MUMBAI // Despite a series of recent bomb blasts, an economy in free fall and a background of increasing communal violence, India was smiling yesterday - all thanks to one man and a simple swing of his bat. Shortly after 2.30pm on Friday at the PCA stadium in Mohali, Punjab, Sachin Tendulkar became the highest scorer in Test cricket, reaching 11,956 runs during India's second Test match against Australia. He went on to hit 88 runs that day, taking his tally to 12,029.
In a country that has been ravaged in recent months by bad news, Tendulkar's achievement could not have come at a better time, reinforcing his reputation as a cricketer who has carried the cricketing hopes of millions of Indians on his slender shoulders since making his international debut at the age of 16. His achievement sparked celebrations across the country, where the sport is a national obsession and its stars are revered as gods. Tendulkar, standing at a little over 5 feet tall, is considered to be the biggest of them all. Mumbai, his home town, marked the milestone by setting off 12,029 fire crackers and holding religious ceremonies in his honour.
Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, said: "I congratulate Sachin Tendulkar on becoming the highest scorer in Test cricket," he said. "Sachin is truly worthy of the mantle. There is no doubt that he is a genius." The achievement is the crowning glory in the career of the 35-year-old. Tendulkar has spent more than half his life in the nation's international squad. "It is definitely the biggest record of my career because it has taken me almost 19 years to get there and the journey has been fantastic. The feeling is fantastic," he said.
"I was just trying to focus on the game but every now and then it [the record] was there in front of me. I decided to just keep it simple and just keep watching the ball, keep my eyes on it and keep alert." He insisted that he had no plans to retire in the near future, meaning the record will continue to grow. In a country that has been ravaged in recent months by bad news, Tendulkar's achievement could not have come at a more opportune time.
Sankarshan Thaur, a journalist who has closely followed the cricketer's career, said: "Tendulkar's record is just the lift the country needs at the moment. There has been a very negative mood over recent months following a number of bomb blasts and an upsurge in violence. Tendulkar has once again brought some joy to millions of Indians." As fans of the sport in his native Mumbai continually claim, there are cricketers and then there is Sachin Tendulkar.
Close to Mumbai's Shivaji Park, where Tendulkar played as a youngster, a stage was built for a religious ceremony in his honour, while sweets were distributed to mark his record. Local politicians are also planning a civic reception for his return. Tendulkar eclipsed the record of 11,953 runs previously held by Brian Lara, the West Indian batsman. Tendulkar is known as the "Little Master", a nickname he was given by Sir Donald Bradman, the renowned Australian batsman. Watching him as a 19-year-old, Bradman said he reminded him of himself.
During his astounding career, Tendulkar has established himself as not only one of cricket's greatest players but also the richest. He earns around US$30 million a year from a series of lucrative commercial deals and lives in a Mumbai mansion with his wife, Anjali, and two children. Tendulkar's achievement comes at a time when cricket finds itself at the centre of a continuous political tussle between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the sport's governing body in India, and other established cricketing countries, such as England and Australia.
The BCCI is the richest cricket board in the world, generating an estimated US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) a year and accounts for 70 per cent of the game's overall revenue. Countries such as England fear the financial clout of India within the International Cricket Council (ICC), the world cricket's governing body based in Dubai. At the heart of the matter lies the very future of Test cricket after the increasing popularity of Twenty20 cricket, which takes place over three hours as opposed to five days and enjoys a huge following in India. Its national team is the current world Twenty20 champion.
Earlier this year the BCCI staged the first ever Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament, consisting of eight teams comprising some of the world's leading players. The event proved to be a financial and sporting bonanza, generating million-dollar salaries for some players and generating more than US$1 billion in commercial revenue. With plans for more Twenty20 tournaments, countries such as England fear that the future of Test matches could be in danger given the former's financial and sporting appeal. According to some estimates, almost 40 per cent of India's population of 1.1 billion regularly tuned in to watch IPL matches earlier this year.
With attendances dwindling at Test matches in India - even Tendulkar's achievement on Friday took place before a half empty stadium - there are genuine concerns among some cricket officials that the BCCI will opt for the cash and seek to marginalise the longest and purest form of the game. The players themselves insist Test cricket must be preserved and remains the biggest challenge for any cricketer.
Soon after the completion of the IPL, Tendulkar said: "Twenty20 is great for the game and has brought a whole new audience to cricket. But the game's administrators must ensure that nothing damages the future of Test cricket. To play over five days is the ultimate test for any cricketer." Tendulkar has risen to that challenge on more than one occasion, making himself a true hero of the game, adored by millions of his fellow citizens.
On Friday, as he hit the runs that took him to the top of the run rankings, Tendulkar took off his helmet and looked up to the heavens. When asked what was going through his mind, he mentioned the two things that have particular resonance to Indians world over: family and religion. "When I looked up, obviously I had two thoughts in my mind," said Tendulkar. "One was that I thanked the almighty and the second, I thanked my [late] father. Today I miss him. He would definitely be a proud man, and I just thought of him."