-By Sanjay Jha
I was in nearby Dubai watching Janko Tipsaveric upset constant British-hope of renewal Andy Murray in the ATP Masters 500 tennis tournament when I received a text message from both a passionate cricket aficionado and the publisher of my forthcoming book. It was as concise and compact as the man it described, the little Master of epic dimensions, Sachin Tendulkar. At first, I ignored it, accustomed as one is to Tendulkar’s incredible flourishes (particularly in the light of his recent centuries scored with effortless ease) and continued watching an exhilarating display of brutal double handed back-hand down- the- line shots, which had Murray staring in utter disbelief at his fashionably-bespectacled Serbian rival even as two British women sitting right behind me muttered sighs of despair as they reluctantly came around to accepting that Andy would be soon headed for the land of fish and chips, earlier than planned perhaps. But it was my wife’s SMS that really stirred things up. Her engagement with cricket is as fragile as bone china vase resting on a Chihuahua’s tail, and she finds the concept of an LBW fairly superfluous and complex. So when I read a hurriedly scribbled message from her about Sachin’s record runs, I knew there was something mind-numbing that had happened. I think I sighted a blue moon in the Dubai night that evening.
Sometimes you wonder what makes the man that he is especially when he is considered to be in the December of his career. At age 37 almost, with more surgical interventions in his body than the others, what inspires such greatness that 200 runs flow against a formidable South African bowling attack in a miserly 147 balls? There is also a significant little nugget that we may have inadvertently overlooked. While carping cynics will point to the bald head of the Gwalior pitch, remember, this was supposed to be South Africa’s grudge game, a planned assault to avenge that Jaipur heart-stopper which denied them what could have been a humdinger of a win. It therefore makes Tendulkar’s belligerent counter-attack even more meaningful and not just a statistical marvel. The fiery battery of pace-bowlers of the Proteas, Dale Steyn, Wayne Pernell, Charles Langevedlt et al were supposed to tame the 17,000-run machine into meek submission, but what followed was a role reversal.
Now how does one explain this indescribable phase in Sachin’s already ornamental career, when most peaks have been majestically, almost insouciantly captured ? 13,447 Test runs, 17,598 ODI runs, record partnerships, 93 hundreds in both forms of the game and a daunting average! I think it has to do a lot with freedom. The freedom to be oneself. Beyond everyday scrutiny, minute assessments, relentless tracking, a constant whirl of being challenged on to another record. When you care, and yet you don’t. When winning is everything, and yet it isn’t. When a century is welcome, but big deal if otherwise. It is an internal emotion, a private sentiment that happens imperceptibly to those who attain greatness. Of course records matter, but runs matter more, because records are a mathematician’s googly for armchair discussions, for endless realms of newsprint. The 175 against Australia at Hyderabad last year was a manifestation of Tendulkar’s new-found unencumbered space, his latitude to excel knowing no magnitude. The same relaxed freedom with which Roger Federer dispatched a rejuvenated in-form Murray at the Australian Open. No point to prove, no new personal benchmarks to set. It is just that the natural impulse takes over. The rest is for us media guys to ruminate on. Argue about. And debate endlessly till the cows go to sleep.
In a way a tempestuous ghost of the past has been silently buried. In 1997 on a sultry, sweltering summer evening Saeed Anwar, the erstwhile Pakistan opening batsman had ruthlessly destroyed Indian bowlers scoring 194 runs in 146 balls as Pakistan triumphed despite a momentary Indian fight-back. In that match Sachin scored four runs and looked disconsolate and despondent as any skipper would feel after an emphatic defeat. To rub salt in India’s wounds it was India’s 50th year since 1947 and the title trophy was appropriately called Independence Cup. I recount Sachin’s sorrowful countenance and albeit I never saw the Gwalior princely execution the other day, I think it was divine justice that he achieved the unthinkable and broke the shackles of a 13-year-old nightmare.
Sachin has now played with almost two generations; Kris Srikanth his first captain is now a 50-year-old selector and he shares the dressing room with young Ishant Sharma, Virat Kohli and Ravinder Jadeja, and rookie teenagers of Mumbai Indians. It is this seamless adaptation, his enduring flexibility and lack of ego which makes him singular. As I had written earlier, somewhere deep down inside I don’t think he was prodigiously amused at being called the grand old granddad by an audacious Yuvraj Singh. In his case the spirit is willing, so is the flesh. He needs no external stimulation from the statistical minded who goad him to break Brian Lara’s 400-run record or score 50 centuries in Tests. His insatiable hunger for runs is a mysterious biological phenomenon and could be worthy of a Harvard Medical School research study as it defies that age-old doctrine of diminishing production with extended longevity. Sachin defies traditional laws of nature.
Comparisons are usually odious and the ones with Don Bradman are typically provincial and need to be earnestly dismissed. How can anyone contrast Rod Laver’s two same calendar year Grand Slams after a long hiatus in between with Roger Federer’s wondrous 16 career Grand Slams? Two players. Different generations. Unique formats. Distinctive shift in the game’s character. Even technology and equipment. Personally, I think Tendulkar shuns these exaggerated blandishments himself as he does those wily swinging deliveries tempting him to make a front-foot drive.
He may have moved from his modest abode of Bandra East to a more swank and swish Bandra West, but he is still somewhere Ramakant Achrekar’s curly haired unassuming mild mannered obsessed student. A dutiful pupil, a learner of the game. Constantly shifting. Always on the look-out for an opportunity. Monitoring his opponents. Reading the field placements. Checking the score-board. Judging the run with his co-striker. But above all, he is a lover of the game.
For Tendulkar , tomorrow is just the beginning of a new love affair.