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SACHIN - An Intimate Portrait

India’s cricketing genius takes a rare holiday in Connecticut
and provides a glimpse of his game, his life, his family

 

Tendulkar with wife & daughterNumbers don’t suffice when the subject is Sachin Tendulkar. You need some words set to music. You need a Brothers in Arms tune and a Mark Knopfler clone to strum the guitar. You need to come up with this to explain who he is: "Gonna tell you the Sachin Tendulkar story—about a boy who rose to fame playing cricket as a kid in the streets of Bombay, born to be a household name, he can hit those fours and sixes, that Tendulkar boy sure can play, he’s got the passion and devotion, blasting away, he’s here to stay, now he’s hitting those balls into glory, with a power that cuts like a knife, he’s a winner—a winner in the game of life, a winner in the game of life." (The title theme in the just-released documentary Tendulkar at 25, aired on DD on August 16 with a rerun on DD-II on August 23.)

Though the lean crew that markets the Indian genius has to raid Dire Straits for a signature tune to embellish the ultimate batsman that Baron Frankenstein might assemble in the modern era, it is, perhaps, going to be emblematic of our nation for the next 10 years that in between exploding balls of uranium our primary obsession will be Sachin.

Sachin in ConnecticutFor the last three-and-a-half weeks, cricket’s Michael Jordan has been on his first-ever holiday abroad, flying to Philadelphia, Connecticut, and New York with his wife Anjali and daughter Sara. He has, after the Diana memorial match at Lord’s last month, avoided the insatiable media swarms that feed on champions—by coming a long way from home. He has spent time with his daughter, now close to 10 months, listened to music, played pool, figured out touch football, done the Atlantic shores on yachts (even though he has a phobia for water and can’t swim), gazed at the Manhattan skyline, relaxed with friends, slept, and shopped. India’s no 1 brand hasn’t ever done all of this together. And he doesn’t know when he will do it next.

In fact, the first-ever holiday in his life was at Kunoor, near Ooty. This, a sedate six-day affair after India’s Sharjah triumph in April where he transformed into some new kind of cinematic explosive, playing two innings that prompted Australian captain Steve Waugh to say: "I bowled a perfect yorker. He somehow got under it and scooped it one bounce into the fence. I thought I can’t bowl much better than that. It’s time to give someone else a chance." In Tendulkar at 25, Steve adds: "I want to set the record straight. No one can be like Don Bradman. He stands alone. But I think when he’s (Sachin) finished he will be second to him."

Of course, the film also has Bradman commenting on Sachin: "I was very very struck with his technique and I asked my wife to come and have a look at him because, I said, I never saw myself play but I feel that this fellow is playing much the same I used to play by looking at him. I can’t explain it in detail, but it’s just his compactness, and his stroke production and his technique, it all seemed to gel as far as I was concerned and that was how I felt." Sachin’s reaction to the Don’s comment: "It is the greatest compliment I ever got. I called my parents, my brother to say this is what Bradman said about me. It thrilled me." The documentary itself has comparison snippets of Bradman and Sachin playing the pull and an on-drive. It’s a striking similarity.

In Connecticut, however, the thrill factor for India’s performance hologram is the quality of sea-food that he can lay his hands on. Says Sachin: "I love sea-food. My mother is the greatest cook of sea-food in the whole world." He himself doesn’t mind a shot at cooking if he’s in the mood.

But it’s pool and touch football that’s engrossing him right now—areas where he doesn’t necessarily display the high-testosterone charge of insanity we are familiar with. But, here too he displays a competitiveness, as if any lack of it would be in collision with his sporting philosophy. Says WorldTel president Mark Mascarenhas: "There were four of us playing pool. It was three in the night and the whole game was down to the last shot which Sachin had to take. He had to go to the far cushion and come back all the way to hit the black ball. Nine times out of 10 an average player wouldn’t be able to do it specially at three in the night. But he potted the ball in and had everybody dropping their cues and laughing. Now what shall I call it? Seizing the moment or something. You set up a stage and if he’s there he will perform."

