By Suresh Menon
Such has been the Indian media’s response to the 20th anniversary of Sachin Tendulkar’s international debut that someone is soon bound to make the suggestion that November 15 be celebrated as a national holiday. About the only person who doesn’t seem to be going overboard is Tendulkar himself – he manages to bring to his repeated answers to the same overdone questions a freshness that is amazing. The greatest batsman in the game is also its greatest actor.
I mean, how often can you keep saying, “I love cricket, playing for India is motivation enough,” and confirm or deny the same stories over and over again?
It is probably the same temperament that keeps him going as a batsman, this ability to come to the wicket with a fresh mind day in and day out over two decades.
The young man (at 36 he is elderly only by the standards of sport) deserves everything of course – the adulation, the fame and fortune, the mythification. He has worked hard at his game. The clean image too is something he has worked hard at. In any case, the slightest suggestion of imperfection is airbrushed away by editors who don’t want to be in Tendulkar’s bad books or the marketing folk who don’t want to be cut out by his agents.
Tendulkar’s greatness is beyond question, his character is indeed squeaky clean and India can be proud of such an icon who is a hero both on and off the field. But the uncritical assessments mean that when those looking for clay feet attempt revisionism, then every small drawback is bound to get exaggerated. The ‘ball tampering’ incident in South Africa , for instance. It was a minor, technical infraction which saw the match referee overreact. But that was nothing compared to the overreaction in India. I wrote then, “It is this unintelligent acceptance of our heroes which later works against them.”
My one complaint has been Tendulkar’s refusal to play the eminent grise of the game, his refusal to express opinions that might have made a difference. On the match-fixing scandal, for instance, when India was in the thick of it. It was a compliment to his stature that no ‘fix’ was certain till Tendulkar was out of the way. He was incorruptible – and by that token could have helped clean up the game had he spoken out.
When I confronted him with this once, he said that he was only sixty percent sure of what was happening, and that was not good enough to go public with. But as most bowlers know, a sixty from Tendulkar often has a greater impact than a hundred from others.
For a player who has lived his life in the public glare for two decades, Tendulkar is a remarkably private person, and few things have been written about him that have not been sieved through his discreet mind. That is why an occasional unguarded moment – like his reaction to Rahul Dravid declaring India’s innings when he was batting six short of a double century in Pakistan – has both surprised and delighted those who would like to see a little madness in his genius.
It might be another twenty years, if at all, before an objective assessment of Tendulkar can be made, one that is not corrupted by emotion or the tyranny of chronological proximity. Meanwhile, be prepared to read more about his sleep walking days, his boyhood pranks, his hero-worship of John McEnroe, his reaction to being dismissed in the 80s in New Zealand on his second tour, and all those delightful, much-repeated legends that have given us a partial understanding of the mind of a great sportsman.
The rounded picture, warts and all, will have to wait.