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Sachin at 50: The burden of being a prodigy

Tendulkar is precious because he realised his potential, a burden most child prodigies buckle under

Sachin Tendulkar

Sachin Tendulkar | Photo: Reuters

Suveen Sinha New Delhi
On the day Sachin Tendulkar turns 50, it is time for one more retelling of the Amol Muzumdar story.

Over the course of February 23 and 24, 1988, Muzumdar waited for his turn to bat. It turned out to be an interminable wait, because his school, Shardashram Vidyamandir in Mumbai, did not lose another wicket. When they declared, Sachin Tendulkar, two months short of 15, and Vinod Kambli, 16, were still unbeaten, having stitched up a record partnership of 664. Muzumdar, 13, was the next man – sorry, boy – in.

This story has three child prodigies. Only one of them truly lived up to the promise. The other two went on to inhabit a world whose residents, in their moments of silence, tell themselves what Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy, says in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender; I coulda been somebody…”

What “coulda been”

Muzumdar might have said to himself: “I coulda been an international.” On his first-class debut, Muzumdar scored 260. By the time he retired in 2014, he had played 171 first-class matches, in which he scored 11,167 runs at an average of 48.13, with 30 centuries. He is a bonafide legend of domestic cricket. But he never played internationals, although he was vice-captain of India under-19 in 1994 and played alongside Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid for India A.

Kambli played internationals and had a better start to his Test career than Tendulkar. In his first seven Tests, Kambli scored two hundreds and two double hundreds. He also played 104 one-day internationals.

But he played his last Test when he had not yet turned 24. His ODI career, known more for the number of comebacks he made — nine — and less for his exploits on the field, ended when he was 28, although he did once hit Shane Warne for 22 runs in an over. The short and fast ball was his undoing. A reputation for indiscipline did not help.

None of the three features among the batsmen with the top four individual scores in a match in Mumbai’s school cricket. The first three in that list are Pranav Dhanawade, who scored 1,009 not out in 2015, followed by Prithvi Shaw (546 in 2013), and Armaan Jaffer (498, 2010). Even the fourth top score in Mumbai school cricket, 439 by Sarfaraz Khan in 2009, is 90 more than Kambli’s 349 that February day in 1988, and he had outscored Sachin.

Then and now

All the four top scorers had made headlines, but none more than Dhanawade, whose feat was reported in newspapers as far as Australia and England (Andy Bull of The Guardian, his upper lip stiff, called him the first batsman to successfully navigate the nervous 990s). Tendulkar gifted him one of his own bats and M S Dhoni called him “special”.

Eight years later, we only have sporadic reports about Dhanawade, most of them still celebrating that 1,009-run knock. Other reports talk about a loss of form, loss of confidence, his being jettisoned by sponsors, and other tragic tales. Last heard, he was going to England to play club cricket and saw it as a high point of his career.

A Times of India report dated April 9, 2022, quoted Dhanawade as saying his stint in England was important not only for him but also for his family, because his father, Prashant, still drove an autorickshaw for a living. In the interview, Dhanawade expressed his desire to play in the Ranji Trophy, the domestic tournament, for Mumbai.

Prithvi Shaw appeared to be staying the course for a while. He made his Ranji debut for Mumbai at 17, scoring a match-winning century in the second innings, and a few months later became the youngest to score a century on Duleep Trophy debut, a record earlier held by Tendulkar. India won the Under-19 World Cup under Shaw’s captaincy and Delhi Daredevils (now Delhi Capitals) bought him for Rs 1.2 crore in the 2018 IPL auction. He played his first Test in November 2018 at the age of 19 and became the youngest Indian to score a century on debut.

So far, so good. After that, not so much.

Shaw has played only five Tests and six ODIs so far, and appears to be out of the reckoning for national duty — unless his fortunes revive in IPL 2023, where he has had an indifferent first half.

Sarfaraz Khan was just 12 when he scored that 439. He is now 25 and piling on the runs. He averages more than 79 in 37 first-class matches (the long-duration domestic matches) and 39 in List-A (domestic matches of 50 overs a side). But – some, such as Sunil Gavaskar, find this unfathomable – Sarfaraz does not seem to be on the national selectors’ radar.

Armaan Jaffer scored more than 400 in an innings not once but twice in Mumbai’s school cricket. Two years after that 498, he scored a 473. He is now 24 years old and has played 15 first-class and as many List-A matches. No one talks about him as the next big thing.

Why Sachin is special

This is just the line-up of four batsmen who were seen as the next big thing around the time Sachin’s career was winding down. If we look beyond Mumbai school cricket, beyond cricket, and beyond sport, stories abound of child prodigies who did not quite make it. These stories span the range from movies, music and literature to science, maths and politics.

It is never easy to be a prodigy. Correct that, it is never easy to be seen to be a prodigy. The spotlight, the expectations, the pressure, the self-importance get to you. That is why Sachin Tendulkar is special.

He had become the topic of local train talk in Mumbai even before he played for India, even before he played senior cricket. All the cricket experts in Mumbai – the city has a fair few – spoke of his unbelievable ability. The Cricket Club of India, for which Sachin played the Kanga League, waived the rule that children below 18 were not allowed inside its premises. Food vendors in Khau Galli, the street near Mumbai’s famed cricket maidans, offered him a free meal when he scored a century.

After the 664 in 1988, Harsha Bhogle, who was in an adverting job and dipping his toes into a career as a cricket writer and broadcaster, wrote an article in Sportsworld magazine with the headline: “Is Sachin Tendulkar the greatest schoolboy cricketer ever?”

All this could turn anyone’s head. It did not turn Sachin’s. His famous coach at Shardashram, Ramakant Achrekar, said in Bhogle’s article how upset he was at all the publicity around his ward. "People don't realise that he is just 15. They keep calling him for some felicitation or the other. The other day he was asked to inaugurate a children's library. This is ridiculous. These things are bound to go to his head. He will start thinking he has achieved everything. I hope all this stops so he can concentrate and work hard."

None of his fears, well-founded as they were, came true. Sachin did not let any of it go to his head. He did not start thinking he had achieved everything. And he did concentrate and work hard. He is rare because he combined precocious talent with an impeccable work ethic. He is rare because he is the prodigy who actually went on to fulfil all the promise he showed as a child.

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First Published: Apr 24 2023 | 6:37 PM IST

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