x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sachin Tendulkar needs to keep a straight bat if he's to remain immortal

At a time when Indian cricket is struggling, legendary batsman Sachin Tendulkar may need to guard his reputation like it's a wicket if he's to maintain a near saint-like status among the public

Sachin Tendulkar. Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Sachin Tendulkar. Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Last month, on April 24, Sachin Tendulkar turned 39. Two days later, excited television news anchors announced that the government of India had given him a birthday present: he had been nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India's parliament. He was now an MP; it was as if Sebastian Coe had been ennobled and raised to the House of Lords with his spikes on.
In parliament, India's opposition parties, so quick to skewer the United Progressive Alliance's government, chorused their approval, suppressing their chagrin that the ruling coalition would get the credit for having done, for once, the right thing. Some pundits murmured that Tendulkar had allowed himself to be used by politicians, but he put a stop to that by making a statement that he was not about to join a political party or enter politics.
For Tendulkar's fans, the nomination was no more than his due.
Some even felt short-changed by the nomination: the government, they felt, should have given him the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour. This award has been given to, among others, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, a former president, a martyred prime minister and Mother Teresa.
It has recently had its scope amended: from being reserved for exceptional achievement in the arts, literature, sciences and public service, it now recognises achievement in "any field of human endeavour". Tendulkar bulks so large in India's public imagination that there are many who believe that the change was made with the specific intention of clearing a path for him.
Not yet 40, Tendulkar is more than a cricketing great in India, he is on the way to becoming a secular saint. If the upper house nomination was like being beatified, the Bharat Ratna, whenever it's conferred, will complete his canonisation.
In his hagiographies, St Sachin will be remembered as a warrior saint. In his first Test series against Pakistan in 1989, in the fourth Test in Sialkot, this schoolboy, 16 going on 12, was hit in the face by a bouncer. He didn't leave the field; batting in a bloody shirt, he counter-attacked to score his second Test 50. Having been bloodied against the old enemy, he was no longer a prodigy; he was now an authentic Indian hero.
Tendulkar was born into a stereotypical middle-class family. His father was a college teacher who wrote poetry and fiction in Marathi. His mother worked for a life insurance company. He and his three older siblings grew up in a small flat in Bandra East, a then unfashionable part of Mumbai.
His first three centuries confirmed his genius: they came on tour against England and Australia on lively wickets. There was the match-saving 100 at Old Trafford against England when he was 17, the 100 in Sydney against Australia in a drawn match and, finally, the 114 on a fast pitch in Perth that established that Tendulkar wasn't just special, he was a modern great in the making.
The India of the 1990s, remade by liberalisation into a less cautious, more thrusting place than it was before, fell in love with Tendulkar because he combined the solidity of the Bombay school of batsmanship with an irrepressible need to attack. Multinational companies looking for mascots rewarded his spectacular aggression with endorsements that made him rich beyond the dreams of the salaried middle class into which he was born in 1973.
His jousts with Shane Warne, the great Australian leg-spinner, and his rivalry with Brian Lara for the title of best batsman in the world made him a symbol of world-class excellence in a country hungry for heroes.
There were, of course, carpers. As Tendulkar's stack of centuries grew, dissenting voices began to complain that his hundreds burnished his career without necessarily winning Test matches. When the most revered name in cricketing journalism, Wisden, published in 2004 a list of the 100 greatest Test centuries, not one of Tendulkar's figured.
The naysayers said, "we told you so", but they remained in a tiny minority because Tendulkar, along with a great cohort of Indian batsmen - Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag - had begun to steer the Indian team to the top of the cricketing tree by beating strong teams at home and competing well abroad.
There was the epic 2-1 win over Australia in 2001, forever associated in the public mind with Laxman's match-winning 281 at the Eden Gardens, but Tendulkar took three wickets in the fourth innings of the match to bowl the Australians out. In the decisive Test in Chennai that India won, Tendulkar scored an uncharacteristically dour 100 that made sure India gained a crucial first innings lead. In the World Cup in South Africa in 2003, Tendulkar's inventive aggression as an opening batsman propelled India to the final, where they lost to Australia.
