Twenty years ago, at sixth place in the batting order, the 16-year-old Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar walked across the National Stadium in Karachi and straight into every Indian’s heart and history.
Perhaps it was his youthful age that first caught the fancy of a country then devoid of sporting heroes, and turned him into a national obsession.
The years have rolled by and with idol-worship, his demigod status, hysteria of epic proportions and harsh criticism, he has seen it all. The country has changed beyond recognition since that fateful November 15, 1989. Yet he himself has remained unchanged. A perfect ambassador for the country, a hero to young and old, a man who is not allowed a single bad day at the office, he holds so much power that he can bring an entire nation to a standstill.
Two decades have passed since Tendulkar entered the Indian psyche. From day one he was looked upon as a phenomenon. Lesser men would have crumpled under the pressure he has lived with. “I have seen God and he bats at number four for India,” say fan-lofted banners in cricket stadiums — even when he is not playing.
At other times the same worshippers have been brutally unforgiving. One of the most shameful days in the history of Indian cricket was the day he was booed — at, of all places, Wankhede Stadium. But all is forgotten when he bats, delivering millions of smiles to his billion fans. Perhaps it is apt that he wears a jersey with the word “Sahara” plastered on the front. Because that’s what he has been for 20 years.
This is not another attempt to write a tribute to India’s greatest sporting hero. Finer words have been written about the man. Instead we recall some of the moments, stories and relationships that have played their part in shaping the life and times of Sachin Tendulkar.
Ramakant Achrekar is one of the most gifted cricketing coaches in India, and he has given the country one of its biggest sporting gifts. Like the shishya, the guru too remains humble about the role he has played in shaping this glittering cricketing career. “When I first saw him, it was clear that he had this immense hunger for doing well at whatever he was doing,” Achrekar says. The coach is not surprised by Tendulkar’s accomplishments. “He is a once-in-a-generation player, but the most important thing is that he has kept his feet firmly on the ground.” For any other man in Tendulkar’s position, that would probably have been impossible.
Everybody in Dadar knows where Shardashram Vidya Mandir is. It’s not his first school, it’s the place where his cricketing journey began. It’s a mere coincidence that I end up asking its directions from a little boy in a school uniform. “That’s Sachin’s school,” he says enthusiastically, before adding “and mine.” The sense of pride is as evident in others associated with the school. The guard at the gate says he’s even had “tourists” coming to see the school which Tendulkar attended as a child. The teachers have changed since those days, but even the new ones drill into schoolchildren the idea that they have a legacy to live up to.
Ranade recalls that the young Tendulkar was a prankster. Once he applied a balm on Ranade’s eyes and then pretended to be asleep. To compound the practical joke, Tendulkar handed Ranade a toothpaste to wash away the balm! Ranade adds, “He has never been intimidated by anyone, and even as a kid he was quite a bully.” Long-suffering bowlers around the world will vouch for that.
Krish Srikkanth is proud of many things in his career. The 1983 World Cup win, the fact that he played a considerable amount of cricket for India. But one thing he remembers with particular pride is that he was the leader of the pack at the time when Tendulkar made his debut. “We were all aware about this young curly-haired boy’s exploits in domestic cricket,” he recalls.
But no one, it seems, knew how good the prodigy actually was. Though shy and reserved, Srikkanth says, there was not an iota of fear in Tendulkar’s eyes. “In those days, a 16-year-old visiting our biggest foes was completely unheard of. He is a special, special cricketer and a wonderful man. His dedication to the game of cricket and country is exemplary.” We won’t see another Tendulkar for years to come, he says.
One urban legend has become part of the Tendulkar folklore. An old man sitting in the stands at Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester applauded Tendulkar’s first century. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the best batsman to have graced the cricketing field,” the old man is said to have said. “And unlike you, I have seen Bradman bat.”
Tendulkar was 17 when he scored his first century. Manoj Prabhakar was on the non-striker’s end, and says he had the best seat in the town. “Such maturity on young shoulders was breathtaking to see. He wasn’t fazed by anything,” he says.
Prabhakar was also his opening partner when Tendulkar scored his first century in limited-overs cricket. He recalls that there was no case of nerves as the youngster approached his hundred. “I just told him to carry on and he would reach the magical figure.” Little did he know then that many such magical numbers would be attained in the future.
