A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
– John Keats
If you came to read how absolutely mind-boggling and statistically gargantuan this man Sachin Tendulkar has been, you’ve sadly come to the wrong place. My apologies that I unintentionally misled you. You can close this tab now for I’m not qualified enough, nor do I feel it’s necessary to duplicate what has already been said and written, by many a great men and women, ever so brilliantly, about the unprecedented exploits of this unprecedented man. But what I do want to talk about is what this singular journey of a special man meant to those at the other side of the looking glass, places far away from that epicentre where it was all happening.
It’s like there was no cricket before this guy, no cricket without this guy. And as many begin to question themselves now – if there’s any cricket after this guy. Cricket itself was this guy. Yeah, this is India I’m talking about. We’re like that.
Ever had that terrible feeling when you must hold your breath for as long as possible ’cause the moment you let it go, all goes to hell? Shoaib Akhtar is at the edge of his run-up which is somewhere near the boundary. He doesn’t look friendly. None of the Pakistani bowlers do, especially when we’re playing them. It was common knowledge that our players never have had too much of an answer for fast bowling. And this was no ordinary bowling attack. This was no ordinary bowler. But hold your breath, for this man at the wicket is something else. He can do it. We all think he can do it. But we have our fears. We have been disappointed for far too long. What if this turns out to be just another World Cup, just another heart-break? It’s not in our nature to believe in ourselves too much. He might be our only hope but if he too fails…Some people are not strong enough. They can’t watch this. They are closing their eyes. But I must watch this. He’s my hero. He can definitely do it. If I could just hold my breath a little longer…
I breathe. It takes a moment to sink in. After that, it’s madness. A whole nation erupts. A nation with a billion people rise up, together. Imagine it – a BILLION people. In schools, inside offices, outside the tea stalls, on the streets nearby the television stores – they all erupt. Goosebumps everywhere. Slowly, we all ease into our chairs now, whether at work, at home, or anywhere else, for we know things are in control. He has assured us. Calmed a billion people down. He’s been doing that since he was in his teens.
He’s on 98 now. There’s a sense of excitement, a buzz, all around the stadium, and the nation. It’s contagious. We can all feel it. But as this excitement builds itself to an emphatic crescendo, that old nagging fear sneaks into the back of our insecure minds. It’s getting bigger. He’s still on 98. The people around, everywhere are getting tense. He’s sensing it too. Sensing us. He always knew what we want. He tries his best to alienate everything else from his mind, he always has. But at every corner in his innings, he takes us in, with him. Sometimes, it ends in unparalleled glory.
This time, it was agony. It was Shoaib Akhtar again. He’s sad. He’s angry with himself. He doesn’t need to show it. We know he is. He expects more from himself than we expect from him. He will feel he could’ve done better, that he couldn’t properly help his country. That he let us down.
But we can’t let him feel that.
We stand up. Everywhere in the country, we stand up. We salute, we bow, we give our respect. We cheer, we shout, we clap. Some people look disappointed, some are even angry. I look at them in disbelief. How can anyone be angry at Sachin? Then I realise. Oh no. They aren’t angry at him. There are angry at Shoaib, at Pakistan. How can anyone want to stop this guy? Why would anyone want to do that? Such illogical questions swarm their minds as they are brutally awakened from their trance. The trance you get into when you watch Sachin play.
“…he is dancing down the pitch, and oh look! he has smacked the ball over his head for six! Unbelievable…”
It has always been that shot, that sight, that took my breath away. The little man rampaging down to the middle of the pitch without a care for the bowler or the ball in youthful hunger and smacking the ball out of the stadium in utter disdain and hair-raising fury. I used to be amazed that they could even manage to find the ball afterwards, that the ball was still in one piece. I was so overawed by that sight.
