Where were you on November 15, 1989? I know where I was: glued to the television in my newspaper office watching a 16-year-old boy with curls and rosy cheeks take on Pakistan's fast bowlers. Twenty years later, the curly locks are showing a hint of grey but Sachin Tendulkar is still doing what he does best: score runs for India. Much has changed in the world around us in the last 20 years. One thing hasn't: the presence of Tendulkar on the cricket crease.
Remember 1989? It was the year that the Berlin Wall fell, symbolizing the end of communism. It was the year that Rajiv Gandhi was defeated in the general elections, as VP Singh was transformed into a middle class hero. It was the year that the militant's gun first echoed in the Kashmir valley while the bugle of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was sounded in Ayodhya. In 1989, five hundred dollars remained your forex limit when travelling abroad, Dr Manmohan Singh was far from being the finance minister, there were no private television news channels and India was still struggling with the Hindu rate of growth. To many Indians of my generation, there is only one link between then and now: the batsmanship of Tendulkar.
Forget the mountain of runs and the gush of records. That is for historians and statisticians to archive for the future. For the genuine cricket fan, Tendulkar has always been much more than a run machine: he has played the game the way it was meant to be played, with passion, unbridled enthusiasm and, above all, dignity. It's true that the gay abandon with which he lit into an Abdul Qadir on his first tour to Pakistan has given way to a more methodical approach to batting. Yet, as he showed a few nights ago in Hyderabad, the core of his being is still in playing attacking cricket. Incredibly, even towards the end of his Hyderabad epic, he was running faster than his partners who were almost half his age.
* Twenty years of Sachin Tendulkar
* Sachin Tendulkar: The early years
* Team-mates pay tribute to Tendulkar
* Tendulkar@20: Gavaskar pays tribute
It can't have been easy. Cricket's history is littered with stories of schoolboy prodigies who never quite made the transition from maidan cricket to the big league. Not only did Sachin make the great leap, but he did it in the span of less than two years. Lesser men would have simply buckled under when hit on the face as he was in the first series by a Waqar bouncer. But he didn't. In that one fleeting moment when he dusted himself up after the injury, a teenager became a man.
We all have our favourite Sachin moment: was it the sliced cut off Shoaib Akhtar for six in a famous run chase over Pakistan in the 2003 world cup? Maybe, it was the emotional century within a week of his father's death, a father who had been his role model? Or was it his demolition of Shane Warne in Chennai on a turning track? Or the Sharjah innings that remains his signature one day knocks? Or a monumental double century in Sydney? Or the match-winning innings last year against England within weeks of the 26/11 terror attack that appeared to miraculously lift the gloom? When you've scored a staggering 87 international centuries, then picking a single cricketing achievement isn't easy.
But his real achievement is beyond the boundary. We live in an age of instant stardom and mini-celebrities, where fame is an intoxicant that can easily consume the best of us. In the crazy whirl of hype and glamour, there is every chance of an individual losing his way. Sachin, remarkably, has been almost untouched by the fact that he is contemporary India's biggest icon, arguably bigger than even an Amitabh Bachchan or a Sharukh Khan. As Khan revealed in an interview, at a party of cricketers and film stars there was a big noise when Amitabh entered. Then, Sachin entered the hall and Amitabh was leading the queue to grab hold of the cricket champion!
Through the many highs and a few lows, Sachin has been calm and focussed. He has consciously avoided controversy, remaining an intensely private individual while displaying his talent to millions. He may not have gone to college, but life has perhaps taught him more than he could have ever learnt in the classroom. He is fully aware of his commercial value but his badge of identity is that he is the Maharashtrian middle class boy who has remained true to his roots. He may lack the gravitas of the original little master, Sunil Gavaskar, but on cricketing matters he can be just as articulate.
In a sense, the passing of the baton from Gavaskar to Tendulkar represents the coming of age of Indian cricket and a new India. Gavaskar was the architect, who built every innings with a clinical precision that perhaps was symbolic of a Nehruvian India when neither cricket nor the country could afford any form of extravagance. Tendulkar is the free-spirited artist who bats with the freedom of an India unshackled of its socialist baggage, where cricket is now part of a lucrative entertainment industry.
So, how much longer will Sachin continue? Sir Don Bradman, statistically the greatest ever batsman, played for Australia for 20 years, interrupted by war and benefiting from the fact that cricket was then a seasonal sport. Sachin, whom the great Don likened to himself, has been playing virtually non-stop for two decades in the most high-pressure environment that modern sport can throw up. Maybe, the body is creaking a little, but the mind doesn't seem to have given up yet. Maybe, the goal of the 2011 World Cup is still the ultimate motivation. Of course, he will retire one day, but till he does, we must savour the magic. A banner in Sharjah once said it all, "I will see God when I die, but till then I will see Sachin!" Amen.