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ON THE afternoon of Feb 23, 1988, a 14-year-old went out to bat in a school match in Bombay. The match was at the Sassanian Club ground in Azad Maidan, at the far end of which stands Bombay Gymkhana, where India played their first home Test.

As opposed to the colonial comforts of Bombay Gymkhana, the young boy emerged from a battered tent, walking past the curtained-off portion of the tent, which acted as changing- room and loo. As he headed for the pitch he had to be careful not to tread on stones, dirt, cow dung, dog mess and other rubbish that littered the outfield and made fielding such a hazard.

The young boy played for Sharadashram Vidyamandir (English), the English in brackets signifying that all the subjects were taught in English. The opponents were St Xavier’s High School, a Jesuit institution that had produced the boy’s hero, Sunil Gavaskar.

The score stood at 84 for two and at the crease was the young boy’s best friend, a 16-year-old who years later would recall: “The wicket was wet in the morning and both of us decided that we were going to hang around till lunchtime. We felt 40 minutes for lunch would make a lot of difference, help the wicket get dry.”

After lunch the wicket did dry and by lunchtime the next day the pair were still batting, with the score 748 for two, both batsmen making triple centuries, and some of the Xavier boys were in tears, saying they did not want to bowl any more. Their unbroken partnership of 664 runs for the third wicket is still a world record.

That 14-year-old was, of course, Sachin Tendulkar. In the decade and a half since, such has been Tendulkar’s dominance that almost everything in Indian cricket has at times appeared to be a reflection of what he does.

Indians, probably the world’s greatest optimists, are always ready to believe that round the next corner will emerge a leader who will solve everything, that the next series will, miraculously conjure up a world-beating cricket team. Some of this is due to the Indian belief in the circular theory of time where a dark age is supposed to be replaced by a glorious one before it is in turn destroyed by another dark age.

In the past when India produced a great cricketer he had contemporaries to share his glory. Merchant had Hazare, Gavaskar had Viswanath and Kapil Dev, but Tendulkar has been on his own. No one has come close to matching his mastery of the art of batsmanship or his command over his colleagues.

He may no longer be captain but the team rarely go against his wishes. At Lord’s his view that the Indians could not go into the match with two spinners was more crucial than that of the coach, John Wright, who wanted to play Harbhajan but had to agree to drop him.

One reason for Tendulkar’s god-like status is that his face is so familiar to Indians. His debut coincided with the opening of the sheltered Indian economy, making it part of the worldwide network. This, combined with the arrival of satellite television, has meant India has become an essential component of the global sports village.

Before Tendulkar, the Indian cricket followers had few opportunities to see their stars, unless they could actually go to a match. But Tendulkar comes into their living-room in live, glorious colour and this gives him a revered status. Yet in some ways Tendulkar’s very success is now a rod for his own back. Before Tendulkar, Indians expected their sporting heroes to be fallible, like Viswanath or Vijay Amritraj, providing many beautiful moments but few winning ones.

Tendulkar, whose favourite sport outside cricket is Formula One — he is doing a joint commercial with Michael Schumacher — has made Indians ask: if he is like Schumacher then why do India not win more matches? The questioning began in 1997 in Barbados when India were set 120 to win but failed, and the chorus of questioning voices as India continue to underachieve, reached a crescendo after Tendulkar’s flop at Lord’s.

Some Indians are beginning to think that perhaps the comparison with Don Bradman is overdone. Bradman, after all, was not much liked by his colleagues; his relentless desire to win turned off Keith Miller.

Tendulkar is universally liked and a clue to his mental make-up was provided very early when, at the age 15, he faced the first of many television interviews. He was asked who his best friend was. Everyone expected him to reply Vinod Kambli, the schoolboy friend with whom he set the world record. Instead Tendulkar knitted his eyebrows, as children might do if they are asked if they wanted cough drops, and said: “My bat”.

In 1992, when he became the first non-white to play for Yorkshire, I asked him about the interview and he replied: “If you name someone as your friend then the others might not feel so good. If you name the bat, nobody can feel left out.”

Such inclusiveness is admirable but in a great sportsman it suggests a certain lack of desire and Indians, who endlessly debate how they may acquire the Australian killer instinct, are reassessing their opinion of Tendulkar. Many of them would like him over the next three Tests to rediscover the relentlessness that made the Xavier’s bowlers cry.

Mihir Bose’s History of Indian Cricket, price £19.99, has just been published by Andre Deutsch.

© Mihir Bose

      

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