We didn’t have a television when he played his 1989 debut series in Pakistan. Scores suggest none of the matches came close to a result, with 28 being the highest number of wickets falling in the 1st test match of the series. Going by the high-strung emotion I remember experiencing in the ODI contests of the mid-90′s, one can imagine the pressure both teams must have played under in India-Pakistan cricket matches. The fact that Imran was “unhappy” with the drawn series while Srikkanth was “delighted” probably points to the superiority of the Pakistan test team. For India, the series belonged to S Manjrekar with 569 runs at an astounding average of 95 with a double-hundred, 1 hundred and 3 fifties.
Making his debut at 16 years 205 days and batting at #6, Tendulkar had a modest beginning with 215 runs in his debut series, at an average of 36 with 2 fifties.
Although I have no memory of it, apparently, the folks watched on our black & white Dyanora TV when he became the 2nd youngest by 30 days at 17 years 112 days to score a century at Old Trafford. This time, the batsman for India in the series was M Azharuddin with 426 runs at 85.2, 2 big hundreds and 1 fifty. Until the innings in Manchester, mentions of his name were more to do with his young age than his batting, Manjrekar, Azharuddin and Vengsarkar getting more of the mention, so much so that he was given the role of third seamer after India were thrashed at Lords.
The buildup to the 1991-92 tour of Australia was when his aggressive shot-making was mentioned for the first time. The overarching theme was, as usual, that of Indians as poor travellers who were unlikely to challenge Border’s Australians as he became the most capped test match player. The century at Old Trafford had got people’s attention and he had gone from being a young batsman to “Gavaskar’s successor” in the matter of one season. And he delivered. This was the first time he was India’s most successful batsman in a series, with 368 runs at an average of 46, that included that innings at Perth to go with the 148* at Sydney.
By the time, the 1991-92 Australia series ended, the words “prized wicket“, were ascribed to him for the first time. A tag that the most dominant team of the generation kept in place for the best part of the next two decades.
Concurrent to the test series, he’d started rolling them off in the ODIs as well, one of his fifties taking India to the Benson & Hedges World Series final. He scored 7 other half-centuries between the Benson & Hedges World Series and the World Cup combined on the 91-92 tour of Australia, for an aggregate of 684 runs at an average of 46, nearly 15 runs an innings more than the rest of the batsmen.
The ’91-92 tour of Australia was when he went from “reasonably-known prospect” to “flag-bearer for a country’s self-esteem”. It was as simple and abrupt as that.
Since that tour, I cannot recall a match, ODI or Test, where he didn’t carry the brunt of expectation, probably greater than that of the other playing 10, put together. Interestingly, it took until the 1994 New Zealand tour for the world to get a taste of his explosive batting in ODIs at the top of the order. Filling in for an injured Sidhu at the top of the order, chasing 143 to win, Sachin scored 82 in 42 balls and the rest, as they say, is Tendulkar.
From there, the aura surrounding him only grew brighter as an inconsistent team was guaranteed at least a few strokes of brilliance (pun intended), no matter what the conditions, or quality of opposition. In our eyes, the cricket-hungry Indian viewers, he became Superman and Mr. Dependable rolled into one. Impregnable in defense, Destructive in attack, rock-solid yet entertaining, that’s what we expected from Tendulkar. Every innings.
All across India, from the mid-90s to the early 2000′s, the routine was identical. People hurrying home from schools, colleges and workplaces, bursting into their homes to breathlessly scan the upper right of their television screens, searching for that all important number to the right of the “/”. If it read anything but “0″, there would be a frantic visual search on the television screen for the familiar short-statured wide-legged stance at the striker’s end or the hand-on-hip, body weight resting on bat-handle at the non-striker’s end. If found, it didn’t matter if it was 14/3, a long slow relieved breath would be expelled. As the customary set of commercials faded into the live picture, filling the room with the buzz of the crowd replaced by absolute stillness, as the bowler ran in. Then, a sharp intake as a delivery passed him, perilously close to the bat’s edge. The sharpest intakes were reserved for when the ball swung in to thud into the lightweight polyurethane pads and the bowlers and fielders went up in appeal.
If ardent prayers to various gods were to show up as server traffic on some divine network management dashboard , the biggest spikes would coincide with every appeal against Sachin Tendulkar.
Even my mother, a person incapable of thinking a negative thought about any person in the wide world, would darkly comment on nefarious intentions of the fielding team, that was “unfairly putting pressure on the umpire with their loud appeals”. Then, a delivery would stray down middle or leg ever so slightly, the trademark right glove turning over left on the bat handle, not so much hitting, as just redirecting the ball, to the square leg boundary. Crowds, those at the ground, those at home, erupt. Camera closes on Tendulkar, haring back for the second run, slowing down to watch the ball cross the boundary rope, the quick nod of the helmeted head, with the miniature tri-colour pasted on it, as he surveys the field before going through the most recognizable set of movements in world cricket before taking guard again.
If there existed an implicit measure of “Gross National Hopefulness”, for India, it was highest in those moments, when Sachin was at the crease, looking in solid touch with a couple of imperious boundaries behind him, the crowd surging in anticipation, seeking to be reassured by the resounding crack of his MRF adorned blade.
The difficulty of the task ahead was irrelevant. The quality of the opposition’s bowlers was irrelevant. For the 3rd most populous country in the world, every Sachin innings was like watching a big-budget Hollywood production of a Marvel Comics superhero. He had to prevail. Top class quick bowlers? Wrist spinners? Ball not coming on? Wickets going down in a heap at the other end? It did not matter. The script said he would prevail. He did, many a time. Except when he didn’t. And then for us, it was like a stoner coming off his high. Until the next match, and the next fix. He did a darn good job of delivering, in hindsight, so good that he got taken for granted. When numbers 1 and 2 were expected to not last longer than the first 30 minutes and didn’t make it past 10, Tendulkar had to stand firm. We would laud the lesser men with the same job description as him, just for getting into double-figures, while anything short of complete domination by India’s talisman, was failure. As the bar dropped on those he shared the dressing room with, we kept raising it for him. We were crushed when he didn’t surpass our ridiculous expectations, aggrieved at being let down.
Then reinforcements started arriving. First in support roles. His batting seemed to get a 2nd wind as he played with the free-stroking abandon of his early days. Then the mantle seemed to shift as the Indian team finally came of age, winning overseas with little contribution from the MRF blade. Of course, it took mammoth team efforts, just like was always required in a team sport. But the training wheels were finally off. And with it, the fervent dependence of the Indian cricket fan on Sachin Tendulkar.
And as the likes of Sehwag and Kohli laid into attacks, it became acceptable to do the unthinkable, to call out a Tendulkar dismissal for poor footwork. For cricket writers to even none-too-subtly call for Sachin to hang it up.
Rather than defend or counter any of the several and growing number of arguments, rather than being ungracious enough to actually pretend to understand what goes through a champion’s head, rather than to think I can differentiate between a few misjudged deliveries and slowing reflexes, rather than venture an opinion on when he should quit. For every square drive played at the top of the bounce, for every imperious punch down the ground, for every dance down the track sending the ball over long on, for every skipped heartbeat, sharp intake of breath, rapturous delight and for even for every heartbreak, the line that, for me, will capture the essence of Tendulkar’s batting, now and always, that byline on that print ad I saw all those years ago in a sports store: “When Sachin bats, all else…is irrelevant“
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