NUMBERS don’t suffice when the subject is Sachin Tendulkar. You need some words set to music. You need a Brothers in Arms tune and a Mark Knopfler clone to strum the guitar. You need to come up with this to explain who he is: “Gonna tell you the Sachin Tendulkar story—about a boy who rose to fame playing cricket as a kid in the streets of Bombay, born to be a household name, he can hit those fours and sixes, that Tendulkar boy sure can play, he’s got the passion and devotion, blasting away, he’s here to stay, now he’s hitting those balls into glory, with a power that cuts like a knife, he’s a winner—a winner in the game of life, a winner in the game of life.” (The title theme in the just-released documentary Tendulkar at 25, aired on DD on August 16 with a rerun on DD-II on August 23.)
Though the lean crew that markets the Indian genius has to raid Dire Straits for a signature tune to embellish the ultimate batsman that Baron Frankenstein might assemble in the modern era, it is, perhaps, going to be emblematic of our nation for the next 10 years that in between exploding balls of uranium our primary obsession will be Sachin.
For the last three-and-a-half weeks, cricket’s Michael Jordan has been on his first-ever holiday abroad, flying to Philadelphia, Connecticut, and New York with his wife Anjali and daughter Sara. He has, after the Diana memorial match at Lord’s last month, avoided the insatiable media swarms that feed on champions—by coming a long way from home. He has spent time with his daughter, now close to 10 months, listened to music, played pool, figured out touch football, done the Atlantic shores on yachts (even though he has a phobia for water and can’t swim), gazed at the Manhattan skyline, relaxed with friends, slept, and shopped. India’s no 1 brand hasn’t ever done all of this together. And he doesn’t know when he will do it next.
In fact, the first-ever holiday in his life was at Kunoor, near Ooty. This, a sedate six-day affair after India’s Sharjah triumph in April where he transformed into some new kind of cinematic explosive, playing two innings that prompted Australian captain Steve Waugh to say: “I bowled a perfect yorker. He somehow got under it and scooped it one bounce into the fence. I thought I can’t bowl much better than that. It’s time to give someone else a chance.” In Tendulkar at 25, Steve adds: “I want to set the record straight. No one can be like Don Bradman. He stands alone. But I think when he’s (Sachin) finished he will be second to him.”
Of course, the film also has Bradman commenting on Sachin: “I was very very struck with his technique and I asked my wife to come and have a look at him because, I said, I never saw myself play but I feel that this fellow is playing much the same I used to play by looking at him. I can’t explain it in detail, but it’s just his compactness, and his stroke production and his technique, it all seemed to gel as far as I was concerned and that was how I felt.” Sachin’s reaction to the Don’s comment: “It is the greatest compliment I ever got. I called my parents, my brother to say this is what Bradman said about me. It thrilled me.” The documentary itself has comparison snippets of Bradman and Sachin playing the pull and an on-drive. It’s a striking similarity.
In Connecticut, however, the thrill factor for India’s performance hologram is the quality of sea-food that he can lay his hands on. Says Sachin: “I love sea-food. My mother is the greatest cook of sea-food in the whole world.” He himself doesn’t mind a shot at cooking if he’s in the mood.
But it’s pool and touch football that’s engrossing him right now—areas where he doesn’t necessarily display the high-testosterone charge of insanity we are familiar with. But, here too he displays a competitiveness, as if any lack of it would be in collision with his sporting philosophy. Says WorldTel president Mark Mascarenhas: “There were four of us playing pool. It was three in the night and the whole game was down to the last shot which Sachin had to take. He had to go to the far cushion and come back all the way to hit the black ball. Nine times out of 10 an average player wouldn’t be able to do it specially at three in the night. But he potted the ball in and had everybody dropping their cues and laughing. Now what shall I call it? Seizing the moment or something. You set up a stage and if he’s there he will perform.”
There’s also the compulsive necessity to be in the thick of things. Another example from Mascarenhas: “We were playing touch football. Sachin was in my team. I declared myself the captain. He said nothing. The other side had four good guys. After two plays he just came up to me and said ‘Mark, I know what to do to beat them. Leave it to me’. He tossed the ball high up, waded through the field and caught it at the other end. From then on he was in charge. It just took him a while to figure what the game was about.”
The documentary is a bit of a disappointment. That is, relatively speaking. With Sachin no amount of information can ever level off your curiosity. Directed and produced by Peter Dempsey, a former Channel 9 employee, of Topline Sports Vision it has some minor scoops. An interview of Sachin at 15 by Tom Alter, for example:
Everybody’s comparing you to Gavaskar?
My feeling is that I don’t think I am compared to Gavaskar.
Are you willing to go to the West Indies?
If I get selected I will go.
How will you face Ambrose, Walsh and the others?
I will try my best to face them.
Have you ever played any other sport?
No. I have always played cricket.
