Aug 11, 2011

Of God. And Man.

Act 1

22 April, 1998. It's a hot summer afternoon in Sector 15, Chandigarh - at a relative's place where I'm spending my summer holidays. Everyone's settling down around the TV. Being Punjabi, the uncles are making the customary jokes about the new Sardar kid called Harbhajan Singh.

India are about to take on the mighty Aussies in Sharjah. They must play well to qualify for the finals - either a win, or a loss by a small margin. "Gilchrist, Ponting, both Waughs, Warne... vs. Ganguly (a noob then), Mongia, Azhar, Venkatesh Prasad... Man to man, Australia are a much better side", comments Ravi Shastri, "but India have Tendulkar." He says it in a rather deadpan manner (not quite the 'mera paas maa hai' style most Indians usually prefer), as even he has no idea just how prophetic those words would prove over the next few hours.

Sachin single-handedly takes India to the final. Two days later, everyone's hoping for another miracle, but not really expecting lightning to strike twice in the same place. But it does, and Sachin goes one better this time. He actually wins it for India, inspite of another horrific umpiring error.

A couple of years earlier, Sachin had top-scored in the '96 world cup. In the semi-final vs. Lanka, India need 252 to win. It looks very get-able. When Sachin gets out, India are a healthy 98/2, looking on course for the win. They collapse to 120/8 before the match is abandoned due to crowd trouble.

I wasn't around when a conceited PM claimed 'Indira is India'. But I was around in the early 90's, and Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar WAS India. Or at least that's what every Indian wanted to believe.

Our lives sucked because we lived in India. We were a poor nation. We had bad roads, erratic power supply, generally poor quality of life, and - worst of all - very few opportunities to create a better life for ourselves. Everything 'abroad' seemed like a dream - pretty landscapes, good roads, fast cars, nice clothes, air conditioning, soaps that actually felt and smelt nice. If we could, we would ALWAYS buy an imported product - they were invariably of a higher grade and better quality. Somehow, where they came from - they were actually cheaper than the shit we got here! All of this affected the nation's psyche. While the British ruled India, they told us we were inferior. Even 50 years after they left, we'd not been able to prove them wrong. As a nation, we didn't quite believe in ourselves.

Our cricket team - which we followed passionately, and believed represented the best of the nation - actually strengthened this feeling. Whenever they traveled overseas, they'd simply be blown away by opponents on fast, bouncy pitches. They were physically dominated by their opponents, and just looked sad and hopeless. Of course, when teams came to India - we were able to beat them. But watching the likes of Narendra Hirwani or Venkatapathy Raju turn slow deliveries on crumbling pitches didn't make up for the body blows our batsmen took overseas. It was like watching a Mercedes struggle on a country road. Far from being a source of pride, one almost felt apologetic about the means being used to win.

Then Sachin came along. He attacked fast bowlers. He scored hundreds on bouncy pitches, collaring hostile bowling attacks. It wasn't just the runs - it was the way he dominated the opposition. He looked calm, confident and let his bat do all the talking. Nothing could faze him. Whatever the circumstances, Sachin could win. And Sachin wanted to win.

It helped that he came from a middle-class family, and remained level-headed in spite of all his achievements. He set the standard all of us aspired to. As the Indian economy opened up, and Indians started coming across new opportunities in every sphere - he provided us self-belief, and taught us to be ambitious. He was the role model for the new India.

Over the next few years, he would go on to achieve one record after another. His hunger was insatiable, and the consistency of his performance at the highest level was unmatched. He earned the title of 'God of cricket.'

Act 2

Ritesh Sharma shares an article titled 'The Truth about Sachin Tendulkar' on Facebook. The article asks some tough questions. I 'like' and 'share' it further, as does our friend Shreyas Gopinath. A lot of people get pissed. "How dare you say anything negative about Sachin?", they ask. It's not the first time this has happened. I've been critical of Sachin on several occasions in the last year or two, particularly during all IPL seasons. Here I shall try and explain why.

To really get what I'm saying, you first have to accept that Sachin is not God. He may have earned a title some years back, but he is very much a mortal - just like you and I. When he walks out on a cricket field, he is there to do a job and he has responsibilities - just like you and I.

Unfortunately, in Sachin's case, that responsibility is to be a role model, and perform miracles, and set a standard that everyone can aspire to. To keep the legend alive. If Sachin regresses to mediocrity, he will not just let himself down - he will break the hearts of hundreds of millions who have looked up to him and worshiped him since the 90s. He cannot become ordinary. Not fair to the man, you may say. But when the alternative is letting down hundreds of millions - the concept of 'greater good' comes into play.

