No prophet is accepted in his own country, said Jesus of Nazareth. And his own people crucified him. The divinely-inspired Joan of Arc led the French army to several victories in the Hundred Years' War, yet the Burgundians captured and turned her over to the English, who promptly burnt her at the stake. Closer home, the “half-naked fakir” who won us freedom was felled by three bullets and died uttering Hey Ram. It seems, our heroes are ours to destroy.
Our attitude to Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, whom millions of cricket-mad fans worship as the God of the game, is no different. Armchair critics are attempting to control his game, his life. They are killing him for their sport.
This is the time for fans, and true cricket-lovers, to rally behind the man who has provided solace to a nation in its moments of existential angst over the past two decades. Shield him from the barbs. Spur him to glory. This is the time for India to thank ‘god'.
The critics may harp or carp, but it is amply clear that the country's love for Sachin remains undiluted. Sample this: it was the weekend and the Mumbai Test at the Wankhede Stadium was on. Just a few minutes were left for the umpires to call play. A bunch of boys with tickets in their hands scampered past people rushing to their seats. Suddenly, one of them screeched, staring at the board pointing to the seats: “It is the Sachin Tendulkar stand!”
The boys were not lucky to see the maestro in full flow. His innings, looking promising as always, was nipped in the bud by England's Monty Panesar. However, the awe apparent on their faces and in their voices was testimony to the undeniable fact that he has left an inedible mark on cricket and its fans spanning generations, and continues to do so even after 23 years.
Even now at stadia, regardless of how much he scores, the sight of Sachin walking out to bat gets the crowd on its feet. The sight of him walking back to the pavilion, again regardless of how much he scores, evokes a loud silence.
At a time when the last among his contemporaries, Ricky Ponting, has decided to call it a day, and with most familiar faces he played alongside gone, all eyes are on the last man standing. And, as Sourav Ganguly points out in his column in this cover package, Sachin has set such a high benchmark that anything even a shade less from him leads to a clamour.
The Little Master, however, is unaffected by both the sweet paeans and the stinging criticisms. That's what makes Sachin Tendulkar the man he is. “He is so patient,” says his former Mumbai and India teammate and close friend Sameer Dighe. “I have known him from age 14; he never gets angry, never reacts to criticism. He falls silent; all he says is, 'Let me get the runs'.”
It is not the first time that a string of low scores have led to people questioning his presence in the team. Public memory is notoriously fickle. “He is one of the most mentally tough characters I have ever seen,” says Nilesh Kulkarni, another close friend and former teammate.
Currently, what critics have to understand is that Sachin's contribution is not merely about willow talk. With the team in transition, with new blood walking in, his mere presence out there is crucial. The team needs a sheet anchor.
“Right from the beginning, he has been a guy who has played for the team. A complete team man,” says former Indian batsman Anshuman Gaekwad, who has worked closely with Sachin as coach. “He has never played cricket for himself. Whatever he does, he does for the team.”
Gaekwad says if the other top Indian batsmen were consistently delivering, Sachin would have quit by now. “Think for yourself, how difficult and embarrassing it would have been for him if he was failing while youngsters around him were performing? The point is that the team needs him.”
It was while Gaekwad was coach that Sachin took charge of Team India—a much-desired episode that was not fruitful enough. “Sachin quit captaincy after Mohammad Azharuddin returned to the team,” he recalls. “I tried coaxing him not to. He said, 'No it [his staying on as captain] is not good for the team.' You think had he wanted to continue would anybody have stopped him? He has never been a selfish cricketer.”
Former Indian batting ace Rahul Dravid, too, stressed the need for Sachin to stay on. “India needs him now more than ever. At 1-1 in a tight series, it is going to be very important for senior players to stand up and who better than Sachin to do that,” he said in an interview with espncricinfo.com.
Former India wicket-keeper and national chairman of selectors Kiran More slams people who “jump to conclusions” on Sachin's career. “He plays a very important role in the dressing-room—he keeps the team together,” says More. “He helps youngsters a lot. Players like Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara will benefit much from him.”
Those close to him have no iota of doubt that his aura remains undiminished. Losses have always hurt him. In fact, he scrutinises his own performances. Failures make him only work harder. “I can tell you, technically, fundamentally nothing is wrong with him,” says Zubin Bharucha, Sachin's former Mumbai teammate. “All batsmen go through such phases. He just needs to lose himself in his game, like a kid. He is an intense character driven by success. He hates failures like no one in the world.”
Zubin recalls the time they used to go on cricket tours together as teens: “After the long travel, everyone would say let's go chill. Not Sachin; he would say let's go to practise!”
Age and injuries have certainly made his job more demanding. But thanks to his unwavering commitment, Sachin has handled it well so far. “Initially, he was just a genius. After he got over his big injuries and slump he went to the next level,” says Zubin. “Very few geniuses can do that—transcend from natural genius to applied genius.”
Kulkarni says that has been possible only because he is so disciplined. “When he is focused on his game, nothing distracts him.”
One of the reasons for the amazing levels of Sachin's focus is his support group. The maestro has often acknowledged the support he receives from his wife, Anjali, and brother, Ajit, besides the guidance and grounding he received from his parents.
“His family has sacrificed a lot,” says Dighe. “His first priority has always been his game. Even if it is, say, Diwali, he asks Anjali about the puja, feast, etc., but will not miss practice. He may be in Mussoorie, Khandala, or wherever, but he will not miss training.”
Sachin's friends say he is always the first one to reach the ground for practice. “From 8.30 a.m. to 3.00 p.m., he will be immersed in the nets,” says Dighe. “He ensures the tail-enders do bat; he observes them and gives inputs. His commitment is unbelievable.”
Unbelievable. It was the same word his brother, Ajit, used to describe Sachin's gritty decision to return to play in the 1999 World Cup, a day after their father's funeral. India had lost the match against Zimbabwe, which he missed. And who can forget that frenzied century against Kenya in the next match?
Cricket, after all, has been his life. It is what defines Sachin. And who can decide better for him?
“He wants to deliver. Just let him be. Leave him alone,” sums up Dighe. Zubin adds: “When the end comes, all will know. It will be on a high.”
His family has sacrificed a lot. His first priority has always been his game. Even if it is, say, Diwali, he asks Anjali about the puja, feast, etc., but will not miss practice.
Sameer Dighe, former Indian player and Sachin's close friend
After the long travel, everyone would say let's go chill. Not Sachin; he would say let's go to practise!
Zubin Bharucha, Sachin's former Mumbai teammate, on cricket tours in their teens
Sachin quit captaincy after Azharuddin returned to the team. I tried coaxing him not to. He said, 'No it is not good for the team.' He has never been a selfish cricketer.
Anshuman Gaekwad, former Indian player and coach