Ending a wait, being a yardstick of achievement

The Hindi version of this article first appeared in Prabhat Khabar on March 19, 2012

He may have told Greg Chappell, then the coach of the Indian cricket team, that he has fewer friends in the country than the Australian himself. He may have nothing to do with the fluctuations that Sensex often undergoes. Nor, for that matter, does he impact the value of the rupee against the American dollar.

Yet, Sachin Tendulkar has given millions of Indians hope and joy. He reaches way beyond the sport that he so loves and touches the hearts of millions of Indians like few else have. It is a good bet that no one has held sway over such a vast majority of India as he has in the past 22 years with his devotion to cricket in general and batting in particular.

Do I hear you bring up the names of Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Rajnikanth? None of these entertainers is a live performer in the manner of a Tendulkar. The likes of AR Rahman catch our fancy often but not as consistently. And with regional parties holding the sway, there really is no politician either who has held a pan-India appeal for so long as Tendulkar.

If any proof were needed to convince us about how big Tendulkar’s emotional connect with the masses really is, it became available over the past year when he has been on the threshold of scoring his 100th international century. Egged on by the media, the nation seemed to hold its collective breath each time he batted and groaned collectively every time he was dismissed.

The wait for this one event has no parallel in Indian sporting history, at least from a mass-following point of view. Of course, Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal at the in Beijing in 2008 ended a wait for India’s first individual title at the Olympic Games but, given that Indian sportspersons found Olympic medals hard to come by, few would have agonised as much.

Talking of waits, public memory may be short but I remember the wait for Tendulkar’s first century in one-day internationals lasted close to five years and 79 innings. That wait was worth it as he made 110 off 130 deliveries against Australia at the R Premadasa Stadium in September 1994.

Come to think of it, he batted in 35 innings in Tests and ODIs after scoring his 99th hundred – a 111 against South Africa in Nagpur on March 12 last year. And even if he has often pointed out that every batsman has to start an innings with no runs against his name, Tendulkar has set such standards that expectations have only grown.

That brings us to the fact that his achievements have all come under an amazing amount of media scrutiny. It is also not surprising that social networking sites found some impatient folk discussing all that could happen before Tendulkar got to this milestone, ignoring his own plea that for him it is just a statistical landmark.

Given that India is so cricket-crazy, I do not think that players like Sir Donald Bradman or Sir Garfield Sobers will have faced such pressure of expectation and adulation. To have come to symbolise hope and humility, success and equanimity in the disarming manner that he has, Tendulkar has had to stop his mind from becoming a runaway train.

It would have been easy for him to lose focus in a nation where cricketers are idolised, with people waiting at airports, hotels and stadia for a glimpse, if not to touch them. The manner in which he has coped with all the attention – and some of it has nothing to do with his cricket – is a telling commentary of his ability to stay rooted.

It is this control over mind that sets him apart as the sportsperson’s champion. It is a given that his team-mates over the years have shared such sentiments. Sporting contemporaries like Viswanathan Anand and Leander Paes have enormous respect for what he has achieved and admire him for being able to deal with the pressure of expectation for so many years.

Some years ago, when India’s most popular hockey star Dhanraj Pillay reminded mediapersons: “I am no less than Sachin Tendulkar”, he could have been actually telling us that Tendulkar had become a yardstick with which to measure fame and achievement. It reflected an inherent desire that is manifest in most sporting achievers to be spoken of in the same breath as Tendulkar.

So what if he has fewer friends in the country than Greg Chappell? So what if he has little to do with how the Sensex varies or how the rupee performs against the American dollar? By getting to a milestone of a 100 international centuries, Sachin Tendulkar has shown again that there really is no one who captures the imagination of so many with his chosen craft.