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July 29, 1998

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The passing of the flame...

Harsha Bhogle

There is something about the sight of a entire stadium standing and applauding that sends the goose-pimples racing all over me.

I should imagine it would find a soft spot in the most brutal of dictators and the most hardened of criminals as well; for I am convinced that joy is a far stronger emotion than sadness. You could, at times, ignore tragedy and grief, certainly there is so much more of it all around that you could find yourself getting immune to it. And over the years tyrants, and in more recent times politicians, have even derived pleasure in the creation of sadness.

But happiness, especially in India today, has the power to soothe, to numb and to overwhelm. As I choked at the sight of a full house at Lordís on its feet, acknowledging the mastery of Sachin Tendulkar, I wondered if there was anything else that could produce identical emotions in the dhobi and the industrialist, in the sweeper and the surgeon.

To me, and I suspect to most Indians, the acknowledgement of crowds and critics overseas has always meant more than a similar display of feelings at home. I have always wondered why though. Maybe because in India, we produce emotions at the press of a button; complete deification has always lived alongside violent rejection. Maybe because, as a child, I always thought England reacted with an almost grudging sense of admiration, even condescension, rather than wholehearted praise of great Indian performances.

That is why the sight of Lordís applauding an Indian has always been special. It has stayed in memory far more than anything else. I have been lucky to have seen it once, in 1990, when Mohammad Azharuddin produced the most silken act of execution, playing shots that made his innings look like an Oriental boutique. And I have seen video tapes of Sunil Gavaskarís 188 during the MCC Bicentennial match in 1987; an innings that anyone who aspires to play for India should never miss for it will show the Tendulkar generation the sheer class of the only other batting legend that India has produced.

That day, like on the 18th of July, there was only one hero at Lordís. Sadly, there was no live television of that match in India (and you would not have seen this one either had it not been for satellite television) but even to see it a long time later on video tape, to see the crowds straightening their feet and rising, almost on cue as the camera panned across the stadium, at the sight of a great batsman making his last exit from a great ground, was an unbelievable feeling. To me, personally, it was almost as good as Kapil Dev lifting the Prudential Cup.

Remember that to our adolescent minds, Gavaskar was the same phenomenon that Tendulkar is today. But we didnít see Gavaskar as much during his prime as we see Tendulkar today, and so we had to rely on what the commentators and writers said about him. That meant trying to goad the commentary to rise above the disturbance and the static when India played abroad. And to turn to `Gí in the index of every foreign book on cricket that we could lay our hands on. Invariably there was disappointment, even resentment, because foreign writers were never as gushing in their praise as we were.

But with Tendulkar, I sense a difference. Maybe the achievements of Gavaskar have made it easier to acknowledge another from the East. Maybe there is greater exposure to Indian cricket. Or maybe the arrival of Tendulkar has coincided with a rather more barren period in England, and indeed in the rest of the world, than when Gavaskar was playing.

A line-up of Gavaskarís batting contemporaries is far more intimidating than a list of todayís top batsmen. The West Indies had Greendige, Haynes, Richards, Kallicharan and Lloyd. Australia had Greg Chappell and Allan Border, England had Boycott and Gower, Pakistan had Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad, New Zealand had Glenn Turner and a young Martin Crowe, India had Gundappa Vishwanath. And Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock were still around.

Who does Tendulkar has for company? Brian Lara, the two Waughs and Aravinda da Silva. You could stretch that list to include Jayasuriya, Azharuddin, Saeed Anwar and Inzamam ul Huq. You would have to say then, without for a minute taking away from Tendulkarís genius, that the competition for the top spot is far more scattered now.

The cluster is a lot thinner -- and we arenít even talking of the bowling being a lot easier to handle, because that is a completely different angle. But let us glance anyway at the bowling lineups because it is fantastic just putting that list together! A West Indian army of Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Marshall, Daniel and Clarke, the Australians Lillee, Thomson, Pascoe and Hogg, Willis, Botham and Underwood from England, Hadlee flying the New Zealand flag and Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz from Pakistan. Phew! You would want to put a little jewel alongside runs made against those attacks.

That is why you could always sense the respect and the admiration surrounding Gavaskar. But with Tendulkar, it is different. There is awe, and that is something I have never seen before with an Indian cricketer. And if you are watching carefully, you can see it in the little mannerisms that cameras are so good at catching. More than that, you can see it in the statements that leading cricketers of this era are making.

Glenn McGrath, for example, specifically talked about the challenge of bowling to Sachin Tendulkar in a pre-match comment and, after the game, Michael Atherton allowed a rare grin to surface when he said ďEven WG Grace could not have batted like TendulkarĒ. But for me, one piece of action said it all. When McGrath had come back for a second spell, Tendulkar played one of his classic on-side shots, making a perfectly good length ball seem a lot shorter. Brian McMillan, one of the best fielders in the game today, just about got his hand to it at mid-wicket, immediately looked at his fingers and shook his head. And Glenn Mcgrath, in a rare gesture for an Australian bowler, allowed a little gust of air to escape from his lips as if to say `Where did that shot come from?í and `Thank god that wasnít another boundary!í all in one breath !

This ability to intimidate the bowling puts Tendulkar apart among all those that have played for India. Gavaskar never did that because of the quality of the bowling, because of the culture he grew up in but more, I suspect because of his mindset. He wore the bowling down with a defensive technique that he alone possessed. Yet, he always admired Vishwanath for his ability to have more than one shot to any ball. And now, he makes no secret of his admiration for the young man who hadnít yet played a first class match when the master predicted he would break all his records.

I would love to hear Gavaskarís view on this, but I think the existence of the records he thinks will go will depend on how Tendulkar can handle fame and fortune; fairies at first sight, wicked witches the next. He has done it quite superbly so far, always putting cricket ahead of his commercial commitments, even if that has led to the odd murmur from the various companies that pay him so handsomely to have him associated with them.

Not every contemporary icon has managed that as well. The very very sad story of Ronaldo is only just surfacing, Jack Nicklaus has already said that he thinks money is affecting the quality of Tiger Woodsí golf, Brian Lara has shown a worryingly inconsistent streak to his personal life and only Pete Sampras, among all the tennis players, has kept dignity and form together.

Gavaskar himself, people say, was a bit of an island. He read extensively to keep his mind off the game, sometimes even preferring a book to the match after an early dismissal. But even he, and again this is hearsay, could allow impatience to coat his intensity; could allow his temper to erupt at a weak moment. We havenít yet seen a tantrum from Tendulkar, though it is said that he came very close to one in the West Indies, and he did lose sleep quite often as he grappled with the diverse responsibilities and pressures of captaincy.

I would be fascinated to see how many of Gavaskarís records are standing the day Tendulkar quits the game. Certainly the 10, 122 Test runs will have been bettered, the highest individual score of 236 will go sooner or later, but I am not sure of the 34 Test hundreds. That is a staggering, monumental number. If Tendulkar can attack that, and marry it with an equal number of one-day centuries, it would mean we have a great time ahead.

And, Iíd venture to say, crowds will be standing as often as they would be sitting.

Harsha Bhogle

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