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|November 15, 1999||
Boy done good!Harsha Bhogle
Early images stay imprinted on the mind, and mine cannot erase one of an intense boy, sitting cross-legged in the middle of all the activity at Shivaji Park.
He was cherubic, very soft spoken and seemed in control of himself in a manner that belied his fifteen years. His brother hovered around, not quite in earshot (I wasn’t more than a couple of feet away and I was barely in earshot !) but you knew he was there. He was polite without being eager, and had a few pages of scores and comments photocopied for me.
That is why, in spite of having watched him play all over the world, it comes as a bit of a shock to realise that it is ten years since Sachin Tendulkar played his first Test match. Only very good cricketers last that long in international cricket, the very best stay on for another five. Tendulkar will then be 31, and I will happily wager that he will still be looking ahead.
In a career that has been blindingly brilliant, it is difficult to pick out a few highlights, and it is too difficult just yet to make an assessment of how far he will go. Actually, Tendulkar would love people to make one. I think he would put it at the back of his mind and smile, not laugh, as he floats by. He has given these last ten years a peg to remember them by and that is important, for you remember eras by the players who graced them.
He is 26 now, and the child that could not sign his first tour contract is now a father of two. He would be very satisfied with what he has done but to himself, and to himself alone, he will speak of the next ten. How does a man who, in the eyes of many, has already reached the summit walk on and be excited by it? Tendulkar will set himself goals, series by series, year by year, and if he achieves eighty percent of those ( call it a common man’s sense of expectation !) he will stand up there with none other than Bradman and Sobers for company.
But that is in the future. Bradman stands there, Tendulkar is but an aspirant yet; he knows it and that is a huge advantage. When humility sits on one shoulder, the gun fires longer from it.
It has fired a lot, that gun, and it has been a privilege to have been a spectator on that journey; to see a man destined to be a star take little steps in that direction. Those were lovely, romantic little steps. By the time he had taken the first few, you could see the path and he illuminated it with some great milestones.
It is with a touch of slight embarassment that I look back at that first encounter at Shivaji Park. I had been asked to do a piece for Sportsworld which was, in retrospect, quite aptly titled Is Sachin Tendulkar the World’s Greatest Schoolboy Cricketer? His brother Ajit gave me a couple of photographs, postcard size prints really, and Sportsworld very kindly added a hundred rupees to my fee for them. Little realising what lay in store, I promptly wrote out a cheque for a hundred rupees in his name, and I remember telling myself, and I fear I told him as well, that the extra money would come in handy for a young man !
A year later, he had already made 500 runs for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, with a century on debut, and was handling a good Delhi attack with ease. Six months after that he had scored a century in the Irani Trophy and a couple of months later had made a stirring debut in Pakistan, in the same Test match as Waqar Younis, had been hit on the nose and had hit Abdul Qadir for three sixes.
In New Zealand, Martin Crowe watched him and, for all his wisdom, made the comment that "Test cricket was no place to learn how to place Test cricket". He was a mere twelve runs short of being the youngest cricketer to score a Test match century at that time, and when he did get his first, it was an unforgettable event.
India had lost the first Test at Lords in 1990 largely through scoring runs too quickly, and were in danger of going down 2-0 on the last day at Old Trafford. On my shoestring budget, I was sneaking in the extra biscuit with tea in the media centre when Tendulkar played the first of several amazing back foot shots. Dwarkanath Sanzgiri, who loved Shivaji Park so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if he kept a patch of grass in his shirt pocket, forbade me to move and I watched the rest of the innings on the television in the tea-room! In his drawing room, Tendulkar still has one of the two bottles of champagne they presented him that day.
England fell in love with this young man who, if anything, looked younger than his years and eighteen months later, he had captivated Australia as well with two centuries; at Sydney and at Perth. Those have been very well documented, but my moment of the tour came on the last day of the fourth Test at Adelaide. India were 2-0 down, had come very close to winning at Sydney and I suspect knew they could not win at Perth.
Needing 371 to win, India were 31 for no loss at the end of the fourth day. Overnight, a decision was taken that reflected the role a little eighteen year old had come to occupy in Indian cricket. Needing someone to play a commanding innings, India moved Dilip Vengsarkar down to number five and for the first time in his career, Sachin Tendulkar batted at number four. It has been his address since, as it had many years earlier for GR Vishwanath. It was a subtle acknowledgement that he was now India’s best batsman.
One Test match later, he had played one of the great innings of the nineties. Anything that followed would have to stand up against it and, not for the first time, we realised that we had to measure him by different standards. A torch shines for some but it was difficult to outdo Tendulkar’s headlights. He played several innings after that which might have been classified as great had they come from another bat. But they just went down his shopping bag. Of his contemporaries, only Azharuddin on song could have matched his 165 at Chennai against England and his century against Sri Lanka at Lucknow was absolute perfection.....only it seemed too easy.
Tendulkar had to do something dramatic and it came at Auckland in 1994. Like at Adelaide, this was a defining moment in Indian cricket, only it was a lot less subtle. He offered to open the batting, and Jeremy Coney said on air that Tendulkar was editing the highlights too fast. He hit 82 from 44 balls that day, and found himself another address.
There have been several breathtaking moments since, and Tendulkar has grown as a cricketer and as a human being. But to my mind, these innings shaped the persona that has dominated world cricket. Now he needs challenges, and I see two huge ones round the corner. The immediate one will be in Australia where they wait for him with a great sense of anticipation -- part admiration, part vengeful. The second, spread on a broader canvas, will be to prove himself as a leader of a collection of individuals, to take them towards becoming a team.
I mentioned at the start that his lasting contribution was to give Indian cricket a peg to hang on. I think there will be another that history will, in course of time, accord far greater importance.
I would like to believe that, when he has played his last game, it will be acknowledged by everyone that a greater team-man never played for India.
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