Silence of the Man

Catching up His fans have rarely allowed Sachin to fail
Catching up His fans have rarely allowed Sachin to fail Photo: Reuters

Of the two Sachin Tendulkars who played for India, it was the first who spoke at the end of the Mumbai Test match — all emotion and heart — while it was the second who addressed the press conference the following day. This time it was about measured tones and maturity. Thus in a matter of two days, this boy who grew into a man in front of our eyes over 24 years did so once again, and this time it wasn’t his bat that did the talking.

The first speech was all moral science and gratitude, all intensely personal and platitude. It was spontaneous, even creative. Much like his batting in the first phase of his career when he was anointed the best batsman in the world at the age of 19. “At 16, they thought I was a very good player because I played with the under-19s,” recalled Brian Lara. “By then Sachin was already an international player!”

That first speech, which had a nation blubbering, revealed an aspect of the private Sachin that the public Sachin seldom touched upon. The confession that he himself had been tearful, and the joke about his coach and his refusal to say ‘Well done’, this was the boy Sachin coming through. The man Sachin was back in control the next day. “In my heart, I will be playing and praying for India,” he said. And showed the dignity and gentlemanliness that featured his displays on the field when he said, “It is a great honour to be named for the Bharat Ratna alongside CNR Rao.”

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

What was common to the two sessions was the unshakeable feeling that when Sachin speaks, the world listens. It is important to remember this. We shall come back to this in a moment.

Of the two Tendulkars who played for India, the first had three or four shots for every ball; the second seemed conscious of three or four ways it could have got him out. Yet, amazingly, the spirit of the boy was ever present in the batsman, whether 16 or 40. A decade after making his debut, he was still teaching Shoaib Akhtar at the World Cup the difference between a good batsman and a great one. When pushed to the wall, Sachin continued to exhibit a rare creativity. It was not enough to somehow escape. It was necessary to escape while teaching the bowler a lesson he would never forget.

In sport, as in art, late works usually crown a lifetime of effort. Looked at from either end of their careers, sportsmen present a harmonious picture. Occasionally, the “late style” (to borrow a phrase made popular by Edward Said) is about intransigence and unresolved contradictions. It doesn’t fit into the whole.

It is not uncommon for batsmen who began their careers as leading strokemakers to finish as part of the supporting cast. Age converts the carefree into the careworn. Rohan Kanhai is a good example of a batsman who began by inventing strokes against the best bowling and ended by playing “experienced” innings in the shadow of the next generation.

Experience often means that players are more aware of things in their own game that do not work, and are chary of taking chances. Why attempt a risky boundary when there is a safe single to be had? Firebrand speakers become merely adequate, daredevil adventurers become boring teachers, those renowned for thinking out of the box show how comfortable they are sitting in it. It is the same with sportsmen.

Sachin’s journey has been dramatic. It may have been the Chennai defeat against Pakistan nearly a decade-and-a- half ago that first sowed the seeds of the new Tendulkar. He was distraught at getting out so close to a win. He saw the need to be around; occupancy of the crease was not just a personal quirk but a team requirement. Sachin, the champagne cricketer with a dancer’s footwork, curbed himself. He didn’t actually become a clock-watching clerk, but he understood the need.

The series of injuries that followed — toes, back, elbow — meant that effervescence was replaced by effectiveness, the straight and narrow was preferred to the fantastic. Like great batsmen of any era, Sachin often seemed to be playing on a different planet altogether, keen to sculpt an innings that both merged with the team effort and stood out for its uniqueness. His Sydney double century in 2004, when he scored no boundary between the bowler and point, that came after self-examination revealed he had been playing away from his body too often. It was almost as if the off-side did not exist; on display was discipline as well as proof that he could get the bowlers to bowl where he wanted them to.

The boy who hit Abdul Qadir for three sixes in Peshawar had moved aside for the man who let the ball go outside the off stump with the realisation that not playing was an integral part of playing. In 110 matches before that Sydney Test, Sachin was involved in 31 wins; in the 90 Tests following it, he played his part in 41. India’s win percentage had gone up from 28 to 46 (obviously, there were other circumstances too). Sachin, an intelligent man, could not have been unaware of this.

When individual effort does not contribute significantly to team victories, there is unhappiness all around. By 30, with nothing left to prove as a batsman, Sachin set about correcting this nagging anomaly, this disconnect between his performance and the team’s. If that meant he would have to cut out the flamboyance, then so be it. If fans complained that Sachin was playing within himself, he could point to India’s wins.

Indians refused to give Sachin the luxury of failure. The mirror he held up to us was a distorted one, making us seem, like him, invincible, rich and accomplished. When he failed, therefore, it was as if we had failed. That is the biggest compliment fans can pay their hero. But it was a heavy burden even if Sachin seemed to carry it lightly.

A rough calculation shows that he averaged more than 200 days in a year travelling for cricket, either playing it at the highest level, or practising. Two-thirds of a year devoted to cricket over a quarter century, and not one bad day at work? Even Mozart was allowed an occasional off day.

Cricket done, it is now back to the speeches. As the senior player for many years, the undisputed grey eminence of the sport, if there was one drawback, it was Sachin’s refusal to comment on the best and the worst of the game he graced so well. What were his views on the issues of the game in his time: match fixing and spot fixing, chucking, the Decision Review System, the not-so-subtle caste system decided on economic basis with the poorer countries kowtowing to the richer ones?

Had Sachin spoken up at the turn of this century when an India captain and other players were involved in match fixing, would we have had the kind of spot-fixing problems we have today? What were Sachin’s thoughts outside of the joys of patriotism and glories of the motherland? These were never revealed.

The fear of being misquoted cannot be an excuse for taking the path of least resistance. Contracts with the board can be got around. Sachin’s silence on important issues meant that a whole generation and the one that followed allowed the decisions in their favourite sport to be taken by those who had little feel for it. The mentality could be summed up thus: “If Sachin doesn’t open his mouth, why should we?”

This is unfortunate because a Sachin opening his mouth would have led to the cricketing world sitting up and taking notice. If he didn’t know it before, the two nationally televised Sachin media sessions have made it clear now.

Praying for India is important; speaking for cricket is even more so. Few have Sachin’s stature, or indeed his integrity. It would be such a waste if all that were allowed to atrophy for want of use. Speak out, Sachin. Your sport needs you.

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