By 1998, after a decade of cricket writing, I was wanting to move on. I had watched India win the World Cup in 1983, Kapil Dev make his scintillating 175 not out against Zimbabwe, Sunil Gavaskar break S ir Donald Bradmans record of Test centuries at Madras in 1984, Mohammed Azharuddin make three hundreds in his first three Tests in 1984-85, Javed Miandad hit a last ball six off Chetan Sharma at Sharjah in 1986 to win the most spectacular victory in one- day cricket, the tied Test between India and Australia in Madras later that same year, then India and Pakistan lose heart-breaking semi-finals in the 1987 World Cup. By early 1988, Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath had retired, Kapil Dev seemed to be taper ing off (who was to know of his amazing stamina and resolve then), Dilip Vengsarkar had plateaued and Mohinder Amarnath was going distinctly downhill. The near simultaneous departure of so many old heroes and friends created a depressing scenario. There s eemed to be little incentive to continue with cricket.
Then Sachin Tendulkar happened, giving a jaded cricket writer a second wind, a second innings.
Sometime in late April 1988, Dilip Vengsarkar and I drove down to the Cricket Club of India to watch a schools cricket match. Ordinarily, this would be seen as irregular occupation during office hours, even for a cricket correspondent; for Vengsarkar, it would have been rank indulgence, even if he was the cricket captain of India.
But this was no occu pational extravagance. Earlier in the month, a pair of precocious schoolboys from Shardashram High School had clobbered the hapless bowlers from St Marys High School in the Giles Shield for 664 unbeaten runs in crickets highest recorded partnership. The buzz in cricketing circles told of the impishness and impetuosity of the 15-year-old Vinod Kambli and 14-year-old Sachin Tendulkar: of how they were reluctant to declare (Tendulkar was captain then) until admonished by their guru Ramakant Achrekar via a public booth-to-maidan-tent phone call that the match could not be won till the other team was bowled out twice. But it was the recognition from Wisden Crickters Almanac that turned them into heroes. Soon, the cricketing fraternity, the media, almost eve rybody was zeroing on them on the various maidans of Bombay.
That late April day in 1988 at the CCI, Kambli was not on view but Tendulkar was batting with another double hundred against his name by the time Vengsarkar and I had parked ourselves. The oth er notable presence there was of Raj Singh Dungarpur, a man of many parts in Indian cricket, but none more interesting than as a passionate follower of the game. Watching Tendulkar, Dungarpur erupted frequently into undisguised ecstasy. "Have you seen tha t boys intelligence?" he prodded us. "When the field is set deep, he pushes for singles, drawing the fielders in. When they are in, he blasts boundaries." From buff, Dungarpur was to recover his wits and don the hat of cricket administrator quickly. Tend ulkar had inspired a new vision in him. The Team of the 90s was beginning to crystallise.
My first encounter with Tendulkar came towards the end of that year. The Indian team for the West Indies tour had been announced, but he was not included, in s pite of a hundred on debut in the Ranji Trophy. Tom Alter, film actor and great sports enthusiast, was the anchor for Sportsweeks maiden (and alas only) sports video called Grandstand in which featured some of the major luminaries of Indian sport then. The only newcomer in it was Sachin Tendulkar.
We were shooting skipper Dilip Vengsarkar just outside Hindu Gymkhana on Marine Drive. A biggish crowd had assembled, and under a tree in the shade stood Tendulkar, kit bag in hand, with brother Ajit for almo st two hours as Vengsarkars footage was being shot. He as short and slender with fuzzy hair, barely the hint of a moustache, a shy smile and a voice that cracked periodically and spoke in the multiple tones that can be so embarrassing to post-adolescents . Tendulkar looked an innocent, reticent, patient 15-year-old.
That was till he faced the camera and Toms probing queries, one of which was whether he was disappointed at having missed out on the West Indies tour. Tendulkar even then spoke with amazing self-confidence, thoughts and words well measured. Yes, he was disappointed because he had done well enough in domestic tournaments. But didnt he think that the selectors had been kind by not exposing him to the fearsome fast bowlers? Wasnt he worried about being hit by Malcolm Marshall and Co?
Tendulkars eyes smouldered even before Tom had completed his question. "I am not afraid of being hit," he said, picking up the gauntlet. "And it would have been a great experience playing these bowlers." Ther e was defiance and bravado in his visage and voice. There was undiluted ambition. There was raw passion for the game. I was hooked. Even if sports journalism was not be my preoccupation for long, there was no escaping following cricket, writing about it.
I (and of course the whole world) saw the same intense look in Tendulkars eyes 10 years later when he was bashing up Australia in his tour de force in a league match of the Sharjah Cup between thunderstorms in April 1998. It was the expression of a man racing against himself to reach a higher level of excellence. It was also a reassuring sign that his passion for the game had remained undiminished and unspoilt despite the great fame, glory and unforeseen wealth which hounded him now.