Win or lose, Tendulkar was the fulcrum of an Indian team that competed on roughly level terms against a dominant Australian side that had a claim to being the greatest team in the history of Test cricket.
Under MS Dhoni's captaincy, Tendulkar helped his team reach the summit of international cricket. In 2010 he had miraculous season as a batsman, rolling back the years to hit seven centuries. His purple patch pushed India to the number one position in the ICC's Test rankings and then, in the summer of 2011, he saw his greatest dream come true: he was part of the Indian team that won the World Cup.
For the first time in the history of the game, India was the best team in the world in both Test and limited-overs cricket. Yuvraj Singh, the player of the tournament, declared that the team had won the Cup for India and Tendulkar. In that magical moment of triumph, after 22 years of trying, Tendulkar did seem to embody Indian cricket.
In the catastrophic year that followed, the Indian team's trajectory and Tendulkar's diverged. Tendulkar opted out of the West Indies tour where India narrowly won the Test series. He was part of the team that lost 4-0 to both England and Australia in tours of those countries. These were the worst beatings that India had suffered in decades. Not only did India lose the Test series, it lost every limited-overs competition it played outside India.
Through this passage of humiliating defeat, Tendulkar left the post-match comments to his teammates. Player after player suffered the embarrassment of explaining why the world's best team was being sequentially thrashed, but not the player to whom Singh had dedicated the World Cup victory.
Tendulkar's defenders argued that, poised on 99 international hundreds (the sum of Tendulkar's Test and One-Day International centuries), his presence would have been a distraction because the press was obsessed with the imminent 100th hundred.
Tendulkar himself took the milestone very seriously. After he scored his 100th century in an ODI in Bangladesh, he and his management began a noisy celebration of the achievement. That India had lost the match against Bangladesh, besides losing virtually every match they had played in the months after the World Cup, seemed to count for little.
Asked about retirement, Tendulkar said that it would be selfish of him to retire at the top of his game, not acknowledging his recent modest record. There seemed, for once, a disconnect between Tendulkar's contribution to the team and his opinion of himself. Earlier, Tendulkar's enormous success as a corporate brand had seemed an incidental by-product of his cricketing genius. Now it seemed as if he was, in the company of Coca-Cola, Adidas and the Indian business giant Mukesh Ambani, massaging his brand since his celebration of the record coincided with Indian cricket's nadir.
A birthday tweet by Tendulkar summed up the new tone deafness: "Hello friends, you can join my birthday chat and send me your wishes at 12.30pm today. Dial 5100100 from your Airtel phone."
However blasé fans become about endorsements, there is something a little off about a great man leveraging his birthday to produce a revenue stream for his sponsors. It almost begged the question: "And how do I say happy birthday if I'm on Vodafone?"
Someone about to be canonised ought to count the cost of individual self-promotion at a time of collective defeat. A sportsman as adored as Tendulkar owes it to himself and his admirers to rein in his handlers when they crank the machine too hard.
Don Bradman, the Australian legend who famously saw in Tendulkar's batting glimpses of his own style, accepted the honours without working his public. Contemporary cricketers show us every day that celebrity can be milked. Bradman knew, as Tendulkar should, that immortality must be guarded.
The biography
April 24, 1973 Tendulkar is born in Mumbai into a middle-class Maharashtrian family
1988 Figures in a 664-run partnership in a school
tournament
1989 Plays his first Test against Pakistan at 16
August 1990 Scores first Test century at Old Trafford
1996 Becomes captain of the Indian team
1998 Helps India win a home series against
Australia
2003 Scores 98 against Pakistan to win a crucial match in the World Cup
December 2010 Becomes the first man to hit 50 Test centuries
February 2010 Attains the
highest score ever in One Day cricket: 200 against South Africa
2011 Helps India win the World Cup in Mumbai
March 2012 Hits 100th
hundred in the Asia Cup.