14 November 2013
I still remember the first time I heard about Sachin Tendulkar. It was New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1987, and on a crowded Calcutta terrace, the freshly retired Sunil Gavaskar told me about a 14 year old in Bombay who would be the country’s next great batting star. I promptly wrote about the conversation in a UK magazine, The Club Cricketer, and started looking out for mentions of the prodigy’s name in the sports pages. I didn’t have long to wait for Gavaskar’s prescience to be confirmed: the century on debut in the Ranji Trophy when Tendulkar was just 15, and then selection for India, against the fearsome pacemen of Pakistan, at all of 16 years of age.
The announcement, 24 years later, of his imminent retirement marks the end of an epoch. The greatest Indian to ever wield a cricket bat – and possibly one of the greatest in the history of the entire sport worldwide – leaves when he completes a mind-boggling 200 Test matches, to go with 463 one-day internationals. His departure has thrown the country into a paroxysm. Television channels, newspaper and magazine columns and editorials, social media, have all waxed eloquent on the occasion; cricket fans can talk of little else. As a nation of 1.2 billion people has been riveted by the impending departure from the national sporting stage of 40 year old, is there anything left to say?
The hyperbole has already been vented. “I have seen God,” said Australian rival Matthew Hayden: “He bats at Number 4 for India.” Another cricketing immortal, Shane Warne, when asked who was the greatest batsman he’d played against, replied. “First, Sachin Tendulkar. Second, daylight. Third, Brian Lara….”
In a land where 605 million people are below the age of 25, Tendulkar’s unusually lengthy 24-year career – he was such a gifted prodigy that he made his debut for India in 1989 – has dominated their entire consciousness of a sport that is a national obsession. He owns almost all the important batting records in the international game, including most Test centuries and most ODI hundreds, and he has done so while carrying the expectations of a billion people every time he strides out to bat.
The passion for cricket in India is difficult to exaggerate, but Tendulkar elevated it into something more. His success became emblematic of India’s own rise to assertion on the world stage. When Tendulkar made his debut for India in 1989 at the age of 16, it was still a developing country, seen by much of the world as poor, backward and protectionist. In 1991, India liberalised and embarked on a quarter-century of galloping growth that averaged eight per cent. The world beat a path to India’s door. Our democracy, proliferating television channels, software experts and burgeoning English-speaking middle class all changed the country’s image and led pundits to hail it as the next major world power. This period of self-reinvention coincided with Sachin’s rise. India rose, and so did Sachin.
The diminutive batting star became India’s cricket colossus. A nation that had long been used to lagging behind, whether in economics or sport, now boasted the world’s best batsman and went on to become world champions again, 28 years after our first triumph. The No.1 ranking in both Tests and ODIs is no longer an impossible dream: we have held both, at different times. Television revenues from the growing and increasingly prosperous Indian audience have transformed India’s place in world cricket too: today some 80 per cent of the global game’s resources are generated by India. As a result, in the cheerful words of a senior BCCI official, India is to the International Cricket Council what the USA is to the UN Security Council, the one country that all other members find indispensable – and impossible to ignore. Tendulkar’s 24 years in top-flight cricket eerily mirror the transformation of India at the cusp of the 21st Century. There is an Indian Dream, and in his own lifetime, Tendulkar is its Prophet.
Just as impressive statistics alone are an incomplete and inappropriate assessment of Tendulkar, the story of India in the last 24 years is not merely a table of numbers and graphs. It is a story of the transformation of a national psyche, and the emergence of a fresh and inspiring sense of a coming renaissance. In a country previously used to sporting mediocrity, with world champions only in niche sports like billiards and chess, Tendulkar’s triumphs will serve as a benchmark and a lodestar for many years to come. But they go well beyond the runs he made or even the way he made them. Tendulkar matters to India because – visibly, on our television screens and our living-room conversations afterward — he embodied the essence of a new way of being Indian.
Tendulkar has shown a nation often divided by religion, language, caste and ethnicity how to dream that common dream. Not only did he transcend the heritage of a stratified and under-achieving society; his is truly also the story of the coming of age of the Idea of India, and its assimilation of the most enduring export of the West to the world — modernity and the idea of the rational, autonomous individual, substantially capable of shaping his own destiny. For too long, we had accustomed ourselves to accepting failure in sport, making “it was not meant to be” into the most Indian of excuses. Tendulkar showed that we could change outcomes through the combination of talent, application, hard work and practice that was his example to the nation. By breaking free of the shackles of pre-ordained Fate, he ended the habitual expectation of failure, and allowed India to celebrate merit and its rewards.
In a land too long in the thrall of fatalism, Tendulkar‘s prowess on the field promoted India’s own new assertion of self-belief. Tendulkar showed India how to celebrate individual merit and revel in the unusual distinction of boasting the world’s best at something the whole nation followed. He helped Indians forget the bad news around us – sectarian strife, riots, terrorism – and rally round a common cause. He taught Indians, used to being second-best, to win. Democracy has long been the major force that has served to unite India, by assuring every Indian, irrespective of background, a stake in the country’s success. For two decades, and for exactly the same reason, there’s been another force for Indian unity: Tendulkar.
The India of 1989, when Tendulkar first donned the national colours, was a land that had thus far belied its promise of a “tryst with destiny”. The India of 2013, when he bids farewell to his playing career, is a nation that, despite recent economic setbacks, is brimming with optimism and sometimes impatient expectations of a better future.
Tendulkar, therefore, is much more than a sports star. The Indian government has named him to the upper house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, in a seat reserved for cultural icons. Given the admiration in which he is held and the hold he has on the allegiance of the Indian people, he could speak on any public issue with a moral authority that very few could rival. If Tendulkar wants to use his position as a member of the Rajya Sabha as a bully pulpit to advance his vision of India, he could have a significant impact on public life.
He may not do so: outspokenness is not a Tendulkar characteristic. In these two-and-a-half decades of national adulation, commercial endorsements and worldly success, Tendulkar has managed to remain uncontaminated by scandal or controversy in a sport that has been laden with examples of both. Fame has not turned his head: he remains modest, soft-spoken and self-effacing. He embodies the best of what India can be – a world leader whose achievements elicit universal admiration while being uncontaminated by braggadocio or triumphalism. In hailing Tendulkar, India hails a symbol of what we, as a nation, collectively aspire to be.
This article appeared in Wisden India EXTRA, Issue 4.
Shashi Tharoor is an author (most recently of "Pax Indica: India & the World of the 21st Century"), Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and a lifelong cricket-obsessive. You can follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor......