Beneath the helmet, under that unruly curly hair, inside the cranium, there is something we don't know, something beyond scientific measure. Something that allows him to soar, to roam a territory of sport that, forget us, even those who are gifted enough to play alongside him cannot even fathom.
Listen to this story about Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, but be prepared to gulp.
Normal men set normal targets for a tournament. An Indian bowler may have fantasised about five wickets on Sharjah's dead track last month, a batsman prays for a 50. But Sachin ...
Did you set a goal for Sharjah?
Which was ...?
"I never disclose these things."
Yeah, but now that the tournament's
"I decided to win the tournament for India."
It is absolute impertinence that a man could even think like this. So what does one call it when he makes it happen. Genius seems too mild a word. The American writer Frank Deford once wrote, "What is so amazing is that he has achieved a certain mythology without benefit of our fevered imaginations. Everything he has done is on tape ... none of it has been dreamed or exaggerated." Deford was talking of Michael Jordan, but it could have been Tendulkar.
There is a cost to this genius. In his own restaurant Jordan must sit in his own private dining room; Tendulkar dare not even go out to dine. People in India stand for hours waiting for him; when he plays they switch on their television sets and switch off their lives. It is hard for him. Says Tendulkar now: "People expect too much of me. A hundred every innings. They call and say, 'You scored a 100 in Kanpur, why not in Delhi?' They must accept my failures." But the reason for their extravagant demands is Tendulkar himself.
Tendulkar vs the Best - Jan 1 to Nov 13, 1998
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His entire 1998 has been a flirtation with cricketing exaggeration; he has played with such majesty that good men seem mediocre in comparison. Sighs Saurav Ganguly: "People do not score nine centuries in a career, he did it in one year." In 27 matches, with six of them at better than a run-a-ball. And there's more:
Sitting in the massage room at Wankhede Stadium as Mumbai plays Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy, Tendulkar is calm. The "silent murderer", as Vinod Kambli calls him. He offers no explanation for his ascent in form, just saying, "I wanted to prove my commitment."
It seems too simple, as if there must rest some darker reason. Aha, perhaps it is his self pride that has been bruised, and he attempts now to make up for his inadequacy as captain. But that sounds too artificial. Perhaps it is just that at 25 he is no longer an excitable apprentice but an assured craftsman. The great tennis player Big Bill Tilden once said, "The great player owes the gallery as much as the actor owes the audience." Tendulkar is already there, achieving and pleasing at the same time, yet like a young buck restless for more. If you sit in the stands you can feel the flame of his fury. No wonder Ajay Jadeja says, "There is a fire burning inside him."
Ask Zimbabwe's Henry Olonga.
An executive is playing basketball with Jordan. He knocks in a basket over Jordan's head and says, "Now I can tell my grandchildren that I kicked Michael Jordan's ass." It's a joke, even Jordan knows it. Still next play Jordan comes in and dunks over him. And says, "Now you can tell your grandchildren that Michael Jordan kicked your ass."
Do not step on the egos of these men, not in jest, not while playing tiddly winks, not ever. For these men, winning is to draw breath, the very oxygen of their existence. Tendulkar, who says "I've always played to win, why should I lose", is obsessive. When he was 16 on his first tour to Pakistan, Sanjay Manjrekar beat him in a set of tennis. When Manjrekar refused to play a second set Tendulkar, like a child whose doll has been stolen, begged, pleaded, to get a chance to salvage his honour.
There is also a brutality to these men. To chase perfection is to make no allowance for mercy. Would Tendulkar, aware that his friend, a bowler, was on the edge of selection to the Indian team, gift his wicket away in a qualifying match? "No, why should I give him false confidence? He may be my close friend but that's off the field. I never compromise on my cricket." It's happened too. During the 1994 Challenger Series, Tendulkar remarked that Mumbai teammate Paras Mhambrey was a "very fine prospect", except when the very fine prospect bowled to him he went for 41 runs in the first four overs.
So when Tendulkar was made to look silly in Sharjah, fending off a ball like a timid tailender, Olonga should have left for Harare immediately. It was not just that Tendulkar was personally embarrassed, Olonga had got in the way of a champion's journey to his goal.