There’s also the compulsive necessity to be in the thick of things. Another example from Mascarenhas: "We were playing touch football. Sachin was in my team. I declared myself the captain. He said nothing. The other side had four good guys. After two plays he just came up to me and said ‘Mark, I know what to do to beat them. Leave it to me’. He tossed the ball high up, waded through the field and caught it at the other end. From then on he was in charge. It just took him a while to figure what the game was about."

The documentary is a bit of a disappointment. That is, relatively speaking. With Sachin no amount of information can ever level off your curiosity. Directed and produced by Peter Dempsey, a former Channel 9 employee, of Topline Sports Vision it has some minor scoops. An interview of Sachin at 15 by Tom Alter, for example:

Everybody’s comparing you to Gavaskar?
My feeling is that I don’t think I am compared to Gavaskar.

Are you willing to go to the West Indies?
If I get selected I will go.

How will you face Ambrose, Walsh and the others?
I will try my best to face them.

Have you ever played any other sport?
No. I have always played cricket.

What would you call this? My guess would be cute. In fact, the one thing that strikes you is how politically correct he was even at an early age. Respectful towards elders, making the right noises, not giving anything away to the interviewer. All qualities which still stick to him, only more amplified, in one way or another. In a larger sense, he’s also a victim of the demand that sportsmen should conform to society’s many expectations. Tobacco and liquor companies have been lining up at his agent’s doorsteps with blank cheques but he hasn’t bitten yet.

Admirable, but you sometimes wonder whether this constant constraint of having to be a role model doesn’t become a chore. Coming back to scoops. The other minor victory for Dempsey has been to film him with Anjali and Sara in his Bombay flat. He even manages a soundbite from Anjali: "He’s a very good father. More than my expectations." We also learn from her that he continues to play cricket with his friends in the building.

The other revelations come from Sachin himself. On his coach Ramakant Achrekar: "He played a big role. We used to have 4-5 nets everyday. At the fifth net he would stand behind me. I would be tired. He would place a one rupee coin on top of the stumps. Whoever got me out would get that. If no one got me out I got to keep the coin. I would be totally focused on not getting out." If one rupee coins could be such an aid in motivational techniques, the finance ministry should make a special budgetary provision to distribute them to all primary schools. On his practice fads: "I had very funny ways of practising. I practised my back swing with a ball hanging in a sock. I used to play a couple of thousand balls a day like this." There is also a brief insight into the champion’s debut innings and series against Pakistan in 1989. "I was tense. Whatever I had expected to happen didn’t happen. I felt after that that I wouldn’t be able to handle international cricket at all. But I was hoping for another opportunity. I made up my mind not to lose my wicket. I got 59. When I got back I remember saying I don’t know any reason why I can’t do that again." In fact, some way into the film, Richie Benaud alludes to the same series. "They bowled him short-pitched stuff and bouncers. Umpire Holder even warned Wasim Akram. Sachin, they tell me, never took a backward step."

Curiously, Dempsey hasn’t talked to Sachin’s teammates and, for that matter, not even Sunil Gavaskar. Somehow, for a film on Sachin to go on air without insights from Sunny seems like more than a small slight. The chief villain is espn which prevented Sunny from doing it because the documentary was to air on DD. Says Mascarenhas, who spent $100,000 on commissioning the film: "I asked around and Dempsey’s name was recommended by more than a few persons. I just gave him a free hand." So in between clips of Sachin reducing all bowlers to underdog status and grinding them to catfood we have insights from former players and current commentators. A few are reproduced below:

When you try to slip in a question about weaknesses as you sit guzzling orange juice with Sachin he is almost embarrassed. Modesty is a big ingredient when you try to confirm. But he thinks for a while and says, almost apologetically, "I don’t think there is any flaw but there are times when you get out in a similar fashion. It’s time to worry a bit then. I am happy with my batting right now. I don’t need to get into bad habits. Usually what happens when you are scoring runs is that you try that something extra which is alien to your game. That’s when the problem starts."

