It all started with whoever started calling him God. There was never a doubt that Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar was prodigal, but associating him with divinity drew a hidden line in the sand driven by covert sanctimony that elevated the cricketer way above his craft.
There is nothing novel or wrong about the larger than life athlete – the Jordans, the Peles, the Alis – those who are always at the pinnacle of their craft and in the process dwarf statistics and records. Jordans six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and his Olympic gold medal are incidental because for me, a leaping Jordan making a dunk or the courageous Jordan taking a buzzer beating jump shot is what will remain indelible. I have seen Ali only in archive footage and can’t even correctly recall how many titles he won, but when that punch goes flying at the speed of lightning, it is a mesmeric sight. It is pretty much the same with Pele. In the black and white footage it is difficult to judge his pace and quickness of turn but you can’t take your eyes away knowing you are seeing something special.
When Tendulkar broke into the Indian cricket team, it was the same case. There are many theories that talk about how innate talent is not as critical to success as hardwork; in Tendulkar’s case a once-in-a-lifetime merging of the two gave us a prodigy who, when he punched a straight drive off the backfoot could take your breath away even if you knew nothing about cricket, or were not bothered about the scoreboard or whether the ball finally ended up at the boundary. Here was a special batsman who could cover drive with grace, cut with impunity, leg glance with the precision of a skilled surgeon, and drive straight down the ground like nobody before him. Or after. It is no wonder that records started collapsing as he expressed himself.
You know all the records. The hundreds. The countless runs. The stellar World Cups. The Man of the Match and Man of The Series awards. I remember watching Sachin in the early 90s, and I would always watch him for one reason and one reason alone – his strokeplay.
There was genius stamped all over every single one of his shots. I still do. The swivel when he would pull a delivery that would not have been quite short enough for other batsmen or that backfoot punch down the ground that made fielders give up the chase even before they started it. It was about the joy of those shots around the ground. That domination of bowlers and decimation of opposition psyches came along with it was an added bonus. And so was the accumulation of some astonishing numbers.
And then, somewhere, somehow, things began to slowly shift towards the numbers. Tendulkar became Tondulkar. Everyone became obssessed with the symmetry of the hundred hundreds. Or whether he will indisputably top the tables of runs scored in ODIs and Tests. Naturally, scrutiny of the numbers began to increase and swirling opinions came out of deliberate slowing down in the ninties to play for a personal milestone; of fourth innings failures; of problems against the in swinging delivery; of hundreds in a losing cause. Like a performance appraisal gone horribly askew, a whole generation thought Sachin was about the numbers. The man himself was in the tragic position where the sheer weight of
his genius fortified that myth by generating the numbers day in and day out.
Inevitably, the beauty and the romance went out of the picture (or became a footnote, anyway). Now, it was like a wedding anniversary celebration where the number of years the couple has been together became the benchmark, although everyone knows love cannot be captured in metrics. Sachin’s career had completely metamorphosed from the Mesmeric phase to the Metric phase. It happens with all legends; sometimes from within, sometimes
without. Pele himself has done his own legend some disservice by spreading random boombast have how many goals he’s scored. We don’t need a number to add an exclamation point to how beautifully he played the beautiful game. Tiger Woods’ return to
golf has mostly been revolving around talk of if and when he will overtake Jack Nicklaus. Whatever happened to watching Tiger hit a monster drive and regaling the senses in its splendour?
In essence, you, dear fan, ruined the Sachin Tendulkar experience for yourself the moment you started worrying about the numbers. There is a high likelihood it transferred on to the Little Master too. I remember Harsha Bhogle on air in 2008 in Australia with India playing the hosts in the finals of the VB series. Sachin had just hit two magnificent shots down the ground for four and Bhogle exclaimed, ‘I’ll remember those shots for as long as I am alive.’ Exactly! Numbers are not memories. Feelings are. If you insist on converting a Van Gogh
into a colour by numbers drawing before you express your admiration for it, you are completely missing the point.
Dear fan, the next time Sachin walks on to the field, please don’t spoil it all again for yourself. Remember it is not a divine and infallible being who’s walking the pitch. It is a mere mortal who just has an extraordinary way to express beauty on a cricket field. Otherwise I am afraid you are ending up as the person who looks at a beautiful sunset and thinks ‘I wonder what time it is.’ and checks his watch.
My most favorite Roger Federer article is a 2006 masterpiece in the New York TImes called ‘Roger Federer As Religious Experience’ by David Foster Wallace. In it he writes “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.” In moments filled with beauty, time freezes. It used to when I watched Sachin early on. It still does for me regardless of the stage, the opposition and the context. Does it for you?