Did it annoy you to get out like that?
"It did, of course. We should have won that game."
Apart from losing did you get
"But if I get out like that we're going to lose the game. When you're looking at winning the game every batsmen must be alert and must concentrate."
Did you want to prove a point?
"Yes. You can get me out once like that, you can take me by surprise, but it's not going to happen everyday."
Indeed, the previous day he had issued a warning. When Jadeja teased him about his dismissal, Tendulkar quietly replied: "Watch the next game." In which Olonga's deliveries were duly despatched towards downtown Dubai and 124 was made in 92 balls. There was an insolence to his batting, a braggadocio. Yet he knew clearly what he was doing.
It is not the footwork, not the muscles but in the mind that victory is planned. When Muhammad Ali lay back against the ropes and let brutal George Foreman pound him during their fight in Zaire in 1974, pandemonium reigned. It so violated conventional boxing wisdom that writer George Plimpton turned to author Norman Mailer at the ringside and screamed, "It's a fix." Ali instinctively knew after one round he could not dance for 15 rounds; but he knew too that Foreman would punch himself out and tire. Ali won but not even his corner had realised his deception.
Similar seductions are manufactured in the head of Sachin Tendulkar, his grey cells gathering together to plan a majestic conspiracy against some unwary bowler. One measure of Tendulkar's genius is his immaculate judgement of length, to know by the trajectory of the ball whether to step forward or back. This is not merely a gift of a man with a hawk's eyes, but of a batsman who must have been a crystal-ball gazer in a previous life.
"It's about reading the bowler's mind," he says.
"Anticipation, yes. But it also depends on the previous 4-5 deliveries and what you've done and what the bowler feels about it and what he's going to do. And accordingly you react. And because you're ready it looks like you had a lot of time."
And then he hits you in the solar plexus with the ultimate deception.
"It is not just that I expected him to do this. Sometimes I compel the bowler to do this. I play in a particular fashion intentionally so he does something and I am prepared."
Is it possible that he knows Jack Fingleton once wrote of Sir Donald Bradman, "Bowlers bowled to him the way he made them"?
Tendulkar is in an expansive mood, he illustrates his point. Many years ago in a one-dayer, he tells you, Kiwi Gavin Larsen bowled the first few balls of the over pitched up and Tendulkar played them on the front foot straight to the fielder's hands. Larsen's next three balls were pitched short but still Tendulkar played them on the front foot. At this point Jadeja came to him and asked, "You were batting so well. Why are you now playing predetermined shots?" Replied Tendulkar: "I'll speak to you after the over."
So what happened on the last ball?
"Larsen pitched it short again, except this time I was waiting on the back foot. And I hit it for six. I told Jadeja this was what I was trying to do."
He is a modest genius, he says it doesn't work every time.
Champions just know. They understand their greatness, they know when their moment has arrived. In 1983, John McEnroe said, "If I lose the Wimbledon final (to Chris Lewis) I will jump off the Empire State building." (He didn't). Every night as matches came down to one last shot to win Jordan wasn't handed the ball, he demanded it.
Watch this, Jordan's face would say as he exploded down the court.
Watch me, Tendulkar's body language says, as his bat flashes like Excalibur under the lights. As Ashok Mankad says, "He is not arrogant but his art is arrogant."
Five times this year India has won one-day tournaments, four times he has scored centuries in the final. He cannot walk through doors or leap over tall buildings yet but he is a maker of miracles.
One began in the dressing room against Australia in the second innings of the first Test in Chennai this year. What happened?
"They had a 40-run lead and I said this will be the innings of a player's life. Because 75 plus by any player would be a big score in the second innings and would help us win the game."
So how did you get chosen to play that
"Well, Anshuman Gaekwad caught me when everyone went away said, 'I want you to score,' and I said, 'I will get it for you, don't worry'."
Mr Don't Worry scored 155 not out. India won the Test.
Last year when he won Wimbledon, playing absolutely mesmerising tennis, Pete Sampras admitted, "I have no fear." Tendulkar is imperturbable too. In the white heat of battle when the crowd is an orchestra of the insane, players get muddled. Yet to this chaos the champion brings clarity. Says Jadeja: "Your mind's not working and he calmly strolls up to you and says, 'Open your stance'. He has a stronger mind."
