Revered by millions in India, a prince among batsmen past and present, Sachin Tendulkar is here to dismantle cricket's best bowling attacks during the coming World Cup.
It is difficult to believe that a little man with cherubic features and a shock of curly black hair holed up in an unremarkable hotel beside junction 21 of the M1, has the power to influence a billion people. But it's a fact. Over the next six weeks the exploits of 5ft 5in, 26-year-old Indian wonderbat Sachin Tendulkar will affect the Bombay Stock Exchange, the BJP party's hopes of remaining in government and the mood of his entire nation.
Before the Indian team flew to London last week numerous streets in Mumbai, Tendulkar's home town, were adorned with huge billboards pleading ``Save Us Sachin'' and the newspapers carried daily front-page updates on the back injury which had ruled him out of the Sharjah Cup. Important election issues were relegated to inside pages. Indian city centres will grind to a halt next Saturday, when he walks out to bat against South Africa at Hove in India's first World Cup match, as millions of his compatriots cram around fuzzy television screen's and crackly radios, hoping and praying that the brilliant skills of their willow prince will enable them to conquer the world.
It's not an unreasonable hope either. The World Cup is a batsman's game and Tendulkar is a batting phenomenon who has accumulated manifold awards and already has 40 Test and one-day international centuries. He was the leading run-maker in the 1996 World Cup - cricket's equivalent of the Golden Boot - despite India failing to reach the final. He's on the way to becoming the most prolific Test batsman of all time. And he only started shaving last year.
The sprawling tentacles of the Star Television network and India's cricket-crazy culture have made this son of a language professor the most recognisable face in Asia - he can't venture far from home without disguise - and it's most marketable. He appears in a quarter of all Indian TV commercials, companies and individuals clamour to be associated with him, 400,000 gold medallions of his head are about to be released on the Indian market. His seven major sponsorship deals make him comfortably the highest-earning cricketer in the world. His annual income of $4 million at least quadruples that of his closest rival, Brian Lara. Nobody else is even in the frame.
Their careers may be parallel, but there are marked contrasts between Tendulkar and Lara. The West Indian has built an ostentatious, nine-bedroomed home on a hill in his native Trinidad, with panoramic views, a marble staircase and a swimming pool in the shape of a bat, but he rarely stays there. He lives like he plays - extravagantly, erratically, on a snakes and ladders board. He practises lethargically.
Despite his riches, Tendulkar still lives in the low-rise block of grey concrete apartments where he was brought up, in the Bandra district, not far from Mumbai airport. A sort of Indian Hounslow. He calls it his ``colony.'' He shares a modest two- bedroom flat with his wife Anjali, a doctor, and young daughter. His parents live directly above. Rickety bamboo scaffolding clings to a next-door balcony. The only hint of a celebrated inhabitant is the silver Mercedes parked round the side, which he enjoys taking for a late-night spin. Behind the block is a dusty, tree-scattered paddock where, as a child, he spent hours hitting a ball suspended in a sock.
``He still plays cricket with his friends down there and people don't trouble him at all,'' Anjali says. ``He's just a normal person in this building.'' Beyond its confines he is feted and fawned on and has been known to don a hat and a false beard in an attempt to go to a movie. Film stars and politicians slaver over his attention. At the President's palace last year to receive a Padmashri - the Indian equivalent of the OBE - Tendulkar was so beseiged by official guests that a security cordon had to be formed to help him struggle to the rostrum to collect his award. He is inundated with presents of cars - most of which he passes on to his brothers, who look after his finances - and offers of incentives, though presumably not the kind once pledged to Denis Compton. Arriving to play for Holkar in the 1944-45 Ranji Trophy final, Compton was approached by a wealthy Bombay merchant and promised 50 rupees for every run he made after a hundred. Returning to the dressing room 249 not out, Compton was dismayed to find a note from the man saying: ``Sorry, Mr. Compton, I'm called away on very urgent business.''
Playing in India it is possible to become used to the intense public scrutiny, but it is very wearing. During a match at Eden Gardens, Calcutta, even I, an anonymous county player, was constantly harassed by autograph hunters pressing anything from sweet wrappers to dried leaves into my hand to sign. What it must be like for Tendulkar, who is followed by a gallery of 150 even while playing a social round of golf, is unimaginable. When he was run out in Calcutta against Pakistan in March, there was a riot and play was suspended until he walked round the boundary to pacify the crowd.
Coming to the World Cup in England will be a blessed relief. Certainly his is the most prized wicket in the tournament, for, in an hour at the crease, he is liable to run amok. ``He's belting people out of the international scene,'' says Richie Benaud, who has seen him play, and severely damage Shane Warne's figures, more than most. After Tendulkar's back-to-back one-day hundreds against Australia last year, Steve Waugh admitted he didn't know how to contain him. Asked if Tendulkar was the new Don Bradman, Waugh said: ``Look, there's only one Bradman, that guy is unique and there'll never be anyone as good as him. But I think when Tendulkar's career is finished, he'll go down as the batsman who was second to Bradman.''
