By Ghazala Akbar:
If Indian cricket were officially declared a religion, this would be its Mantra:
‘There is no God but cricket and the Messiah is Sachin at the wicket!’
Devotees of Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar will probably go a step further. He is no mere
mortal, they will say. He is a Demi – God, a Deva. Monotheists, privileged to see him play are inclined to agree somewhat. If not a deity, he is certainly divinely-inspired, a man who uses his God-given talent to perform jaw-dropping miracles that are simply
out of this world.
We, in Pakistan should know. The first of his batting ‘miracles’ began in Peshawar
in 1989. Consider the scene: an ODI is reduced to twenty-overs because of bad light.
The match is re-designated as an unofficial ‘friendly’. But no encounter between the
two sub-continental rivals can ever ensue without an edge or a twist. Pakistan posts
a formidable157. The Indians are way behind the target when a diminutive, cherubic, Krishna-like kid comes out to bat. He is just a bit taller than the bat he is wielding.
The crowd jeers. The Pakistani players giggle. A16-year-old against the wily Abdul Qadir? No contest. The boy takes guard. Qadir characteristically licks his spinning
finger, takes a step backward, then forward. Give him some milk and put the lad out
of his misery, somebody remarks raucously. The boy is silent. He lets his bat do the talking. 6-0-4-6-6-6! He scores 53 of 18 balls. All present realise they are witnessing something special. The Sachin Tendulkar show officially hits the road.
Soon the feats of the flashing blade go global, earning him fame, fortune and the grudging respect of many a strong opposition. The measure of his reputation can be judged by the value they put on his dismissal. His is the prized scalp, the feather in
every bowler’s cap. The resume isn’t quite complete; you haven’t truly arrived, until there is S. R. Tendulkar against your name.
Wherever he comes in to bat, the likes of McGrath, Warne, Walsh, Ambrose, Gough, Caddick, Waqar, Shoaib, Donald, Pollock, Ntini, Vaas, et al huddle with their advisers. They plan, they plot. Surely there are weaknesses they can exploit. Theories are put to the test. Fields are set. Sometimes they get lucky. Very often not. A few silken cover drives,
a leg-glance here and a straight drive there, they are scratching heads again: is there a plan B against this fellow?
In a career spanning twenty-three years, it is hard to remember a special innings. There are so many. But for me, (no cricketing historian) three stand out tall: Chennai 1999. Sachin Tendulkar versus Pakistan. At 82 for 5, chasing 270 on a crumbling pitch he digs in deep. Swing, spin, they try everything. He will not be tempted. He accumulates 136 playing a marathon 91of the 95 overs they bowl. When he leaves, they fold. Pakistan wins… but only just. He has reduced the margin to 12 runs. Most of us have few nails left to chew.
Then there was the innings, I nearly missed. India versus South Africa, Durban 1997. Batting second after a mammoth 500 plus, it was time to change channels at 53 for 5.
Lucky, I didn’t. Sachin and his captain, Mohammed Azharuddin began a calculated counter-attack. Shock and Awe. Alternating elegance with controlled aggression, he matched Azharuddin, shot for shot. It was like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan involved in a ‘jugalbandi’.Who was the soloist, who was the accompanist, one really didn’t know! After Azhar departed, he continued to play — the last man out and the follow-on saved.
Fast forward to Gwalior 2010. On a hot humid evening, he is a man possessed. Where younger men wilt, he belies his age of 35 years. Cricket fans have waited 40 years for this moment: the first double-hundred in a one-day international.100 of those runs are in boundaries alone. Manna from Heaven. It isn’t Zimbabwe, it isn’t even Kenya. It’s the mighty South Africa who is the hapless opponent. At an age when most of his contemporaries are hanging their boots, checking their blood pressure, he is walking on water or turning it into wine.
I’m not being facetious, I’m not being flippant but perhaps my most memorable Sachin moment is the time he got a rare golden duck. Rewind to Calcutta 1999. India is sitting pretty at 150 for two. Rahul Dravid has just had his leg stump uprooted but the crowd doesn’t care. Sachin is next. The applause can be heard as far as Lahore. Then disaster strikes. The young Shoaib Akhtar shatters his middle stump. 100,000 adoring fans are stunned into silence. As Sachin walks back, he nods at the bowler, acknowledging his success. The gesture says it all. Even in adversity, he is gracious, a class-act.
Fast forward to the fourth innings. India is battling hard to win the match. At a crucial moment, against the run of play, Sachin is run out, in a freakish sort of way. The fielder, (Shoaib again!) inadvertently stands his ground. They collide. Sachin makes it into the crease but the collision has caused his bat to hang precariously, inches from the ground. The throw from the deep crashes into the stumps. He is out on a technicality. He doesn’t
rant or rave, just accepts the decision with equanimity and grace.
The Bengali crowd is enraged. Deliberate obstruction, they scream. The Umpires take no notice. Stones and bottles are hurled. Play is halted. The riot police get ready to escort the Pakistanis out of the ground. It’s getting uglier by the minute. The crowd is turning into a mob baying for blood. Enter Sachin. He walks round the ground and calms everyone down. They listen and obey. He has power and charisma that politicians envy. Not even Jyoti Basu, the octogenarian Chief Minister of West Bengal commands such respect.
Is it any wonder that Pakistanis have a love-hate relationship with this man! So many of his runs came against us, we are entitled to a volcanic eruption seeing the back of him, at last. How can we forget the way he decimated Shoaib at the World Cup in 2003! Made a 300 plus total look as if it was only 30! Spoilsport! But deep down, we respect, admire and yes…even love him… simply because he is so infuriatingly good at what he does. We love him because there’s no hint of swagger or arrogance. Even when he is putting his opponents to the sword, he is a smiling assassin.
We love him because as South Asians we can share in his reflected glory, bask in his success. He’s a son of the soil. He’s the genius next door, whose exam results make the neighbours proud. In summing him up, the breadth of his talent and the scale of his achievements must override and outweigh any narrow, pettifogging chauvinistic bias. Like the other prodigious Maharashtran, Lata Mangeshkar, their winsome winning ways spill over borders, erode hardened boundaries and find their way in, melting and opening up hearts and minds. Happy semi-retirement Sachin. You are always a treat to watch. This is from a Pakistani, with thanks and with love.