What would you call this? My guess would be cute. In fact, the one thing that strikes you is how politically correct he was even at an early age. Respectful towards elders, making the right noises, not giving anything away to the interviewer. All qualities which still stick to him, only more amplified, in one way or another. In a larger sense, he’s also a victim of the demand that sportsmen should conform to society’s many expectations. Tobacco and liquor companies have been lining up at his agent’s doorsteps with blank cheques but he hasn’t bitten yet.
Admirable, but you sometimes wonder whether this constant constraint of having to be a role model doesn’t become a chore. Coming back to scoops. The other minor victory for Dempsey has been to film him with Anjali and Sara in his Bombay flat. He even manages a soundbite from Anjali: “He’s a very good father. More than my expectations.” We also learn from her that he continues to play cricket with his friends in the building.
THE other revelations come from Sachin himself. On his coach Ramakant Achrekar: “He played a big role. We used to have 4-5 nets everyday. At the fifth net he would stand behind me. I would be tired. He would place a one rupee coin on top of the stumps. Whoever got me out would get that. If no one got me out I got to keep the coin. I would be totally focused on not getting out. ” If one rupee coins could be such an aid in motivational techniques, the finance ministry should make a special budgetary provision to distribute them to all primary schools. On his practice fads: “I had very funny ways of practising. I practised my back swing with a ball hanging in a sock. I used to play a couple of thousand balls a day like this.” There is also a brief insight into the champion’s debut innings and series against Pakistan in 1989. “I was tense. Whatever I had expected to happen didn’t happen. I felt after that that I wouldn’t be able to handle international cricket at all. But I was hoping for another opportunity. I made up my mind not to lose my wicket. I got 59. When I got back I remember saying I don’t know any reason why I can’t do that again.” In fact, some way into the film, Richie Benaud alludes to the same series. “They bowled him short-pitched stuff and bouncers. Umpire Holder even warned Wasim Akram. Sachin, they tell me, never took a backward step.”
Curiously, Dempsey hasn’t talked to Sachin’s teammates and, for that matter, not even Sunil Gavaskar. Somehow, for a film on Sachin to go on air without insights from Sunny seems like more than a small slight. The chief villain is ESPN which prevented Sunny from doing it because the documentary was to air on DD. Says Mascarenhas, who spent $100,000 on commissioning the film: “I asked around and Dempsey’s name was recommended by more than a few persons. I just gave him a free hand.” So in between clips of Sachin reducing all bowlers to underdog status and grinding them to catfood we have insights from former players and current commentators. A few are reproduced below:
- Richie Benaud: “Neil Harvey, Sunny, all had the footwork and the judgement. With Sachin his stroke off the backfoot, particularly off the pace bowler, is extraordinary—the next thing you know is that somebody is picking the ball from the gutter.”
- Wes Hall: “He is a genius. He has a shot for every ball. The only way to stop him is to keep him off the strike.”
- Ravi Shastri on the 1992 Test at Sydney: “I had just got to 100. And was having my pow wow with the Aussies. Improving my vocabulary. Sachin was on 5 or 6. He was also getting some stick, I think from the Waugh brothers. He said to me ‘wait till I get my 100 then even I will give them some stick.’ Even at that early age you knew what he was made of.”
- Ian Botham: “Everytime I see him he gets better. His concentration reminds me of Sunny.”
- David Gower, of the 1990 series: “I was making a comeback. I was in the slips where you have no control over the way your bowlers are bowling. When he was at the crease the balls were fly-ing past you at a million miles an hour. The great bulk of players have definite movements before the shot is in the player’s mind. For Sachin the balance is there. He is quick to complete his shot. He covers the crease much better than mere mortals.”
- Greg Chappell: “I just get the feeling because of his mental strength that Sachin will be definitely the best player of his era and probably the best 2-3 of all time.”
- Ian Chappell: “Whenever I see Sachin play I am reminded of the Graeme Pollock quote of cricket being a ‘see the ball, hit the ball game’. He hits the ball if it’s there to be hit.”
- Barry Richards: “His hand speed is so quick it gives tremendous acceleration to the ball. Normally he hits a single or a four. Very rarely a three.”
- Tony Cozier: “You look for weaknesses in top players. They can’t be as good as they seem. You look at Sachin and say where is it? It’s difficult to identify a weakness.” When you try to slip in a question about weaknesses as you sit guzzling orange juice with Sachin he is almost embarrassed. Modesty is a big ingredient when you try to con-firm. But he thinks for a while and says, almost apologetically, “I don’t think there is any flaw but there are times when you get out in a similar fashion. It’s time to worry a bit then. I am happy with my batting right now. I don’t need to get into bad habits. Usually what happens when you are scoring runs is that you try that something extra which is alien to your game. That’s when the problem starts.”