FIRST AD CAMPAIGN
An ad for Band-Aid was the first one Tendulkar ever did. It was the Pepsi campaign, however, which put him on the A-list of celebrity endorsers. Ad-man Prahalad Kakkar says Tendulkar is a highly committed performer. He has no airs, is always on time and pays attention to details, says Kakkar, who has done a few ads with the cricketer.
There was one occasion, though, where Tendulkar refused to shoot until the script was changed. In the ad in question, Tendulkar is shown hitting the ball with a stump in time with the jingle, which goes “Ae Sachin aaya re bhaiyya”. This was the modified version of the ad. The original ad showed bowlers bowling to him and Tendulkar hitting the bowlers all over the park with a fly swatter. Tendulkar refused to shoot the ad, saying, “The commercial would indicate that I am bigger than the game.” Kakkar says Tendulkar’s humility “has left me spellbound”. You are not alone, Mr Kakkar.
You can judge a person’s greatness when he is down, when some people make hay while the star’s sun temporarily ceases to shine. No one had heard of first-class cricketer Bhuvneshwar Kumar Singh until January 11, 2009, when he entered the history books by becoming the first bowler ever to dismiss Tendulkar for a duck in domestic cricket. “I will always cherish that moment,” he says. Though he was also part of the Royal Challengers IPL team, Singh’s claim to fame remains that duck. “He has only gotten out for duck just once, so it is a very special feeling for me,” says this bowler.
“I just want to play cricket.” Those words, uttered in a squeaky voice, still echo in the heads of Indian cricket fans. Tom Alter interviewed Tendulkar for that programme. He remembers a boy who was supremely confident about his abilities. “He was shy, but confident and not at all nervous.” It was clear to Alter that he treated all the fuss as part of being a cricketer.
“Remember that this was all when he was 15 and he wasn’t the phenomenon he has grown into,” says Alter. There were rumours that the cricketer was going to be picked for the West Indies tour of 1988-89. Yet Tendulkar was unfazed. “He said he was ready to face the fearsome West Indian quicks, and I was thinking ‘Boy, do you realise you are still 15?’” There’s something about adolescence which gives you that feeling that you can conquer the world. Tendulkar, however, actually did.
FIRST BUSINESS VENTURE
When Tendulkar’s — the restaurant — opened in Colaba about seven years ago, the trend of celebrities having their own branded eateries was not as well-established as it is now. Tendulkar’s is not operational at the moment, but it used to be a shrine for Tendulkar devotees. The idea for the restaurant was Tendulkar’s own, but he set it up in partnership with Sanjay Narang.
I remember having had a meal there once and having gotten a number of tidbits of information about the famous owner. The recipes included his favourites, and the cricketer offered a lot of inputs in the décor of the space as well.
Though Tendulkar later opened another café, called Sachin’s, that too was shut after a cool response from the public. It’s still not clear whether Tendulkar’s has closed permanently. Stand-alone restaurants in India have, in general, not had an easy time.
The term “tennis elbow” entered the vocabulary of Indian cricket fans in 2004, when Tendulkar was diagnosed with the injury. Many fans rushed to query their doctors about how it happens and, more importantly, how long it takes to recover. Orthopaedic specialist Dr Anant Joshi treated Tendulkar. He recalls how his patients suddenly wanted to learn more about tennis elbow!
Joshi, who was then BCCI’s medical consultant, says that patience is the one thing which Tendulkar has in abundance. “He was anxious but knew that these things take time.” Tendulkar, says Joshi, is one of the most hard-working cricketers he knows, “Never shying away from extra training sessions, and he knows how his body responds to minor niggles.”
FIRST BOWLING SPELL
The 1993 Hero Cup will always be remembered for Sachin Tendulkar the bowler. In the semi-finals against South Africa, India was in a spot of bother. Then-captain Mohammed Azharuddin recalls that it was a gamble to throw the ball to Tendulkar for the last over. Needing six to win, putting in a part-time bowler could have backfired.
“Not even once did he say ‘Don’t give me the ball’,” says Azhar. “[He] was confident that he would lead us to victory.” Both Azhar and Tendulkar would have been crucified if the gamble had not paid off. “As a captain,” says the captain, “you always had confidence that Sachin would deliver, be it with the ball or bat.”