On this day 45 years ago (the 24th of April, 1973), if someone had told you that a middle class Indian, a student of Sharadashram Vidyamandir School, would go on to become one of India’s greatest ever cricket inspirations, what would be your thoughts? Impossible, isn’t it? International cricket for a period of 23 years, from the age of 16, 50 plus scores in a one-day game every 3rd match, the only one to score 100 centuries in international cricket.. the list of records is endless. But Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is much more than records. For those born in the 80s and 90s , Sachin was fulfilling every middle class Indian’s dreams. Post liberalization in 91, a young and aspirational India wanted a middle-class hero, who could conquer the world and more importantly, our hearts. I don’t think a single cricketer in the 90s has generated as much discussion and debate as much as SRT. Because of him, Jonty Rhodes was a villain for many Indians for a controversial catch in Durban in a tri-series. Because of him, Steve Bucknor was a villain for bad umpiring decisions. Because of him, tonnes of electricity were consumed as well as saved depending on him getting out or otherwise. For a generation, he was the only hope. With each passing day, the hopes and expectations only increased, the debates only increased – did he choke in finals, was he not a finisher, could he not carry the team through in tense matches…
For a hardcore Sachin fan, it did not matter. Every time he was criticized, he let his bat do the talking. Some critics started saying that he plays only for his records and most centuries are in a losing cause. The job of a critic is to criticize, make a mountain out of a mole-hill. 15 Man of the Series awards, 62 Man of the match awards with 90% + Indian victories, Man of the Match award against every one of the ICC Full Members, a lunch with Sir Don Bradman. Unlike certain cricketers who had weaknesses in certain countries, Sachin conquered every country. The tougher the pitch, the more graceful the innings. Perth , Lords, Newlands, MCG, Manchester, Hamilton – name the ground, name the team – you would have SRT associated with it. While it’s easy to find faults, what people forget is the consistency amidst the weight of expectations. I can’t recollect a batsman who was so consistent in his era – an era dominated by Wasim, Waqar, Walsh, Ambrose, Warne, McGrath, Murali and Donald. The 90s had some of the most ferocious cricketers playing for their countries. And at the big stage, the World Cup, Sachin upped his game even more. Again, critics complained of his ability to come poor in semi-finals and finals. But what gets forgotten is the fact that he was majorly responsible for taking the country till that stage. For a decade, the country could not muster a batsman who was 50% close to his abilities. Despite that, India had a near invincible record at home and a miserable one away. Sourav and Rahul finally came on-board and then things started to change. Because of this man, a seemingly unknown injury known as “tennis elbow” got national importance. There was a time when he could do no wrong, on and off the field. He started being called as “God”.
God was quite a nickname for a cricketer. Initially, I didn’t understand what this God business was all about. My first Sachin memory was the 1996 world Cup. The stumping off Jayasuriya in the semi-final against Sri Lanka cost us the game. He had scored 60 odd in a total score of 130. Like the critics, I thought Sachin would never play in a big match. Then Desert Storm happened in Sharjah. Then came a Henry Olonga massacre. Then a 136 with a stiff back in Chepauk. That was the first time I cried after seeing India lose to Pakistan. With a stiff back and 270 to chase in the fourth innings, India was tottering at 82/5. I was waiting to switch off the TV but it was Sachin who prevented me. Nayan Mongia decided to give support and Sachin took India to 254/6. With 16 runs left, Sachin got out to Saqlain Mushtaq. Most Indians knew the match was over. The next three wickets fell in the space of 4 runs and India snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and lost by 12 runs. Sachin had lost the match but won a billion hearts.
But Sachin would hurt the Pakistanis 5 years later. He reserved his best for the 2003 World Cup battle with Pakistan at Centurion. Wasim, Waqar, Shoaib and co were punished duly. 98 off 75 balls but there was a game changing moment in the match. While on 32, Abdur Razzaq dropped Sachin off Wasim Akram. An exasperated Akram shouted “ Tujhe pata hai tu ney kiska catch choda hai?” That summed up the status of SRT in his heyday. By that time, Sehwag, Yuvraj and Kaif had arrived but Sachin was the big fish. It was my Maths exam the next day and most of my college mates, like me,decided to chuck the preparation and see the match. That was the power of Sachin and an Indo-Pak match.
When MS Dhoni arrived, he very rightly chose to do away with senior cricketers who were liabilities on the field. Sourav went first, followed by Anil and Rahul. But Sachin was in a different league. Till his last date, his fielding or batting was never a question. His commitment was 250%. That was the power of the man. Barring Glenn McGrath, I don’t think any bowler has “troubled” him per se. Warne was taken to the cleaners. Murali was out-batted. The others didn’t matter. Most people think Dhoni has invented the helicopter shot. But true Sachin fans have seen this shot in the Natwest Trophy 2003 against England where Sachin helicopters Darren Gough over midwicket. All these made me think Sachin was God.
But God has a way of showing mortals why God is God. The Ferrari car controversy where Sachin refused to pay some gift tax initially, the Rajya Sabha disaster, his failure as a captain twice were all God’s way of showing us that every human is fallible. Despite this, every Sachin fan hoped that he would be part of at least one World Cup winning team. That moment arrived in 2011 and Sachin should thank Gambhir and Dhoni for pulling India out of trouble. I guess God had smiled on him finally. It was only fitting that a young Virat Kohli carried Sachin on his shoulders that night at the Wankhede with the ever-familiar shouts of “Sachiiin… Sachiiin” That shout from the audience is much more than a shout. It means various things to various people – adulation, hope, inspiration, magic, glory, beauty, finesse, perfection, consistency, humility and idol worship. To say that his last international speech was emotional is an understatement. He couldn’t script his farewell with a century but he had done enough for a nation starved of sporting heroes in the 90s.
I can go on and on about this man but I have to stop. Stop because I am lucky to share my birthday with him and I must spend time with family on this special day. As I turn 32 and Sachin 45, I only hope that one day our paths will cross and I take a selfie with him. That is definitely high on my bucket-list. Even better if we both cut a cake jointly. I hope God fulfills my dream. Until then, I will keep staring daily at his portrait on my wall ( my wife gifted me a sketch by The Hindu where his 100 centuries are written as his face outline) and keep saying….
SRT – thanks for the memories