In the decade si nce our first encounter, I have doggedly followed Tendulkars career, mostly with a combination of awe and delight, sometimes even in despair. Given his fantastic performances, most people accept the first feeling and cannot fathom the second. But how doe s sustain writing about a player who was described as a genius since he was 15? What superlatives beyond that six-letter word which is must be ascribed only as a finality?
Nevertheless, cricket writers are a hardy lot, and we have tried. Having moaned a bout the difficulty of writing about Tendulkar, I must confess also to the sheer joy of watching him play, and the unceasing opportunities he has provided for newsbreaks, stories, features and interviews. For a coy, modest,
retiring individual not give n to controversy or extravagance, Tendulkar has kept the sports hacks pinned to their laptops, and the world rivetted to the idiot-box by his wizardry with he bat alone.
Looking back a decade at Tendulkar is a kaleidoscopic experience for me, 10 years o f unending achievement and high drama. It seems only yesterday that he made an undistinguished Test debut at Karachi. Many people were then wont to dismiss as hype the big reputation which had preceded him. But in the next Test he had a half-century again st Imran, Akram and Waqar and in the fourth, at Sialkot, came a telling moment of cricket history.
Waqar, bowling at his fastest, hit Tendulkar on the face with a snorter. His nose bloodied, the Indian dressing room worried, the Pakistanis intent on sle dging, Tendulkar refused to retire hurt, waved away excessive concern from the 12th man and team doctor, and got into his stance again. The stands were baying for more blood as Waqar walked up to the top of his run up, the atmosphere was electric. The nex t ball was crucial to the fate of the match. It was a ball of goodish length delivered at express pace, which was sent screaming past cover for a boundary. Tendulkar had arrived.
He almost became the youngest ever century maker for India, but, after bel ting two successive boundaries to reach 88, fell trying to belt the cover off the ball in the first over of the day from Danny Morrison in 1988. Critics called him flashy, impetuous and naive. Three months later, he was battling for over five hours to sco re his maiden Test century and save India from defeat at Old Trafford.
Against Australia in 1992, he made a patient 148 at Sydney, and on the marble top surface at Perth, where the ball frequently bounced at chest and ear level, leaving his team-mates s hell-shocked, bruised and dismissed, Tendulkar scored a century in the company of nine, 10 and jack, the sheer audacity and brilliance of which had the normally placid John Woodcock of the London Times hopping about the press box orgiastically shouting Y o-ho-ho like a Long John Silver with a crate of rum inside him. There have been countless such innings, a few of which the Australians, especially, will recall with both pain and admiration.
But being a genius is not an easy act to live up to. The exp ectations are higher than the Manhattan skyline, and in India, never ending. If Tendulkar has managed to live up to these it is as much credit to his talent as his temperament. He has kept his head on his shoulders, feet firmly on the ground and let his b at do the talking.
He is not flawless. His penchant for the pull sometimes makes him play the shot early which on lively wickets can be fraught with more risk than on the friendlier sub-content tracks. He has also been found out a few times by quick in-swing bowlers, leaving a gap between pad and bat as he attempts an off-side drive.
Nevertheless he is an exemplar where technique is concerned, and a maestro when it comes to transcending it. His batting derives its brilliance from his superb eye and hand co-ordination and great sense of balance. Timing and power both find residence in his batsmanship, and he meets the ball usually with the full face of the bat. He has all the shots, and some specalities. The straight drive is in the Sunil Gavaskar c lass, the flicks and on-side drives would do justice to Viv Richards. He also he has a cover drive played off the back-foot which is distinctly his own.
In the 10 years since his debut, he has rapidly evolved from Boy Wonder to Master Blaster and on to Boss, which is how I prefer to call him now: a four-letter word which is more explicit in its definition than the more famous one, and certainly more comprehensive. Brian Lara can be more scintillating in phases, Mark Waugh and Azharuddin more stylish, S aurav Ganguly more elegant, Steve Waugh more rugged and dogged in a crisis, Aravinda De Silva with a ounce more of derring do. But nobody bats quite as exhilaratingly, nobody with as much authority, nobody as productively. Sachin Tendulkar is peerless.
But is he better than Sunil Gavaskar? Viv Richards? The three Ws? Hutton, Hobbs, May and Compton? Would he have succeeded if he was playing the dreaded West Indian fast bowlers of 15 years ago? Just how great is Sachin Tendulkar in the perspective of 200 years of cricket?
Such debate is the staple diet of critics and cricket followers, and it could have ground on endlessly, academically till an invitation from Adelaide from crickets most renowned denizen last August changed the premise of the discussi on. Sir Donald Bradman not only granted him a private audience on his 90th birthday and called him a delightful bonzer, but also told the world that the little Indian reminded him of himself as a batsman.
With that simple quote from, Sachin Tendulkar pa ssed on from being a mortal into a legend.