Like, maybe, when Allan Donald, who along with Wasim Akram, Sachin rates as the two best bowlers he has faced, bowled him twice through his gates in the India-South Africa test series of 1997. Jimmy Amarnath had then said: "Getting bowled is something that very rarely happens to top batsmen." Amarnath went on to infer that the twin setbacks could be because the Indian captain had changed his stance. In an interview to a daily, Sachin willy-nilly confirmed this analysis by saying that he changes his stance slightly every few months but insisted that people had only noticed it because of his dismissals. He is more dismissive now: "One good delivery can get any batsman in the world. All you can do then is think about the next game, wait for your next opportunity. Donald was no problem. It just happened."

What, however, just didn’t happen during Sachin’s stint as captain was enough wins for India. That’s something that still rankles. "There were no match-winning performances. The last stride was always difficult. Then people started saying that captaincy was affecting me. Even in the so-called lean period I was scoring runs. In the West Indies I could have scored three hundreds. But it’s the results that matter." In fact, the one prominent insight that he carries from his days as India skipper is, in his own words, that "captaincy is how good your team plays". He has an example ready. "When I sent Robin Singh at one down in Sharjah he got out the first ball. At Dhaka, when Azhar sent the same Robin one down, he scored in the 80s, and won us the tournament."

The stint also made him "mentally tougher". Made him live with the fact that "bad performances happen" and that abstinence from recollections was the better way to carry on.

Interestingly, he’s eager to state the point that he wasn’t so disappointed at losing the captaincy "as people made it out to be". He adds: "I didn’t go into any depression or anything. For me playing and winning for India is the ultimate."

I look at him hard here. The little over half-a-dozen sessions that I have had with Sachin over two years have all bordered on the formal. Connecticut is a shade more relaxed but not enough for him to enjoy a drink as he talks. Interviews and chats are chores and demands on time that the superstar has to live with. These days he’s veered off even the occasional beer. But he smiles when his daughter comes into view sporadically, in her mother’s arms or somebody else’s. His brother Ajit named her Sara and she resembles Sachin.

If it was anyone else talking about India being the ultimate we might question the patriotism but says a player of Sachin: "He’s like that. The way he came out blazing after he was dethroned was amazing. You see, he’s the only person who has the respect of his peers. Azhar had it but he lost it with the way he went about things during Sachin’s captaincy. Kumble also had it but he too lost it when as the vice-captain he acted like he was vice-captain of Karnataka rather than India."

In fact, peer respect is something Sachin thrives on. "For me the respect of my teammates is very important. To be considered a great sportsman you have to be able to prove your abilities over a long period. Not just a couple of seasons. To perform over 10-15 years requires a lot of perseverance." This longevity of performance comes up as an essential ingredient in his own assessment of the current India crop. Says he: "Rahul and Saurav have had a couple of good seasons. But they have to prove themselves over a decade. You can’t just put them in the Miandad or Gower category right now. What I like of all our batsmen is that, apart from Dravid, all of them like to go for their shots. Ganguly has a free swing of the bat, no ordinary player could have played as long as Azhar has, and Dravid has a good technique and is focused. Ajay Jadeja, though he hasn’t played many Tests, is a shrewd player who knows what is to be done. He lifts the whole team when the chips are down. Of course, there is no comparison to Vinod Kambli when it comes to that. In a tight game you need someone to take the tension off with cranky jokes." In the film, Kambli talks about their record world partnership of 600-odd runs when they were in school together at Mumbai’s Sharda Ashram. "Achrekar sir’s assistant ran all round the ground trying to attract our attention so that he could tell us to declare. Sachin kept telling me not to look at him. We even started singing." In the end, a telephone chat with Achrekar during one of the breaks scared them enough to declare.

If glimpses of that childhood truancy are almost nonexistent in today’s Sachin it’s because it has metamorphosed into something of the ‘poise’ that Greg Chappell talks about. The cool malevolence that is every talented sportsman’s territory. Says he: "You have to have an edge. Something that motivates you. You are taking this thing very seriously, while at the same time trying to curtail your emotions, control yourself. There’s a balance and right now I might have gotten better at doing that. If you play every game like it was your last you are going to burn out."

