Hero batting with hopes of his nation

20 November 2008

Pressure. We all feel pressure during our lives; never more so than as students; the expectations to conform, adolescence, that first kiss, the first serious boyfriend or girlfriend and then of course, exams, more exams and then some more exams. All part of the progression through our various life-stages we are told. Then come the pressures of adulthood; job, marriage, kids; oh, and don’t forget the mortgage. For some, even the merest whiff of pressure, of expectation, results in physical, social and even mental deterioration. Others however, have no choice but to overcome such barriers.

For Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the greatest cricketer of our generation (Brian Lara may disagree), this pressure is perhaps incomparable. While lesser men (and women) may have simply been content with excellence, maybe even just being plain old “good”, Tendulkar has striven for and undoubtedly achieved sporting greatness. Whether Tendulkar had much of a say in the matter is open to debate, but he has been almost alone (in a sporting context anyway) in carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire nation; a nation of some 1 billion inhabitants and a nation somewhere above obsessive over that archetypal of English summer sports.

Not unlike a Barclays call-centre; England may have been cricket’s birthplace, but India is certainly its home now. Not only is it the national sport, it is an inimitable part of Indian life, of Indian culture. To deny cricket would be almost to deny you were Indian. As India has sought to position itself atop the global economic hierarchy, it has propelled its few international figures, namely cricketers and Bollywood stars, into an almost unparalleled state of god-like worship of which Sachin Tendulkar has been at the pinnacle. He has adorned every newspaper, every magazine, every billboard, every TV commercial from Mumbai to Calcutta.

While Indian cricket is spearheading the sport’s Twenty20 revolution and England themselves having chased the cricketing dollar in the Caribbean, India’s most famous son, Sachin Tendulkar, surpassed Brian Lara’s record of 11’953 test-match runs in his country’s most recent duel against Australia. With a previously reluctant public now seemingly oblivious to anything but a fast paced, all action, three hour Twenty20 extravaganza; a game far removed from the sometimes laborious pace of a five day Test match, this milestone may have registered only faintly upon the sporting radar.

Lest we forget that at a time in one’s life when most are contending with endless hormone imbalances and exams, Tendulkar was making his debut for India, aged 16, against their bitter rivals Pakistan; enough pressure for any cricketer, let alone a 16-year old Indian. While Tendulkar has been merely one part of perhaps the greatest middle-order batting line-up of all time (Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman the others), it is he, far and above the others who has shouldered the burden of pressure. For 20 years, he has carried the team in both a sporting and public context as batsman, captain, occasional bowler, and throughout all of that, as its figurehead.

While the limelight and glare of publicity has been thrust upon Tendulkar his entire sorting life, it is perhaps testament to him as both a player and a person that the milestone was reached in such an inauspicious manner. With the cricketing world’s attention on the Stanford Twenty20 series in the West Indies, the Mohali venue perhaps reinforced the changing dynamic in world cricket. There was little sign that this was a moment of sporting folklore; a mere smattering of spectators amidst rows of empty seats as Peter Siddle, an Australian debutant, ran into bowl. Tendulkar, with characteristic nonchalance, angled the ball wide of slip for three and in doing so reached a perhaps insurmountable 11’954 test-match runs.

In the intervening years since his test debut as a precocious 16 year old, Tendulkar has belonged to the Indian people; Tendulkar and the Indian cricket team as a whole perhaps indicative of a nationalisation of the population; his every waking moment publicised across India. His every potential indiscretion and misdemeanour on view to one-sixth of the world’s population; David Beckham thinks he has it bad?! Failure to produce on the biggest stage would not be tolerated.

In cricketing terms, Tendulkar’s achievements are staggering. He is the leading test-match run scorer (12’273 not out). He is the leading One Day International (ODI) run scorer (16’361). He also holds the record for most centuries in both forms of the game. A sportsman of any discipline is judged by his statistics; the number of caps, the number of goals, the number of trophies, the average runs scored. It is not however, Tendulkar’s cricketing achievements, nor the records he currently (and perhaps always will) holds that in my eyes define his undoubted greatness.

His most defining achievement is how he has conducted himself under the sheer weight of pressure put upon him by his countrymen. He has been, as all commentators and fellow players have noted; the consummate professional; a happily married man with two children, a cricketing craftsman who takes the utmost pride in what is not only his job, but his vocation; maybe even his duty. Despite all the pressure, all the attention, he has never lost sight of the task at hand or the ultimate goal; to play cricket for the pure simplicity of playing cricket and scoring runs for his team ever wavered. He has taken the natural talents in which he was blessed and bewitched not only a nation, but also the sporting world in his pursuit for perfection. Never has his own personal ambition been sacrificed for the sake of the team.

To quantify what cricket means for to the average Indian is beyond the scope of even the average Indian. To quantify what cricket means to over a billion Indians is similarly unquantifiable but is perhaps most adequately encapsulated in the diminutive figure of Sachin Tendulkar. Yes, he has been remunerated beyond his wildest dreams through playing cricket and in particular through the sponsorship of TNCs trying to break into the Indian market. Cricket though, is not a sport you play to make money, at least not until the last few years anyway.

Sachin Tendulkar hasn’t played for the money, the riches, the fame. He has to escape to Britain and America to escape the unending public glare that he and his family are under. Through all this attention, this pressure, this expectation, Tendulkar has carried the hopes of a billion people. The next time you think you’re under pressure, think of Sachin Tendulkar, “Master Blaster”.