi-finals and 25 years since the hockey team won a non-boycott Olympic gold. I am an anxious writer, obsessive, searching. Every writer needs professors, not only grammarians and reporting gurus, but athletes who tutor, who inadvertently guide, who make you constantly aware of what you don’t know. Genius can be enjoyed from afar, but to acutely understand its ingredients and workings a writer needs interpreters.
Swimmer Ian Thorpe once explains to sportswriter Sharda Ugra and me at the Beijing 2008 Olympics how a race never starts on the blocks but long before; tennis player Mats Wilander speaks on a Melbourne morning about being No.1 and creating an artificial hate for rivals. It’s as if they’re fleetingly leading you through an unfathomable brain, a strange tribe of athletes and adventurers who relish match points and 20 runs to get in seven balls and are best described by the wire-walker Karl Wallenda: “Being on a tightrope is living; everything else is just waiting.”
Often athletes cannot even explain themselves, not even sophisticated men like Roger Federer on why he strikes a ball with such cleanliness. It is an inability to explain that what is unnatural to us is routine and natural to them. When Federer tried to explain his talent, his truth was viewed as vanity. Similarly, in November 1998, seven months after his two sizzling centuries in Sharjah that sink Australia, I pester Tendulkar about his goals and he says he’d rather not say, and then suddenly blurts out: “I decided to win the tournament for India.”
Oh, just like that.
In the late 1980s-early 1990s, I am begging time from athletes, notebooks littered with questions, everything so incredibly new. Later Leander Paes will offer a schooling in theatrical aggression and kinetic speed and Viswanathan Anand will educate us about memory. Later Dravid will let us into his wait for the right ball and Anil Kumble will riff on consistency. Later a young judoka with twisted fingers will lecture on pain and Abhinav Bindra will unveil the intensity of obsession. They are the chapters of my education. But then, in my beginnings, it is only chance that throws Tendulkar into my world at the precise time.
The thrill of it cannot be underplayed for in the early 1990s, by when I had moved to India Today, a newly-liberalized India is full of charming and poignant sporting tales but shallow in sporting genius. The envy I feel for Sports Illustrated writers is sharp for they are surrounded by athletic richness in America. But, for us, most of this excellence was foreign and far and Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras, Mike Tyson is a world almost no Indian is allowed within interviewing distance of. We cannot stroll into their hotel rooms, play table tennis with them, stand back with a dying cigarette and just enjoy their daily polish of talent. But with Tendulkar I could. He was here, right before us, long before a time of entourages and minders, his phone number in our diaries. It was like calling Jordan and it was an unsurpassable gift: he was greatness available. To have him then was akin to a poetry critic finding W.B. Yeats on a somewhat deserted island.
He was like no one else. Only Anand was his equal, possibly even superior for Tendulkar’s sport was oddly shallow in the number of competing nations. But contemplative chess was unable to mount a mass seduction and Tendulkar, aided by the arrival of satellite television, could. He spoke like a lost boy whose vocabulary was distilled to a single Marathi word. Shambar. Hundred. He stood as still as a praying priest, and then assaulted bowlers with a thick bat as if committing polite armed robbery. I had never seen such effrontery, I had not even considered the notion of risk till he started lofting balls over the in-field: then I figured what was risk for me was the percentage shot for him. I witnessed his preternatural, mythical calm, as if he ate coolant for breakfast, inhabiting his own tiny Tendulkar planet where control was his anthem. Greatness is useless if you don’t know how to handle it, he told us.
The 1990s was a giddy, exaggerated, intriguing time. Magazines consulted palmists. An editor told me at India Today that the previous night the police commissioner had an idea about Tendulkar’s numbers I might want to investigate. Everyone had a sighting, a story, a theory. He ate 65 batata wadas once. He watched a movie in a burqa. No, wait, a wig. He talks cricket in his sleep. Only the truly great, I learnt, are stalked by myth, a bit like those tales of Dhyan Chand’s hockey stick being broken to check if there was a magnet inside.
But something more real was learned as well. And long before Malcolm Gladwell was stimulating debate on “perfect practice”, Tendulkar’s diligence was before us. He was scarcely the first, for Milkha Singh told tales of training till he urinated blood, and cricketers before him were slaves to sweat. But this was different because it became fashionable to see Tendulkar as a celestial cricketer, the holy batsman, when really he was an imperfect, methodical man of scrupulous routine, who might not have listened to Mozart but certainly would have agreed with the musician’s words: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to compositions as I.”
And so once when Clayton Murzello, Mid-Day’s fine cricket writer, finished an interview with Tendulkar in 2004 and exited his house, even before the lift arrived and Murzello could descend, he could hear this sound from inside. Thump, thump, thump. It was Tendulkar’s music, his bat hitting floor as he returned to practising his stroke. From this single sound is revealed two parts of Tendulkar. First, love. The poet Maya Angelou once wrote: “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” It is how cricket might have seemed to Tendulkar—his private space, a life lived during and between shots, a life where white clothes were his second skin. You felt his love and not so much when he scored but when he couldn’t play and turned into a boy denied. During the worst days of his tennis elbow, in 2004, he could not pick up his bat, the only instrument that separated him from others, and told Murzello that he “pleaded every day, every minute” to God: “Just let me play”.