Sachin is just not up to that responsibility any more. He is no longer the Indian cricket team.

There was a time when teams spoke of their plans to get Sachin before a series with India. Today, if there is one man they consider the 'big threat' - it is Virender Sehwag. Ironically, Sehwag was inspired by Sachin, and even looked and played like Sachin early in his career. But today, Sehwag is the bigger phenomenon. He's become the aggressor - the one who tries to dominate opponents and entertain the public even in the toughest circumstances.

In the Indian ODI team these days, there are usually 7 batsmen - and at least 6 of them can win matches single-handedly. Sachin is one of them, but he is no longer the only one.

Some may say Sehwag is unreliable, or inconsistent. Fair point. But Sachin isn't Mr. Reliable either. While the likes of Sehwag, Yuvraj, Dhoni and Pathan have been the aggressors in ODIs recently, the likes of Gambhir and Kohli have provided the solidity. Far from being the cornerstone, Sachin doesn't even play in all ODIs.

In tests, Sachin's average is on par with others like Kallis, Dravid, Ponting - yet his reputation is much bigger. Why? The aggressive, match-turning innings have mostly been played by Sehwag. And when the going gets really difficult, and someone has to grind it out - it's usually been Rahul Dravid, and often VVS Laxman, but rarely Sachin in recent years. Whether you look at his records in ODI finals, chases in knockout games, or the second innings in test matches, particularly batting fourth, Sachin's record is weak. He's never got a 300 in tests. I could go on.

When Sachin was put on the pedestal by Indian cricket fans, he was the first (often only) line of attack, and the last line of defense. Hell, he even took a few wickets and won matches with the ball once in a while! But today's Sachin is none of these things. He's just a good batsman who accumulates runs carefully, and piles on the records, some of which are rather meaningless.

What irks me the most is the feeling that he could have done so much more if he really tried. I remember a 175 he scored against Australia in an ODI not too long back, when everyone else struggled. A couple of times in the last World Cup, he was able to out-pace Sehwag's scoring rate. So, there isn't much doubt in my mind about how destructive he could be, if he tried. But more often than not, he is happy to play second-fiddle to Sehwag. He plays well within himself, for records, rather than giving 100% to try and win. Nearly every time he gets close to a 50 or a 100, he slows down and plays for the record, and this sometimes costs his team. Case in point - his two 100s in the recent world cup were scored against England and South Africa - and these were the only two matches India did not win! Coincidence? Not entirely. Certainly not if you start noticing patterns - his maiden century in the IPL was also scored in a losing cause, batting first.

For me, whether or not Sachin is a match-winner today, whether he plays for the team or for personal records - none of these is the point. The fact that his ability and motives are being questioned is what disturbs me. I do not want to see his legacy tarnished. I would rather see him retire gracefully, and leave us with the memories of the '98 Sharjah Desert Storm, the upper-cut six off Shoaib Akhtar, the century with which he revived India's faltering world cup campaign in '99 - right after returning from his father's funeral, his ODI double-hundred and so on...

Indian cricket no longer needs the player, as much as India needs the legend to stay alive.

1 comment:

  1. A good short ball will send those 6 so called match winners packing home. In tests, I would totally agree that Dravid and Laxman were the unsung heroes and probably deserved equal fame but Sachin played from much earlier to much later (VVS is not that fit and Dravid is not that entertaining).

    About the 6 single handed match winners.. they can do that only in India (barring Viru). From act 1 to act 2 the Indian pitches have been drastically modified, the rules are much much much more batsman friendly (whats with another new ball in 34th over .. ), even the ground size is much smaller. Obviously you dont have good bowlers to test our so called aggresors. Akrams, McGraths, Warnes, Bonds..
    None of the six have a continuous form or fitness to even stay in the team - they never did in the last few years.

    A player who can play any gud ball (well you will filter Dhoni, Yusuf, Raina), player who stays fit for hmmm 5-10 years (filters yuvi, viru), players who can stay in their form for a year or two atleast (filter everyone and only hope is Gambhir but we saw his timidity in WC..not a Sachin quality) (Sachin hits 1000 runs a year almost regularly). None of these guys even know what a delivery from Akram, McGrath comes like and we all saw how they played Dale Steyn. So a quality bowler and a balanced pitch is all that you need to make these guys look like losers (except Viru - the others i am sure they are most likely to fail) - whereas the same combo against Sachin means awesome contest to look for (I dont think I will ever get to hear something like "a contest between Dhoni and Steyn".. LOL).

    I would still go in favour of his retirement but not because he does not fit but because the team is STILL relying on him and not a good sign if he is at 38. Same goes with VVS and Dravid but they are not so invited anyway they might as well enjoy the game now.