Twenty years ago.
It was in game reduced to a charity match that which we first saw the reason for the hype. A sixteen year old had gone to Pakistan, amidst some media frenzy (for the time that is) with none other than the great Sunil Gavaskar gifting him his pads with a statement of the sort “This kid plays as good as me. And can play way more strokes than I ever could.” While people remember the savage flood of sixes against Qadir and Mushtaq, what I remember is how, of all the players in the Indian team, only he showed a willingness to fight and give it his all, respecting the time of people like me who were watching the game when they were supposed to be studying Life Science, something that the rest of the team could not be bothered as they went through the motions, talking and laughing, since it was not an official match (as if anything involving India and Pakistan can be unofficial). It would prove to be one of the defining characteristics of the man for twenty years— his commitment, his seriousness and his utter professionalism.
Trying to understand the legend that is Sachin, one needs to look at him through two prisms—that of the game and that of everything but that.
Whether Sachin is the greatest batsman after Bradman has been debated threadbare on many forums with reams of statistics drawn from Statsguru and it is not my intent to go over that. Arguing about the greatness of a batsman with numbers and averages is to me mostly an exercise in futility, somewhat like evaluating movies based on box office collections or the taste of food by its glycemic index.
I therefore go by two things.
First is the evaluation of experts, people who have played the game and not done too poorly themselves, people like Don Bradman, Hanif Mohammed and Shane Warne and his contemporaries around the world, for whom the general consensus is that overall Sachin has been the greatest batsman of modern times.
And second is the evidence of my eyes. My favorite thing about Sachin, what I feel sets him apart from other greats like Ponting, is his balance. It is what I believe is the secret of his shot-making, what makes him move the ball two feet away from the fielder at square leg or lean back and work the ball over the slips or rock back and thump it through cover point, all with equal dexterity. It is that sense of balance he loses when he goes out of form—-which is when you will find him falling over to the front (like how he got out in the 2007 World Cup match against Sri Lanka—possibly the lowest point of his career) or reaching out for the ball, a game defect caused by a slight disturbance in weight transference, triggered with increasing frequency by his dodgy back and shoulders.
What however makes him what he is, the God of all Indian cricket fans, is not just his technique or his ability to dominate bowling.
It is that for decades he has represented one thing.
Maybe the batsmen at the other end suck. Maybe they have sold out to bookies. It does not matter.
As long as he is at the crease, anything is possible. The vendor selling nuts knows it. Grandmother knows it. So does the opposition captain.
One of the characteristics of his greatness as a batsman is he, more than any of his contemporaries (Sehwag comes close somewhat to this at his best) can play the same irrespective of the pitch. Numerous times I have seen matches where it has seemed that Sachin and his partner batsman are batting on different pitches—-nowhere more evident that in that semi-final at the Eden Gardens when as long as he was batting, one could not quite understand what a minefield that pitch had become, why Sanjay Manjrekar at the other end was playing the ball with his chest and thighs, whereas Sachin was playing with consummate ease. Once he got out then we realized what had come to pass.
But in order to fully understand Sachin the phenomenon, as an identity that subsumes Sachin the sportsman, one needs to take a step back and look at him from a non-cricketing perspective.
To call him India’s most famous sportsman ever is like calling Mahatma Gandhi the country’s most famous politician.
Sachin is much more.
He is a cultural icon, someone who has his place booked in the history books. No not just cricketing history. National history. This is because of what Sachin represents—- the epitome of the Indian dream. A man from middle-class origins, not a star-son or the scion of a political dynasty who rises to the very top by the dint of his own merit, not because he looks good or can shake his body but because he has a genuine skill which very few in the world have, an inspiring success story in a country where the odds against you are mounted in every domain unless you are an “insider” with “jugaad”.
But that’s just half the story. What makes Sachin “God” is because once he has attained fame, he has still held onto the values Indians adore—-that of being humble, unassuming, possessing a commitment to his work which is emphatic without being aggressive, well-defined without being brash.
Putting it in an another way, his supreme quality in life is that he has maintained balance. Just like he does when he is in sublime batting form.
He may drive a Ferrari and may be one of the biggest names in the country but he is found in the same building he grew up in, still playing cricket with the locality boys when his schedule permits. He does not compromise his dignity on the field or off it. Unlike his colleagues who punch cameramen, shout at groundsmen and in general behave like brats after attaining a fraction of what he has achieved, Sachin never for once in his life has ever betrayed a “I am a VIP so stand aside” attitude, being unfailingly polite to everyone from ground-staff to fans, at the same time not compromising on his privacy or his personal space. Without getting into eyeball-to-eyeball slanging matches, he has been as aggressive on the field as the best of them. Anyone who has tried to verbally intimidate him, from McGrath to Kasprowicz have realized Sachin’s toughness after being hit into the stands, as players all over the world recognize that abusing him is like spitting at the sun, the froth goes up and lands up in your own face.
To me personally Sachin’s most endearing quality is that he still cares. Unlike his colleagues who hang out with groupies after a defeat shrugging it off as a bad day in office, even after twenty years he still feels the pain of a defeat, just like the fans do. It is a pain that even a cynic like me recognizes to be genuine and while I may chuckle at displays of overt patriotism in a sport where the only thing that matters is money, my throat still chokes up seeing Sachin kissing that little square on his helmet after scoring a century or when he says post-match that he has lived his dream of playing for India for twenty years. It is so straight-from-the-heart, an emotion stemming from such a child-like conviction in the honor of representing one’s country that it melts the most cynical of us.
It makes us want to believe. That there is something greater than us, our wallets and our lives. Yes it makes us believe. At least for a few seconds.
This is the magic of Sachin.
This is why he is different.
And this is why we love him.
[Photos courtesy: The Independent and Mid-Day]