Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart started composing at the age of five. Pablo Neruda wrote his Book of Twilights when he was 19. Sachin Tendulkar was all of six when he took up a bat in earnest. By the time he was 15, he was the most talked-about schoolboy cricketer ever. More than two decades on, he remains Indian cricket’s man for all seasons, the repository of a nation’s hope. Those that played with him in the days of auld lang syne have long since migrated to the coaching field and the commentary box. Tendulkar, his eyes perhaps set on a World Cup swansong on home turf, continues to mark his guard and settle into that unmistakable stance.
What is there left to say about this man? At the age of 18, he was standing on tiptoe to drive and cut Australia’s finest on his way to a century in Perth. At 21, he decided that he’d like to open in one-day cricket. He’s still going strong 45 hundreds later. A few days short of 25, he played an innings, with a desert storm as backdrop, that will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to see it. At 30, faced with the longest lean trot of his career, he memorably decided to eschew the cover-drive in Sydney, ruining Steve Waugh’s farewell with a 241 that was an enactment of monastic denial on a cricket field.
The records and the catalogue of achievement will be cherished for years. What’s even more admirable though is the manner in which he’s dealt with unimaginable fame and untold riches. When he was still a teenager who had yet to make his Ranji Trophy debut, Ramakant Achrekar, his coach, said: “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.”
The wonder of Tendulkar is that he never did. A couple of years ago, at a bookshop in the newly opened Bangalore Airport, I happened to see an entry in the visitors’ book. Beneath the familiar signature, there was one line: ‘Sachin Tendulkar, Indian cricket team.’ To others, he may be primus inter pares, the ubiquitous face of his sport, but after all this time and all those halcyon years, he still views himself as part of a bigger picture.
That picture has changed beyond our wildest imagination from the time that a curly-haired 16-year-old walked out on to the field at the National Stadium in Karachi. Back then, cricket was still a sport. Passionately followed, but hardly the commercial behemoth that it has since become. Over the next few years, Tendulkar did for cricket what Michael Jordan had done for the NBA and what Joe Namath and Super Bowl III did for the NFL. When he walked to the crease, a nation stopped to watch. Even now, at restaurants and airports, Blackberrys come out and ball-by-ball updates are discreetly accessed once people learn that “the boss is batting”.
Those that don’t really know India well speak of cinema as the country’s greatest unifying force. That’s nonsense. Amitabh Bachchan’s oeuvre resonates little with the man in Tamil Nadu’s interior, just as Rajnikanth is little more than an object of curiosity to someone in Punjab. But Chennai or Chandigarh, Guwahati or Cochin, Tendulkar walks out to undiluted acclaim. With the exception of Gandhi, perhaps no other Indian has managed to rally so many behind the flag.
When he reached his century with the last stroke of the match in Chennai a year ago, it wasn’t just a stadium that cheered and danced and wept. Coming three weeks after the terror attacks in Mumbai, there was something pre-ordained about it all. A few days earlier, he had released a commercial with the line: “I play for India, now more than ever”. There may not have been a cape or a mask, but there were no murmurs of dissent when Kevin Pietersen called him Superman.
His struggles with captaincy make him human, and the heartbreaks of Chennai (1999) and the Wanderers (2003, when a World Cup final was lost even before he came out to bat) will perhaps haunt him for the rest of his days. But when all is said and done, the 36-year-old continues to do what the schoolboy did. And as we ponder what makes him tick, maybe we just need to listen to a nursery rhyme that’s sung to one of Mozart’s tunes. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.