It is possible that Sachin Tendulkar can walk on water. That wouldn’t surprise a billion Indians, who also probably believe he can catch bullets in his teeth and has X-ray vision. When he was hauled up for ball tampering in South Africa (a technical, rather than a deliberate crime), the whole nation jumped to his defence, and it nearly split the cricketing world. Now Adam Gilchrist has dared to speak the unspeakable — suggesting that Sachin might be human after all, and subject to the pulls and pressures of humankind.
Of course, by the time you read this, order is likely to have been restored. Gilchrist will say Sachin is a great player and a personal friend, and everything he wrote about the player changing his version of what happened during the Symonds-Harbhajan fracas was taken out of context. He will blame it on the media for blowing up the story. And laugh all the way to the bank as his book sells.
What sort of a man is this who can do no wrong? I once read about the footballer Pele being hauled up by a referee — later, the referee was reprimanded for this act. Perhaps, some day an umpire might be officially chastised for giving Tendulkar out leg before. Future biographers might go out of their way to look for stories that show up Tendulkar in poor light, to balance the near-saintly qualities that are in the public domain. They might struggle. The stories they find might merely show that Tendulkar was human after all — and that’s not a bad thing to be.
Indians like their heroes to be modest, non-controversial, high performers. Heroes have to continue to be heroes even when no one is looking, and had our national obsession with Tendulkar been based solely on his game, it wouldn’t have mattered.
But we want our heroes to be pure as the driven snow, and that is why any suggestion of impropriety is taken as a personal insult — and, by extension, a national insult. Our heroes tend to be conscious of this, and live the life of heroes. Tendulkar, it must be said, has had to make less effort than most, because he is by nature hero material. Sunil Gavaskar put it best when he said that Tendulkar’s most striking feature was his balance, “both on and off the field.”
Balance was the key to the batting of the two men whose record Tendulkar’s will be compared to, Don Bradman and Gavaskar.
If Bradman himself hadn’t said so, it is unlikely that Tendulkar would be clubbed with him. When the Don pointed out the similarity between the two to his wife, Tendulkar was only 23; it might have destroyed a lesser man. But it is a tribute to the Indian’s skill and temperament that he continues to give bowlers everywhere nightmares (literally in his case, as Shane Warne has confessed), and now emerges 12 years later as the greatest run scorer in the game. But is he the greatest batsman of all time?