So, the tougher the situation the more exciting for you, right?
No, says Tendulkar. It is about not letting the moment arrive at all. "I don't really say I wait for a big situation. I just like to maintain my standard. Why should I wait for the situation to raise my standard of play? Whereas if I continue the same way that situation may not arise at all."
Some things about genius we will never understand.
But this much we do know, Sachin Tendulkar does not take his genius for granted. He cossets it, cuddles it, hones it. "When we were children," recalls his friend and Mumbai player Atul Ranade, "our coach would put a one-rupee coin on the stumps and if the bowlers bowled a batsman he got it, if a batsman lasted a 10-minute session he got it. Sachin would go to all the four nets, bat and collect the money." The commitment continues. The net is his temple.
Clearly, as much as he resembles McEnroe in his instinctive mastery of his sport, Tendulkar has embraced the work ethic the American disdained. Ivan Lendl would be pleased. When the disciplined Czech failed to win the US Open, he had a similar court surface installed in his backyard. He then reached the next six Open finals. It is a theorem that has not eluded Tendulkar.
Stories abound over how he prepared for Shane Warne's arrival, getting leg spinners to bowl to him round the wicket on to a patch of rough. Yet here lie his little secrets. It was not just the physical adjustments of feet and eye and stance he was preparing for, but the cerebral battle that was to unfold. As he explains, "After my double hundred against Australia in Mumbai, I told my brother, 'Warne hasn't bowled a single ball round the wicket. He's waiting for the big game and I know the moment I go in, during a crunch situation when it matters the most he's going to come round the wicket and I have to practise for that.' I had practised, but I said I have to be prepared mentally as well." He was.
The game for him is as much an art as science, as much bold invention as dreary routine. On match days he sits and eats in his room. When he reaches the ground he commences a particular ritual. "I stand behind the wicket and visualise where the bowler will bowl and what shot I will play." When he goes in, he tells himself, keep watching the ball. Then it all -- the ego, the courage, the belief, the work at nets, the eyes, the hands, the strength -- coalesces. And he makes magic.
Indeed, every piece of the jigsaw has its worth. He tells you his dipping averages during captaincy was not the burden of pressure -- "It was a coincidence that my poor form came then" -- but possibly the breakdown of his batting preparation. "I couldn't give too much time to my own batting. I was always thinking about my teammates, what he should be doing, what this guy should be doing. Right now I just think of myself, this is what I have to contribute, this is what everybody expects."
But it pecks away at his soul, this talk of captaincy. How could he have failed? In another sense, he does not think he was so hopeless. He never got the team he wanted and he led on tours to South Africa and the West Indies. Yet others see it differently. Says Manjrekar gently: "Don't expect him to be good at everything," then adds, "He is not naturally gifted as a captain." Mankad echoes common opinion when he says, "He expects so much, which is not wrong but the other players may not have had the ability to live up to it."
Yet snarls a Mumbai player, "Let's face it, he didn't get the support he wanted." Tendulkar is tetchy too. When you mention that a bowler said he was too intense, always coming up to offer advice, expecting things to happen instantaneously when instead they take time, he snapped. "No, we've always taken too much time, that's why I wanted things to happen there and then." It is an unfinished debate. Can he, this celestial lord of the batting universe, extend his creativity to another sphere? He says nothing but his silence tells you he has not forgotten.
For now though his batting dazzles. Someone mentions that instead of the thousand people who usually gather for the one-day matches between Mumbai and Gujarat, 12,000 arrived because Tendulkar was playing. It figures. In a nation short on heroes he is the only icon in residence. Says Manjrekar, "I tell you every time I see him I think God created him for the game of cricket."
Today he has been out cheaply, so now he sits in his chair peering out at the match. His face impassive like a Zen monk, he looks a man in private communion with himself. Thinking maybe of New Zealand, where he travels to in a week, of other reputations he will be asked to pulp. He is so complete a player that you think, my God one day there will be someone better than him.
For now, it doesn't seem possible.