And even though balance might be the yin and yang for excellence, it doesn’t prohibit occasional indulgences. Like when he scored the century against Australia at Sharjah to make India qualify for the final. Says Sachin: "Though India lost the match we qualified. When I came inside I was angry because of my dismissal. But I realised that we had a chance against the Australians in the next match. What I can’t forget about the incident is the swagger with which I walked into the dressing room. I was walking like Viv Richards. I don’t think I will ever forget that walk."

If the arrogance, swagger and lofty disdain of Richards strikes a chord with Sachin so does the arcane quality of patience, something that, according to him, has grown beyond the minimum threshold ever since the birth of his daughter. In Sharjah, for instance, when India had to play Australia after the sand storm, Shane Warne kept needling him saying, "You can’t afford a risky shot. Your team needs you." Sachin didn’t quite take it stoically. He kept answering back, saying, "I will play my natural game." Adds Sachin: "One cannot play by instinct all the time. The situation is also important. For that you need patience." In other words, if one has to build an innings it is necessary to be hormonally sedated.

Without doubt, he’s getting daily lessons from Sara on his holiday. Even while chatting he has an eye on her. Anjali has gone out shopping and left her in his care. Though Sara is inside and he’s sitting by the pool he rises immediately upon hearing her cry. Later, he says, "She never cries. Only when she is in pain. She had tripped and fallen." In fact, he’s very zealous about protecting his family from outside attention. A bit like Michael Jordan, who’s seldom allowed himself to be photographed with his three kids and wife. Over lunch, as his fingers crush lobster, he hovers over Sara’s automatic swing, a little small for her. After lunch it’s pool time. Mascarenhas’ pool table has a camel top and he polishes the end of his cue. In the evening he goes for a boat ride. There is also talk about going to a baseball pit to try a few balls. A few days earlier he had tried it and connected well.

Of course, seducing audiences in millions and digesting bowlers without the aid of enzyme pills wouldn’t be possible without that essential boon of confidence. And Sachin is overflowing with it. Says Wes Hall: "He lifts the game of those whom he plays with. Ordinary players become more than average."

In fact, his confidence is as hard as the pitch he treads on. In the last one-day feature in Sri Lanka, their Independence cup which India won, Sachin promised manager Anshuman Gaekwad a century in the final. He did. In the Chennai Test against Australia when India were trailing by 50 runs in their second innings and much hinged on Sachin, he promised Gaekwad a quick 70 to put India back in the game. Not in front of the others, but in a one-to-one when everyone had left the dressing room.

At Sharjah, before the Coca-Cola cup finals, the marketing chief of Coke, Sanjeev Gupta, promised Mascarenhas a Mercedes 500 for Sachin if India won the finals. Mascarenhas asked Gupta if the award stood even if India won the finals but with a poor contribution from Sachin. Gupta said, "Yes." When Mascarenhas told this to Sachin, the little genius said, "I will win the Mercedes tomorrow." He did. He also scored 134. Even now he blushes when he talks about it. There is even a gesture dismissing the incidents as if they were of spurious relevance. In the gesture there is almost a self-censorial need for accountability, more so when people are endowing you with wattage beyond the comfort mark.

What irks him sometimes is when people think it comes all too easy. Says Mascarenhas: "It takes nets upon nets and he has to keep doing it. There is no taking it easy." Adds Sachin: "Cricket for me is never casual. I realise it every time an irregular bowler gets me out." As writer Andy Clark says in Being There: "We use intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence, our brains make the world so smart, we can be dumb in peace." For Sachin, more practice doesn’t necessarily mean easy runs. For him there’s only the fate that he makes. No, he is not an atheist. "I believe in God. I think there is a supernatural power. But, one has to try. Then whatever happens, happens. There are disappointments and you have to know how to deal with them."

Elsewhere, Ravi Shastri and Mascarenhas holler at him to join in a group photograph by the swimming pool. But he ignores them. He’s eager to get the session behind him. His holiday’s nearing its end and whiling away whole days with a reporter might get him into trouble with Anjali. Shastri says: "Bas karo yaar bahut ho gaya. Bore ho gaya wo interview dekar."