The second thing about the thump, thump, thump was discipline. Don’t waste time. Every man, he was telling us, has a choice of what he wishes to do with his genius and where he might take it. And he needed to be this fundamentalist about discipline because he had to counter not just zealous bowlers but a highly-strung India which hollered for him to be perfect. “Pressure” wasn’t a new idea, but it had a new weight in a connected and celebritifed sporting world where a teenage Becker felt the need to calm an adult planet after his Wimbledon second-round defeat in 1987: “Nobody died. I only lost a tennis match.”
But the expectation on Tendulkar was unparalleled. In the era of Becker, to take a random example, Germany won over a 150 summer Olympic medals, a hockey Olympic gold, a football World Cup, and yes, it had Steffi Graf. India, in the 1990s at least, had only Tendulkar of that sporting quality (Anand won his first world championship in 2000). He was the best in the whole world from a nation that suffered from a sense of inadequacy. Even as we were all complicit in creating the pressure, we were astonished by how he wore it.
If cricket stopped being fun for him, he rarely advertised it; if the expectation climbed, he occasionally shrugged at the anarchy around him. LeBron James recently said of Jordan, “I think the greatest thing about MJ was that he never was afraid to fail. And I think that’s why he succeeded so much—because he was never afraid of what anybody ever said about him.” Years ago I wondered the same about Tendulkar: how did he not fail more often? How did he traverse his world? How could he block out failure and fear and us? How did he release his talent? How bloody good was he? I had never asked these questions before, I had never needed to.
With Tendulkar also came overstatement, of which I, too, was guilty. India, after all, was staggeringly indiscreet in its praise of him. He didn’t seem to mind it and which athlete does? Even now “GodBye” headlines flourish and a commentator wrote to me, “You would think no one has ever retired from the game”. We set him above all rules and then later, as his career dragged on and the hundred 100s became a painful chase, we blamed him when he might have thought he was above them. But in the early days, as if unprepared for such a man, we were uncertain how to treat him and worship was like a default setting. Now cricketers, even if still religiously followed, are treated to the quick sneering cynicism of blogger and tweeter. Now cricket is a team sport, then it was a Tendulkar game. Eventually writers discovered some balance, but he remained an unweildy subject. As coach Paul Annacone now says of Roger Federer, Tendulkar is “atypical”. You can’t judge them like anyone else after a lifetime of being something else.
Federer is flawed but a grand, decent man; Tendulkar has been variously accused of pushing Mumbai players, not winning sufficient matches, captaining over-enthusiastically, picking and choosing one-day events, yet he was a wondrously graceful man. The great athlete comes with a sizeable vanity for he must think himself greater than the next man. It is part of his mental weaponry. Yet Tendulkar instructed me, through his behaviour when both of us were young, that the great athlete need not flourish this conceit beyond the arena. He knew he was Tendulkar and he knew that you—bowler and spectator—knew. It was enough. He wore greatness, in the arena and beyond, respectfully. In our meetings over the years, in different lands, he was not once rude, distracted, arrogant or late. I left a note for him after his father died during the 1999 World Cup and when he returned to England after the funeral he sought me out to say thank you.
My favourite story is from April 1998 in that Sharjah year of two centuries against Australia in the desert night. He had agreed I could fly back with him to Mumbai from Sharjah after the tournament and interview him in his city for an India Today story. Except on the Wednesday he scores 143 in 131 balls against Australia to qualify India for the Friday final and my Delhi office is calling: India’s going crazy. We can’t wait. We need the Tendulkar story this week. Thursday night—tomorrow—is the deadline.
Friday, day of the final, is Tendulkar’s birthday and on Thursday, the rest day, his late agent Mark Mascarenhas throws a party for him at a hotel. Fortunately, I am invited. Rudely, I am at work, gathering quotes from Allan Border, Shane Warne, the Chappell brothers amid the beer and eats. Peter Roebuck, my friend, is helping me with stories. I corner Tendulkar briefly and tell him nicely that his century has killed me. No time, no quotes, threatening deadline. He must have smiled, I can’t remember.
It’s his birthday party, he’s about to go on a run of nine one-day centuries in 26 innings, he’s dazzled India, he’s destroyed Australia, he’s the centre of cricket’s universe, everyone wants to hold his hand, pat his shoulder, celebrate him, congratulate him, be photographed with him, autographed by him. He is a sober man breathing an intoxicating air and then he does this. He comes to me and says 10 minutes, or was it five, and leads me (and the writer Ayaz Memon) to a corner table and sits down and speaks, right in the middle of his party. Then he is gone, back in the world’s embrace. I race home and write and send to Delhi a story that will be titled simply, “Best In The World”.
I will miss Tendulkar because he was always there. I am glad he is going because it is time to miss him. I don’t think I knew him at all, I don’t know if most of us did. But as a writer and watcher, as I search myself to define what I feel about him, one word keeps arriving again and again.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.