GIDEON HAIGH: The England-born Aussie is one of the leading cricket writers of this age. Melbourne-based Haigh has been writing on sport and business for more than 22 years, having authored 19 books. He can’t make up his mind whom he loves more: Tendulkar or his pet cat, Trumper
In a sport that specialises in the manufacture of instant stars and transient celebrities, Tendulkar is the real thing. Even now, twenty years after his debut, there’s always a sense of occasion every time he comes to the crease, no matter the game, no matter the place
Many tributes to Sachin Tendulkar. This month will begin with a recollection of one of his epic innings. I wish to cite one of the shortest. It was in Melbourne, my hometown, on Boxing Day 2003. It was a day rich in entertainment, containing a Virender Sehwag century full of eye-popping strokes. Seldom, however, have I sat in a crowd so obviously awaiting one player, and when Tendulkar appeared they radiated happiness and contentment, bursting into heartfelt applause. Tendulkar at the MCG? Delayed Christmas presents come no better.
Except that it was all wrapping and no gift. Tendulkar feathered his first ball down the leg side, and was caught at the wicket — a miserable way to fall for any batsman, in addition to being a lousy anti-climax. The crowd had hardly ceased cheering than it was compelled to resume, cheering Tendulkar off, and the feeling afterwards was almost devastation. You could hear the sibilance of conversations, as connoisseurs ruminated that cricket sure was a funny game, and fathers tried explaining to sons that even the greats had bad days. About three overs later, three spectators at the end of my row got up and left. It was mid-afternoon, Sehwag was still mid-spectacular, and they left. This was not what they had come for, and they would accept no substitute. I had to stay — it was my job — but I could easily have followed them. The hollow feeling persisted all day.
When it comes to communicating Tendulkar’s place in cricket history to future generations, I suspect, this is what will be most significant, and also the hardest to convey. In the twenty years of his career, international cricket has changed unrecognisably: elaborate and ceremonial Test cricket has been usurped, economically at least, by the slick, shiny celebrity vehicle of Twenty20. Yet even now, Tendulkar makes time stand still: every time he comes to the wicket, no matter the game, no matter the place, there is a sense of occasion. It needs no pop music, no cheerleaders, no word from his many sponsors. He is announced by his accumulated excellence, the effect somehow magnified by his tininess: little man, big bat, great moment. His entry could not seem more dramatic if he was borne to the crease on a bejewelled palanquin by dusky maidens amid a flourish of imperial trumpets.
This, moreover, has been the case almost for longer than one can remember. I first saw Tendulkar bat live in England in 1990. He looked so young, so small, like a novelty item on a key chain. Any sense of frailty, however, was quickly dispelled; instead, there was a sureness of touch, not just impressive but altogether ominous. You told yourself to remember him this way; you wanted to be able to say you were there; he was going to be good, so good. By the time he first toured Australia eighteen months later, he simply oozed command. All that held him back, and it would be a theme of his career, especially abroad, was his sorely outclassed team.
Sometimes, this looked almost eerie. Ten years ago in Melbourne, India and Tendulkar played a Test at the MCG. To distinguish between the two was only fair. India were terrible, a shambles. Kumble dropped the simplest catch imaginable from the game’s second ball and took 2-150; Dravid batted more than three and a half hours in the match for 23 runs; Laxman and Ganguly failed twice, the latter playing on to Greg Blewett, of all people.
Tendulkar batted as if on a different pitch, to different bowlers in a different match. Shane Warne came on in front of his home crowd with Australia in the ascendant. Tendulkar promptly hit him into that crowd beyond mid-off. Brett Lee, in his debut Test, bowled like the wind. Tendulkar treated him as a pleasant, cooling breeze. The follow-on loomed, apparently unavoidable. Tendulkar guided India past it, toying with Steve Waugh’s formations, making the fielders look as immobile and ineffectual as croquet hoops.
Had it not been for his ten teammates, Tendulkar could have batted until the crack of doom. As it is, he had to rest content with 116 out of an otherwise bedraggled 238. And this wasn’t just an innings; it was, at the time, a synechdoche of Indian cricket. No matter where he went, Tendulkar was the main event, preceded by acute anticipation, followed by grateful wonder, seasoned with sympathy, that such a flyweight figure had to bear such burdens.
There is no discussing Tendulkar, even in cricket terms, as batsman alone. He is also, of course, Indian cricket’s original super celebrity; as Pope wrote of Cromwell, ‘damn’d to everlasting fame’. In this sense, he has been preternaturally modern, at the forefront of developments in the culture of stardom in his country, with his telephone-number television entanglements and sponsorship deals, and his reclusive private life. Without Tendulkar’s prior demonstration of cricket’s commercial leverage, Lalit Modi and all his works would have been unthinkable.
What’s truly amazing, nonetheless, is that the simulacrum of Tendulkar has never overwhelmed the substance. He has gone on doing what he does best, and has done better than anybody else in his generation, which is bat and bat and bat. Like Warne, albeit for different reasons, cricket grounds have been a haven for him: in the middle, he always knows what to do, and feels confident he can do it. Life is full of complications and ambiguities; cricket by comparison, even shouldering the expectations of a billion people, is sublimely simple.
Tendulkar’s fame, then, is of an unusual kind. He is a symbol of change, but also of continuity. What’s astonishing about his batting is not how much it has changed but how little. He set himself a standard of excellence, of consistency, of dominance, and challenged the rest of Indian cricket to meet him up there. Gradually, in the 21st century, albeit not without setbacks, stumbles, financial excesses and political wranglings, it has. His presence now is an ennobling one. First it was his excellence that rubbed off; now it is his integrity. Cricket today specialises in the manufacture of instant stars, temporary celebrities, glorious nobodies. Tendulkar acts as a kind of fixed price or gold standard. To choose a well-loved and well-worn advertising catchline, he is ‘the real thing’.
In his sheer constancy, in fact, Tendulkar unwittingly obscures just how completely cricket has been transformed, to the extent that it is almost impossible to imagine his fame being replicated. Who in future will play international cricket for twenty years, losing neither motivation nor mastery? Who in future will master all three forms of the game, capable of spontaneous spectacle and massive entrenchment alike? Who in future will excite us simply by walking onto the field, just a man and a bat, and disappoint so seldom? Recalling how shocked, even grief stricken, was that crowd in Melbourne six years ago as Tendulkar’s back was swallowed by the shadows of the pavilion, I find myself brooding anxiously on the thought of what it will be like when he disappears for the last time.