Much before the events of the 2003 World Cup match versus Pakistan, this was probably when he cemented his place in the cricketing folklore. We are chasing a tough score against one of the best teams of the decade or so my dad tells me. I am just seven years old. The scorecard says Australia have scored 272. That’s a very high score, or so it was in those days. They have some great bowlers. To add to that, they have Shane Warne. Everyone knew Shane Warne. He has exceptional talent and is probably the best bowler in the world. I’m very nervous when we begin our chase. Our batting has a big test ahead, some would even call the chase impossible. We are underdogs. Many a times have our batsmen fallen like a pack of cards. My dad says these things to me to keep my hopes down, so that I don’t break down when we lose. It was “when” not “if” we lose. But let’s move on. I have low hopes and our chase has begun. The rest turns out to be a blur, a dream. He whacks the ball straight at Sourav Ganguly who gets the scare of his life. Before that, he had hit one of the most beautiful cover-drives I had ever seen. Little did I know, he was just getting started. Tom Moody, Mark Waugh, Michael Kasprowicz, they all go for boundaries. He is relentless. But then my adrenaline rush arrives. In Ravi Shastri’s words: “…and Tendulkar greets him by dancing down the track and hammering him over long-on. This is amazing stuff.” That was Shane Warne. Best spinner in the world. Warne looks around in utter disbelief. Crowd has gone mad. And I have found nirvana. That was the greatest moment of my seven-year-old life. But that was not all. The boundaries continue. He notches another century. And then another beauty arrives. Warne is bowling his final over when it happens. “…and that’s smashed back, straight back over the bowler’s head, and again, hit with tremendous power by Tendulkar.” Shastri isn’t quite as magical as the moment demands but inside my head, that was setting up nicely as a moment I’d savour for years. Next ball, another boundary. I’m speechless. I think that was it. But no, the best was still to come. It came off Tom Moody. In Tony Greig’s incomparable words: “Oh, he has hit this one miles, great shot…oh it’s a biggie! Straight out of the top! The little man has hit the big fella for six! He’s half his size! And he’s smashed him down the ground! What a player! What a wonderful player!” I was getting delirious. My dad who even then was clutching to his pessimism born out of years of heart-break, finally broke into a smile. He finally believed it was possible. Stunning. Just when I was getting comfortable knowing that I had seen the best things that I could possibly see, Sachin, yet again, proved me wrong. Tony Greig sounded as if he was drunk. “Oh, that’s high! What a six! What a six! Way down the ground, it’s on the roof! It’s bouncing around on the roof!” It was Kasprowicz’s turn this time.
Such was this man. Every time I thought I’ve seen the best thing in my life that I could ever see in cricket, he has shown me something new, something even more brilliant, something even more beautiful. He finally got out but not before he had single-handedly dragged our country to the doorstep of victory. Just another chapter in his career, just another chapter in my life.
When I look back to this innings so many years hence, one shot stares back at me, screams at me. It was the shot of my childhood. That six off Warne. Since that day, not an evening had passed when I hadn’t practised hitting the ball over the bowler’s head whether on my own or while playing with my friends in the streets, all the while picturing myself to be my idol. And when I did manage to hit it, I’d raise my bat – not very high, not very low – just as much as Sachin would do, along with that fearless look in his eyes, even if it was just a six, not a fifty. That never sat right with my friends though and I’d often to be sent to look for the ball in the dark afterwards, which got lost more often than not. And let’s not even get started about the broken window glasses!
Years roll by. I have grown up. Sachin too has grown in years. People though are beginning to have a go at his throats. I feel depressed. That is not how you treat your national legend. That would’ve meant something if what they were saying was, at least, true. But they couldn’t be more wrong. How could anyone be ever right when they place boundaries on what Sachin can do? I had learnt my lesson when I was just seven-years-old. Some people still hadn’t. People were still looking for his milestones. Putting him under pressure that he’d eventually bow underneath. And each time, I’d feel more and more detached from cricket. I’d feel as if I’m an old-timer who has seen things these people don’t see, that I know things that these people don’t know.
Time passes. Sachin is getting back to his older groove. I was not surprised. I knew it all along. But did I ever think he’d surpass the Desert Storm? Frankly, I had never thought of that. The Desert Storm was like Pulp Fiction. A classic. Never to be touched or compared with. But one night, I am left to reconsider the entire foundations of my favourites, the ones on whom I rate all knocks. That was the night I witness his 175. The event that shook the earth underneath my feet.
A man who is on the cusp of touching 37 conjures up one of the most surreal, the most magical and an absolutely phenomenal innings of the order no scale can ever measure. It’s the Aussies again. We are chasing again. And the target is bigger, much bigger. It was like adapting the Sharjah scenario and extrapolating it for the modern times while taking some of Aussie legends out and to neutralise for that, Sachin was almost 37. People would argue that the Aussies, even without their legends, are never ever easy. Rightly so. On the other side, it was Sachin, almost 37, the time-defying legend. The guy with too much class for age to matter. It was evenly matched, some would say.Rest is history. I can never forget that night. Wickets tumbling at the other end, Sachin trying to bind any partnership possible while being on a single-handed quest to achieve the impossible. It was like he was possessed. The lofty odds never bothered him. Nor did the conditions or the lack of proper support. He had just two proper partnerships and with that he took the game to the Aussies and turned their world upside down. I had never seen anything like it. Even I had lost hope. Even the most optimistic of fans would lose hope. Yet, like a little man dragging a sinking ship back to the surface all on his own, he kept on raging war. Goosebumps. But, it wasn’t meant to be. Some people still feel that heart-break when we talk of this game but I had seen something much more than that to be bothered by or be sad about something that was the result of the ineptness of his fellow batsmen. I had seen the innings of my life-time. One man versus an army. Some would say the Desert Storm was better, others would say the Nairobi knock, or the 200. To each, his own. The little man has a vault full of invaluable knocks that he has left to us to guard in our memories. It’s a massive task to just select one knock over the other.
