Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Winning it for Sachin


I have been incapable of hero worship all my life—though I respect many great people—with the possible exception of Sir Garfield Sobers, quite simply the best all round cricketer of all time. I grew very fond of the boy Tendulkar when he first burst on the international cricket scene and loved watching him in the 1992 World Cup, for instance, when we all found his new uninhibited brand of opening batting so refreshing and exciting. The endearing innocence of his schoolboyish approach to batting suggested that he believed every ball could be hit for four or six. And, like any sensible cricket follower, I watched in silent admiration the purity of his straight drive, the speed of his flashing blade and his incredible enthusiasm for all aspects of the game.

Over the years, the admiration grew into awe, as Tendulkar kept smashing record after record, demolishing the world’s leading bowlers along the way. Who could ever forget his mastery of Shane Warne or his duels with Glen McGrath, not to mention his almost casual dalliance with Shoaib Akhtar and Co. in the 2003 World Cup?

Admiration, yes. Awe, yes. Hero worship, no. For long years, I held the opinion that Gavaskar and Viswanath were greater batsmen, each in his own way. I held against Tendulkar his tendency to crawl in his nineties, and his perceived inability to finish matches.

Over time, I was forced by his phenomenal success against all comers on all kinds of surfaces, in all forms of the game, to modify that view, and concede that after all, he is possibly the greatest batsman of all time, save Bradman—whose statistics place him above all else.

More recently, in the post Ganguly era, Tendulkar seemed almost unattractively mortal in his scratchy, overcautious approach to batting, and I joined the chorus, albeit small, that started asking why he was not retiring from the game he had adorned in his previous, more natural incarnation as a batsman.

All of a sudden, yet another Tendulkar miracle occurred, and he started visibly enjoying his game, playing an altogether more natural brand of cricket, and accumulating runs at will, while at the same time pleasing the purist as well as the plebeian. And in what has been an altogether more delightful development, he has scripted many memorable wins for India, frequently from hopeless situations. The golden run continues, and it seems the Little Master can do no wrong, and when he has the rare off day, the opposition is too stunned, it seems, to hold on to his catches.

A whole new generation of Sachin fans born after his Test debut has sprung up everywhere. They invade every cricket ground, every venue from drawing room to barroom where cricket is watched, to sing Saachin…Sacheen, cheer every ball he fields and erupt everytime he puts bat to ball. They want to will the Indian team to win the World Cup, because they believe the Indian team cannot do it on its own. They want the Indian team to win the World Cup not only for the millions, but also, and most of all, for the Little Master. ‘Win it for Sachin, it’s his last World Cup,’ is the cry everywhere.

I was annoyed at first by this almost infantile obsession with one man, one hero, one icon, to the exclusion of everything else that I hold dear in the game of cricket. What kind of obsession is this that drives an entire nation of drooling adolescents, I asked. How does it matter if one man finishes on the winning side, when someone like VVS Laxman has never even played a single World Cup match, I almost cried out loud. Does this Indian team have what it takes to win the Cup, I argued. Does it have the fielding, does it possess the firepower in its attack, do its batsmen have the stomach, the heart, to do it on the big stage, match after match till they reach the pinnacle? Time and again, I came up with one constant answer: No.

Once the Cup starts, I begin to sing a different tune. Old man Tendulkar—isn’t he the oldest member of this team?—repeatedly shows how young at heart he still is: by the way he runs after the ball in the deep, swoops on it and throws flat and furious back to the wicket keeper; by the way he runs between wickets; by the price he puts on his wicket, cursing himself when he gets out unnecessarily; by the simple grandeur of his strokeplay, eschewing the fancy stuff most of the time; by the obvious affection he has for his young teammates and his unadulterated joy at their successes; by his sheer enjoyment of the team’s memorable wins over Australia and Pakistan; his thoughtfulness in praising his captain, colleagues and the crowd while accepting the man-of-the-match award.

Yes, I am a convert now. I want India to win the final. For herself and her millions of cricket lovers. For Captain Cool MS Dhoni and his brave warriors. But also for Sachin Tendulkar, the boy who tried to grow up, but decided to go back to being a boy all over again. For the love of cricket.

It will be a great moment if India does finish on the winning post. It will be a peak unmatched since 1983. It will be a peak that the team will have to scrap hard to defend, especially in the post-Tendulkar scenario, about to unfold before all of us. But if they lose to Sri Lanka after playing the best cricket they can, I’ll have no regrets. For I’ll know Indiaand Tendulkar—did their best. And that will be a great victory, too.

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