In the 75 plus years that since our nation achieved independence in 1947, the toughest decade was the 1980s. A sitting Prime Minister was assassinated, there were fissiparous tendencies and insurgencies in many crucial border states, growth had stagnated and the economy had nosedived. It was at this crucial period when it appeared that the dream of our founding fathers was under serious threat that a miracle happened and the nation found resurgence and bounced back with a reliance that few believed possible. The graph that turned northwards in 1991 has not changed course since.
Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, who turns 50 on Monday (April 24), symbolised in many ways the change that came over the nation from the 1990s. Though he made his entry into international cricket in 1989, Tendulkar came into his own at this level only during the tour of the national side to Australia in 1991-92. The centuries he struck at Sydney and Perth showed his class and fortitude, which even the hard-nosed Aussies were quick to acknowledge. One will never forget the sight of Dean Jones, as acerbic an Aussie as any, running to congratulate him as he returned to the pavilion after an undefeated innings of 148 at Sydney. At Perth, he was only one to offer resistance as the Australian pace bowlers made the Indian batsmen hop around by the pace and bounce they generated on a helpful pitch.
Looking back, it worked to Tendulkar’s advantage that almost all his international cricket during his first three years took place on grounds abroad. He started off by combating the pace and swing of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younus in Pakistan, where his guts and gumption stood out when he made light of an injury to his face caused by a bouncer. After that he negotiated Richard Hadlee and Co. in their lair in New Zealand, followed by a tour of the Old Blightly in 1990, where he struck his first hundred in Test cricket. The series in Australia, International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup of 1992 and the tour of South Africa in the latter part of the same year took place before he could play a full fledged series at home, against England in 1992-93. He was, by this time, quite an accomplished and experienced batsman in Test cricket.
Tendulkar came into his own as a batsman in limited overs cricket once he managed to move to the top of the order in March, 1994. In his initials years, Tendulkar used to bat in the middle order in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). It took a neck sprain to Navjot Singh Sidhu, the regular opener, and some persistent pestering of the team management by the young man himself to wangle “one chance” to open the innings. Tendulkar grabbed this opportunity with both hands to strike a breezy knock of 82 runs against the Kiwis, which came off a mere 49 balls, and did not look back after that. Except for a short period when Greg Chappell was the coach of the national side, Tendulkar retained his position at the top of the batting order in limited overs cricket right till his retirement from the game.
During the two decades starting from late 1991, Tendulkar was among the shortest list of the best batsmen in the world. There were years when his graph soared very high, as it happened in 1998 when he decimated bowling attacks and stamped his supremacy over them. There were periods of troughs as well, like during the 2007 ICC World Cup, when he was made to look like a mere mortal. But so brilliant and all-round was his contribution to the game that even when he did not make much of an impression with the bat, he could turn the game around by bowling his leg spin and back of the hand stuff, which batsmen found very difficult to read. A classic case is the Test against Australia at Kolkata in 2001, where he did not make many runs with the bat, but claimed the crucial wickets of Mathew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne to throw the Aussies off the tracks and helped India seal a famous win.
Despite his prodigious talent and the amazing work ethic that helped to convert his potential into performance, international cricket was not always a bed of roses for Tendulkar. There were disappointments aplenty, especially during his tenure as skipper of the national side. Captaincy proved to be a crown of thorns for him as he was neither given the side he wanted nor the authority to mould it in the manner he wished to do. He was unceremoniously sacked in 1997 after being at the helm for just over a year. His second innings in this post proved to be even more short-lived as he threw in the towel, fed up with the machinations going around him. On both occasions he chose to maintain a dignified silence after moving away from the “second most powerful post in the country’, and displayed no sign of rancour or unhappiness.
If his first two years in international cricket involved understanding the nuances and pressures of playing the game at the highest level, his final couple of years was akin to that of a lion in winter. After the high point of victory in the ICC World Cup of 2011, to which he contributed handsomely, Tendulkar found the going difficult even as most of his senior compatriots retired. The hundredth ton in international cricket, against a lowly placed Bangladesh, did become a cause for celebration but it was evident that the magic was missing from the willow of the master. But he hung around gamely, ignoring suggestions that it was time to call it a day, and continued playing till he bid adieu in front of his home crowd at Mumbai. The farewell speech was heard by millions of followers of the game across the country, again highlighting his immense popularity with the masses, who had elevated him to the status of the Divine.
A decade has passed by since Tendulkar hung his boots for good and stopped playing competitive cricket. During this period he served as a member of the Upper House of the Parliament, with the President nominating him to this august body based on his contributions to cricket. A grateful nation also honoured him with “Bharat Ratna”, the highest civilian award in the country in 2014. He also served in the Cricket Advisory Committee of the BCCI for a short span and does occasional commentary jigs on television. He has numerous business interests and is considered close to some of the prominent tycoons of the Indian industry.
What is Tendulkar’s legacy to Indian cricket? He showed that it is possible for a boy with a middle class background to reach the pinnacle of his chosen profession. His superb work ethic, absolute commitment towards the game and the intense passion which remained undiminished despite the 24 years at the highest level are lessons for the succeeding generations to emulate and follow. His sound judgement, excellent temperament and uncanny ability to stay clear of controversies make him an ideal role model for people outside the arena of sports as well. In a country that glorifies individual achievements, he, whose accomplishments tower over that of all others, taught us the importance of attaining success as a team.
But Tendulkar’s legacy goes beyond all this. Tendulkar gave us reason to hope even during the darkest of days. Starting in a period when wins were infrequent and defeat the more likely result, he symbolised hope for the millions of cricket lovers in the country. During periods of despair, we found solace in the fact that Tendulkar would hold the flag high and not give up without a fight. In the dark days when allegations of match-fixing by members of the national side shocked the nation, we looked up to Tendulkar to show the way out of the morass we found ourselves in. We knew that a victory in the ICC World Cup was round the corner when Tendulkar announced that he badly wanted to be part of the championship-winning squad. It was this unique ability to instil hope and optimism that made Tendulkar a unique figure in the annals of Indian cricket history.
Indian cricket is fortunate in having legendary figures who have guided the course of the game in the country during the last nine decades and taken it to great heights. Among all the stars that adorn the galaxy of Indian cricket Tendulkar shines the brightest not only for his contributions on the field but for the love, affection and respect that he generated from the people across the length and breadth of the nation. He remains, without doubt, the most revered cricketer in the history of the game.
On this occasion, when he completes 50 year of his existence of this planet, let us thank God for blessing the nation with a real hero who conquered our hearts, even as we wish the birthday boy many more years of happiness, good health and joy in the years ahead.
Happy birthday, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar!
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)