“Beneath the helmet, under that unruly curly hair, inside the cranium, there is something we don’t know, something beyond scientific measure. Something that allows him to soar, to roam a territory of sport that, forget us, even those who are gifted enough to play alongside him cannot even fathom. When he goes out to bat, people switch on their TV sets and switch off their lives.”
We all know how technically gifted he was. He has all the shots in the book and he was good enough to add some more to the book. Some would pick one shot of his over the other. Even my seven-year-old self did that. But as I grew older, I began to appreciate all his shots. And right now, although some shots would look better to the eye than the other, I’d say every shot of his is special. He has toned it down to perfection. He’s the absolute master of his craft.
For those who are more familiar with the football lingo, I’ll explain Sachin for you.
Imagine the legendary impact of an Eric Cantona fused with the legendary accomplishments of a Lionel Messi and you have your Sachin Tendulkar. He’s to India what Cantona was to Manchester United. He’s to India and cricket what Lionel Messi is to Barcelona and football. And he’s just one tiny little guy. 15 odd years have gone by and they still sing songs of Cantona at Old Trafford every week. They’ll never stop singing about him. He put the belief in the club, the team that they can win. He led the way. By the time he left, the land of Premier League was red. He had forged an empire that is still going strong, 15 years later. Messi will be a timeless legend, the stories of whose exploits will be passed on from generations to generations. He has often done the unthinkable, surpassed the unsurpassed and he does it with elegance, with ease. There is no controversy, no drama, no desperate measure to seek attention from him. He has the footballing world at his feet. Now you put it all together and that’s one man, Sachin, for billions of people worldwide, not just India. People everywhere around the world revere him, adore him, cherish him. He’s like their hobby, a way of life and as John Keats would say, a thing of beauty.
I have never really liked the title “God” that fans of the game, although out of love, have forcibly bequeathed upon him. Mainly because that’s the last thing Sachin would like himself to be called as. Some people who don’t like this nickname argue that since he never was the greatest bowler nor the greatest fielder, just by scaling one of its three summits, he can’t be called the “God” of the game. Some say, Kallis is better suited to that. Although that is a very valid argument, an argument to which I myself fell back on more often than not while discouraging anybody and everybody I came across who called him “God”, of late I’ve come to accept that if anyone in the game could ever be called that, it is him. None have ever given shape to a game and moulded it into their own as has Sachin. Years and years down the line, he has moulded himself to change with the changing demands of an ever evolving game. None have ever accepted cricket into themselves as deep as he has for as long as he has. And while doing so, he has been celebrated and revered by a magnitude of the population that is unmatched by any other, by many a miles. He has scaled the highest peak possible in the game and has stood there and seen the world the way no eye can ever see. At least not till they let androids play the game by which time both you and I will be long gone. So, while I accept that if we absolutely must bequeath this title on somebody it has to be him, I’d rather we not call him that. Let’s just call him The Little Master (a title that was previously Sunny’s) or the Master Blaster. If nothing, just call him Sachin, he’d probably love that the most.
We have walked into the stadium, to the pitch with him. We have sat on his shoulders till he stayed on the pitch. We have buzzed in his ears when it got tough for him. We have revelled in glorious joy when he conquered all obstacles and scaled new peaks. And now, when he finally walks away from the thing he loves most, we again sit beside him and ponder over the same question – What next?
I haven’t met this man, no sir. Nor does he know I exist. He was taking blows to his body ever so bravely as a sixteen-year-old against fearsome bowlers when I wasn’t even born. On the face of it, there is absolutely nothing to link us. Yet him announcing his retirement has confirmed the end of my childhood. Sachin isn’t just a person to us. He’s much more than that. He’s a link to our past, the pride of our present, a hope for our future. His victory isn’t “like” our victory. His victory “is” our victory. His happiness “is” our happiness.
As Tony Greig so beautifully summed it up on that magical night in Sharjah:
“I don’t think anywhere in the world, people can love a guy more than they love him here.”