Like, maybe, when Allan Donald, who along with Wasim Akram, Sachin rates as the two best bowlers he has faced, bowled him twice through his gates in the India-South Africa test series of 1997. Jimmy Amarnath had then said: “Getting bowled is something that very rarely happens to top batsmen.” Amarnath went on to infer that the twin setbacks could be because the Indian captain had changed his stance. In an interview to a daily, Sachin willy-nilly confirmed this analysis by saying that he changes his stance slightly every few months but insisted that people had only noticed it because of his dismissals. He is more dismissive now: “One good delivery can get any batsman in the world. All you can do then is think about the next game, wait for your next opportunity. Donald was no problem. It just happened.”
WHAT, however, just didn’t happen during Sachin’s stint as captain was enough wins for India. That’s something that still rankles. “There were no match-winning performances. The last stride was always difficult. Then people started saying that captaincy was affecting me. Even in the so-called lean period I was scoring runs. In the West Indies I could have scored three hundreds. But it’s the results that matter.” In fact, the one prominent insight that he carries from his days as India skipper is, in his own words, that “captaincy is how good your team plays”. He has an example ready. “When I sent Robin Singh at one down in Sharjah he got out the first ball. At Dhaka, when Azhar sent the same Robin one down, he scored in the 80s, and won us the tournament.”
The stint also made him “mentally tougher”. Made him live with the fact that “bad performances happen” and that abstinence from recollections was the better way to carry on.
Interestingly, he’s eager to state the point that he wasn’t so disappointed at losing the captaincy “as people made it out to be”. He adds: “I didn’t go into any depression or anything. For me playing and winning for India is the ultimate.”
I look at him hard here. The little over half-a-dozen sessions that I have had with Sachin over two years have all bordered on the formal. Connecticut is a shade more relaxed but not enough for him to enjoy a drink as he talks. Interviews and chats are chores and demands on time that the superstar has to live with. These days he’s veered off even the occasional beer. But he smiles when his daughter comes into view sporadically, in her mother’s arms or somebody else’s. His brother Ajit named her Sara and she resembles Sachin.
If it was anyone else talking about India being the ultimate we might question the patriotism but says a player of Sachin: “He’s like that. The way he came out blazing after he was dethroned was amazing. You see, he’s the only person who has the respect of his peers. Azhar had it but he lost it with the way he went about things during Sachin’s captaincy. Kumble also had it but he too lost it when as the vice-captain he acted like he was vice-captain of Karnataka rather than India.”
In fact, peer respect is something Sachin thrives on. “For me the respect of my teammates is very important. To be considered a great sportsman you have to be able to prove your abilities over a long period. Not just a couple of seasons. To perform over 10-15 years requires a lot of perseverance.” This longevity of performance comes up as an essential ingredient in his own assessment of the current India crop. Says he: “Rahul and Saurav have had a couple of good seasons. But they have to prove themselves over a decade. You can’t just put them in the Miandad or Gower category right now. What I like of all our batsmen is that, apart from Dravid, all of them like to go for their shots. Ganguly has a free swing of the bat, no ordinary player could have played as long as Azhar has, and Dravid has a good technique and is focused. Ajay Jadeja, though he hasn’t played many Tests, is a shrewd player who knows what is to be done. He lifts the whole team when the chips are down. Of course, there is no comparison to Vinod Kambli when it comes to that. In a tight game you need someone to take the tension off with cranky jokes.” In the film, Kambli talks about their record world partnership of 600-odd runs when they were in school together at Mumbai’s Sharda Ashram. “Achrekar sir’s assistant ran all round the ground trying to attract our attention so that he could tell us to declare. Sachin kept telling me not to look at him. We even started singing.” In the end, a telephone chat with Achrekar during one of the breaks scared them enough to declare.
If glimpses of that childhood truancy are almost nonexistent in today’s Sachin it’s because it has metamorphosed into something of the ‘poise’ that Greg Chappell talks about. The cool malevolence that is every talented sportsman’s territory. Says he: “You have to have an edge. Something that motivates you. You are taking this thing very seriously, while at the same time trying to curtail your emotions, control yourself. There’s a balance and right now I might have gotten better at doing that. If you play every game like it was your last you are going to burn out.”
AND even though balance might be the yin and yang for excellence, it doesn’t prohibit occasional indulgences. Like when he scored the century against Australia at Sharjah to make India qualify for the final. Says Sachin: “Though India lost the match we qualified. When I came inside I was angry because of my dismissal. But I realised that we had a chance against the Australians in the next match. What I can’t forget about the incident is the swagger with which I walked into the dressing room. I was walking like Viv Richards. I don’t think I will ever forget that walk.”
If the arrogance, swagger and lofty disdain of Richards strikes a chord with Sachin so does the arcane quality of patience, something that, according to him, has grown beyond the minimum threshold ever since the birth of his daughter. In Sharjah, for instance, when India had to play Australia after the sand storm, Shane Warne kept needling him saying, “You can’t afford a risky shot.