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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Little master will always have world at his feet

TONIGHT in Ahmedabad, as a billion cricket fans awake in hope, expectation and feverish excitement, Sachin Tendulkar stands on the brink of one of the greatest achievements in this or any sport.

Should he get to three figures for the third time in this World Cup he would become the first batsman to score a hundred hundreds in international cricket.

A measure of the feat is that the nearest challenger, Ricky Ponting, has just (just!) 68.

Such is the unconditional love for Tendulkar in these parts, it is not obvious, given a terrible choice, what India fans would go for: a hundred in a losing cause or a duck in a winning one.

Tendulkar's two hundreds in this competition have yet to result in India winning a match, so nationalism and deification of the Little Master have not sat happily together so far.

It has become a cliche to compare Tendulkar to Bradman ever since the Don did so. Is one better than the other? Well who, other than the sage, John Woodcock, knows and, frankly, who cares?

But should Tendulkar score a hundred tonight (AEDT) in the World Cup quarter-final with Australia, it can be said without question that his achievement would be Bradmanesque. Bradman averaged a third more than his best contemporaries, a differential that, regardless of the changing nature of the game and the improvement in standards, marks him out as one of the greatest sportsmen to have lived.

The difference between Tendulkar's hundred count and his nearest challenger is roughly the same at present. No one is likely to surpass his total, not in the near term, not ever.

It has often been said that Tendulkar has faced challenges of the kind the Don never did, principally having to cope with different forms of the game and the attentions of a country that indulges in hero worship to a disconcerting degree. The first point of difference is valid, although it may be assumed the Don would have flourished in Twenty20, the second less so, because the Don knew a little about carrying the hopes of a people for whom his exploits were a welcome distraction from the squalid reality of the Depression.

The difference is not in the strength of feeling, but the scale of it.

To watch, even from a distance, the attention given to Tendulkar, every single minute of every day that he is in the public arena, is to marvel at how the man has retained his sanity.

In the past week, lead items on the news and in the newspapers (at a time when there is a fair bit going on in the world) have included: "Tendulkar plays left-handed" (he hit a couple of shots in the nets left-handed); "Tendulkar plays blindfolded" (he did, too, to practise hitting gaps in the field); and "Tendulkar doesn't jump queue" (note that it concerns him not jumping, rather than jumping, a queue, so that the story essentially was that Tendulkar behaved in the same way you would expect any normal, civil human being to behave).

How does he cope with it all? By batting, that's how. Other than his private residence or hotel room, out in the middle is the one place where he retains an element of control and one of the few places where a kind of normality is assured.

There, the same rules and regulations apply to him as anyone else, because one of cricket's most fundamental principles is that every batsman, no matter how good or bad, must be treated equally.

This last is one of the key reasons to understanding why Tendulkar continues to play on. He does so partly out of love for the game. Breakfasting with Gary Kirsten, the India coach, at the beginning of the tournament was to listen to a man in awe of Tendulkar's work ethic and delight in practising.

Tendulkar, Kirsten said, is the ultimate craftsman. But think also of what awaits Tendulkar when he retires. Gone will be one of the few places where he is, to use an Indian word, untouchable.

I saw something during this tournament that immediately made me realise what awaits Tendulkar when he retires, and it made me feel enormous sympathy for him.

After India had played Ireland in Bangalore, I was sitting in the bowels of the stadium with Sunil Gavaskar and Sanjay Manjrekar while we waited for the police to reopen the road outside.

Suddenly, a dozen or so twentysomething India supporters rushed in. They shook my hand, shook Manjrekar's hand and then bent down, prostrate, and touched Gavaskar's feet.

They were too young to have seen Gavaskar play and so the moment (to an outsider) was both touching and disturbing. Manjrekar said: "It is a formal mark of respect, usually only used in a family gathering where you might touch the feet of the family elder. It happens to Sunil all the time, but only him. I've never seen it happen to any other Indian cricketer. When Sachin retires, they will do it wherever he goes."

So, as he walks out with the hopes of a billion people resting on his shoulders, the first instinct is to wonder about the pressure he feels. Maybe, though, he can't wait to get out to the middle.

He will be under enormous scrutiny, for sure, but at least at the crease he is living on his own terms. Faced with the prospect of people routinely bowing and touching your feet when you retire, you'd probably be motivated to play on for as long as possible, too.


1 comment:

  1. simply nice......................


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