He talks about a disappointment in 1992, on India’s tour to Australia. Sachin scored 40 in the second innings and then snicked one to Allan Border off the bowling of Peter Taylor. Says he: "I was batting well but the ball went too high. The dismissal rankled because we lost the Test." And the performances that stay with him: the century at Perth on a fast and rising track, the recent Chennai century against Warne & co, and the 100 in the Edgbaston Test in 1996 where he scored 124 out of India’s total of 220. In the one-dayers: the 44 against the West Indies at Trinidad & Tobago in the first one-dayer where India scored just 160. Recalls Sachin: "The pitch was so bad that even the bowlers didn’t know what their deliveries would turn up as. And I got a bad decision." The two recent Sharjah centuries and the 80 off 44 balls against New Zealand in 1994 on Holi on the day he first opened for India. Incidentally, he thinks he ‘missed out’ by not being able to open earlier for India. And of the many opening partners he has had he liked opening with Jadeja the best because they would be ‘cracking jokes’ all over the place.

However, the memories that he cherishes the most are two little incidents that happened when he was 14. "When I started playing for Mumbai, Vengsarkar presented me with a Gunn & Moore bat. When I finished practice, Sandeep Patil told me to go get his autograph on the bat. I did that and the same evening went to Shivaji Park to meet friends. I was eager to show off the bat. 50 boys must have felt the bat. I used that bat only for select matches but it had to break one day. The other incident is when Vengsarkar was captain. He invited me over to the India nets at cci. I was 14 and really excited. My brother said, ‘don’t worry, just play’. I played Kapil Dev for the first time. I couldn’t sleep that night because I had played 15 balls from Kapil Dev. I remember each of those 15 balls like it was yesterday." Then, the time he met Viv Richards for the first time in Australia in 1992. "It was at Adelaide. I was absolutely excited when Manjrekar was taking me to him to be introduced. Viv said ‘I watched you. Keep playing like that.’ Later, I played against him in the counties. He was at that time playing for Glamorgan."

In fact, when he started off he learnt a lot by watching the likes of Sanjay Manjrekar and Ravi Shastri. Before his teens John McEnroe was his idol. Now he admires Pete Sampras for he thinks that ‘to be number 1 for such a long time is simply amazing’. His favourite music comes from Dire Straits, Bob Marley, UB-40, and the Eagles.

And in contemporary cricket he likes Steve Waugh and Brian Lara. "Lara is talented and dangerous. Against us in Jamaica he got 80-odd runs on a defensive field. Waugh is great because he scores runs when Australia needs them."

About anything he would like to incorporate in his game from contemporary cricketers? "Just the fielding of Jonty Rhodes." Of course, if you are the reigning God in a country the size of India some of it has to go to your head. But, says Sachin: "When I score runs my family keeps me down on the ground. It is easy to get heady. That is why I need them so much." But a little dormant pique slips through when he answers a question on whether it would have made a difference for the better if he had been a little taller. Says he: "I have never been taller than this so I don’t know."

His wife, incidentally, has started getting more involved in the game. Says Sachin: "Earlier, she never used to watch the game. Now she keeps track on the telly." But keeping in touch with friends is difficult. Says he: "I keep a busy schedule. I stay in touch with Atul Ranade, who played for Mumbai last year. I have another in Mayur Kadrekar but I haven’t been in touch lately." In his expression though you get a sense of the defensive aloofness of one who has had few opportunities to make friends because of the tolls of early stardom and so might have decided that he doesn’t need them.

In Tendulkar at 25, Ian Chappell says, "Either Shastri or Vengsarkar told me when Sachin was 15 that this kid has a talent that comes from up above. I thought then it was a very big rap to give to a kid that was 15." Today that kid is 25 and in his incandescent best capable of raising the dead. He has the musculature and the weaponry. He has the aura to look at immortality in the eye and turn away. Maybe, on the inside he’s all cyborg, an advanced android form of 2135, and people are too dumb to figure it out yet.

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