Bradman's own views on this are
intriguing. During a rare television interview, the Don said: ``I
saw Tendulkar on TV and I was very struck by
his technique. I asked my wife to come and have a look at him because I never saw myself play, but I feel that this fellow is playing much the same way I used to. It was his compactness, his stroke production and his technique - it all seemed to gel - and that was how I felt.''
A video, made for Bradman's 90th birthday party, which Tendulkar attended, showed the two batsmen playing the same shots simultaneously on a split screen. The similarities of body position, stroke flow and bat angles are uncanny. Tendulkar is flattered by these compliments, and you sense it fuels his determination to work even harder. Every practice session has a purpose, whether it is to hone his majestic driving or to improve his single-nudging. Before a Test against Australia in Chennai he had a practice wicket deliberately roughed up outside the leg stump for leg-spinners bowling round the wicket to aim at. When Warne went round the wicket in the match Tendulkar took him apart, making 155 not out. Where to Lara a net is an occupational hazard, to Tendulkar it is the laboratory to create clinical perfection. Lara destroys bowling attacks, Tendulkar dissects them.
And yet there's nothing boring about his batting. It has an appealing mix of style and brutality, a sort of fusion of Greg Chappell and Viv Richards, one of his idols. Beautifully balanced, Tendulkar scores at a run a ball - striking regal cover drives, thumping pulls like baseball cross-bats - and smites huge, straight sixes off fast bowlers with his 3lb log of timber. He generates extraordinary bat speed, but refutes the suggestion that he sets out to dominate the bowling.
``I don't like this word `dominate','' he said, taking a breather from bowling his tantalising little seamers in the Leicester nets last week. ``I don't ever go in with thoughts of dominating a bowling attack. I just go out and play positive. My game is to play my shots. If I don't do that, I won't score any runs. I'd rather say I try to play positive.''
He claims he doesn't set himself long-term targets - ``that would put too much pressure on me and make me stiff on the ground'' - and is not even particularly statistically minded. That is perhaps a half-truth, as all prominent batsmen are at least partly egocentric, as befits the solo nature of their job, and Tendulkar has precise recall of his scores and match situations. His favourite innings are invariably those played on difficult wickets, as if each was a rite of passage. There's no swagger, in spite of his achievements - the youngest player to make a first-class century (aged 15), seven Test hundreds before he was 21, the only player in the post-war era with a first-class career average of more than 60, etc., etc. Generally, he's deferential, complimenting the team for their excellent support rather than dwelling on his own match-winning innings. He plays down his status. ``I've never thought of myself as the best batsman in the world. My ambition was to be considered one of the best, and to stay there. But it's more important to play well for your country. That's what I want most, to continue performing for my country and win as many games as possible.''
His devotion to the concept of ``team'' is apparently flawless. After his bat in the nets he willingly bowls to the others or advises people on their run-ups and actions. He plays a full part in fitness sessions and fielding practices, always travels with the group and doesn't request any preferential treatment. His hotel room in Leicester is standard, like everyone else's. Bobby Simpson, the former Australian captain who is helping India during the World Cup, finds Tendulkar's enthusiasm infectious. ``He's a wonderful listener, always wanting to learn. He's always asking me to check little things, then in fielding drills, he's like a little kid with a new toy. It's lovely.''
The eulogies continue from Tendulkar's captain, Mohammad Azharuddin. ``I've never seen anyone so balanced. He's a fantastic one-day player - he's got all the shots. Sometimes we have to tell him to just play, don't go mad, be normal. He'll get the runs.''
The New Zealander Martin Crowe said after a recent Tendulkar century: ``He bats like God. I bowled against Tendulkar in a match once, when he was playing a season for Yorkshire and I for Durham. He had glided to 20 when, on a cabbage patch of a wicket, I produced the ball of my life. Just short of a length on middle- and-off, it hit a bump, jumped up and jagged sharply towards the slips. It was unplayable. No one in the world would have got near it. Tendulkar's reactions were quicksilver. He adjusted in a flash, but couldn't avoid nicking it to the keeper. It was a mark of his skill that he got out to it. ``In the second innings he seemed to have developed extrasensory perception, and several similar balls he left at the last moment. Trying to keep him quiet became an increasingly hopeless task; there was absolutely no margin for error. He made a hundred, of course, and Yorkshire won the match.''
England plays India in three Saturdays' time at Edgbaston. Here's some simple advice from one old member of the bowlers' union to those attempting to silence Tendulkar: find those bumps quick, lads, or else.