WILL Sachin Tendulkar ever again be captain of India? Not if he goes on batting in the vein he has been doing since he surrendered the mantle to Mohammed Azharuddin! The cap fits Sachin only when his captain is Azhar. Indeed, from the moment Sachin cut the chunky Kangaroo called Shane Warne to size with his maiden first-class 200 (for Mumbai in the tourists' lung- opener at the Brabourne Stadium), Tendulkar, to the Aussies, has been a rueful reminder or what David Boon wrote in his book, Under The Southern Cross, released in November 1996. Wrote Boon:
''Tendulkar stands out because of his ability to increase the pace at will - to play an inspiring shot which can quickly wrest the initiative from the bowler. He has the necessary confidence to go 'over the top' - to break a bowler who may have been concentrating on line and length.''
'Over the moon' we were as Tendulkar repeatedly went 'over the top' in that 'stormy' tide-turning knock of 143 to emerge as 'The Man of the Deciding Match' at Sharjah. And the happiest part of that 143, as of the 134 to follow, was that Tendulkar upheld, in knock after knock, the other observation in the Boon book: ''Crucially, Sachin is equal to anyone else in the world in terms of the defensive game.''
It is this new-found ability to keep his powder dry - and then treat the bowling as cannon fodder in the moment that matters - that distinguishes Tendulkar today from Tendulkar yesterday. The ploy the Aussies adopted in the Sharjah final, by which Saurav Ganguly would get a single only off the last ball, was a trap laid to wear out Sachin's patience in the matter of being denied the strike, over after over. That Sachin had the savvy to hold fire and hold firm was a sign of his coming of age at 25.
Sharjah, therefore, is best described as Sachin's 'Playground of the East'. The 'Coca-Colanisation' of TV in India was complete in the instant in which that special 20,000 pound sterling award was announced for the man calling the shots and 'spots' alike. At 138 for 4, it was a hundred to make and a match to 'win'. As Tendulkar, against superhuman odds, took India blazing past that 236 target to pip New Zealand at the post, Coca- Cola knew it was 'Now or Never'. And it could not resist the corporate temptation to cash in on this moment of moments. That 'spot' award lent weight to the idea that it was a 20,000 pounding that Tendulkar was handing out to the Aussies. No wonder skipper Steve Waugh was noticed to be somewhat grudging in his prize-money ceremony praise of that blitzkriegy 143 by Sachin. After all, it was a knock that had cut the Sharjah ground from under the feet of Mark Waugh (81) and Michael Bevan (101 not out).
However, by the time it came to that no less daredevil 134 in the final trial of strength, all Australia knew what Sachin was driving at on TV - that Opel. It, by then, belonged to Tendulkar alone, and that not merely as Audi judge Ravi Shastri saw it. And the Opel was Sachin's for keeps, the set norm in the Indian team being that any prize received in kind belongs to the player winning it.
But what about that 20,000 pound ? The Gujarati friend watching TV with me could not have been a true Gujarati if he had not instantly enlightened me that the exchange rate, right then, was Rs. 66.97 per pound; that Sachin, by this 'sixy' artistry, had won a round sum of Rs. 13,39,400 for his 143 off 131 balls; and that each run of that 143, in effect, was worth Rs. 9,366.44 to Tendulkar that night without end at Sharjah! Shades of that other night without end, on BBC TV, as Kapil Dev's India won the 1983 Prudential World Cup at Lord's on June 25, 1983.
But that 20,000 pound money, was it Sachin's alone - like the Opel car was going to be? In the grand sum, had Sachin to share that 20,000 pound (Rs. 13,39,400) with the other members of the team, including the coach and the physio? I instinctively took the point to the man who had pioneered this business of sharing the prize money in the case of the Indian team. I rang up Ajit Wadekar to ask him about the 'sterling' quality of that 20,000 pound award to Sachin. And Wadekar was clear in his mind that there was no way Sachin could be asked to split this prize. ''Because,'' argued Ajit, ''only the prize money announced, before the start of the tournament, is to be shared in the event of any Indian player winning such an award.''
But even this 20,000 pound was a 'cash' award, I reasoned. ''That is as may be,'' came back Wadekar, ''but was it announced before the Sharjah tournament began? No, it came to be announced as an 'afterthought' on the part of the sponsors, it was not part of the original scheme of things. Therefore, the question of Sachin's sharing the money with the rest of the team does not arise.''
That was deadly logic, so I said, somewhat limply: ''Yet, Ajit, the very principle of sharing has changed since your time. The settled guideline now is that the winner keeps 25 per cent of the prize money. The remaining 75 per cent is equally shared among the other players forming part of the Indian contingent, including the coach and the physio.''
''I know all about that,'' replied Wadekar. ''Such 25-75 percentage distribution had become the settled mode of division by the time I became manager of the Indian team. But your specific question is about this 20,000 pound . And there the guideline is crystal clear - that only prizes put up by the sponsor, before the start of the tournament, are to be shared.''
At this point, Ajit Wadekar went into fascinating detail, (upon my prodding) about how this whole principle of prize sharing in the Indian team evolved. As Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi's deputy during the 1969-70 series at home against Bill Lawry's Australia, Wadekar says he had sensed some kind of heartburn in the Indian team - in those days when the idea was still new - about the Man of the Match award going to one individual in a team game. Wadekar says he had even discussed the matter with Pataudi as that 1969-70 series got going. Then, as Australia led 1-0 after the first two matches, it was Wadekar's 91 not out that proved instrumental in India's winning the Ferozeshah Kotla Test by seven wickets.
''All Delhi was agog at our having squared the series 1-1,'' Wadekar now told me. ''It was a heady moment of high camaraderie among the team members. For, apart from the Man of the Match award I got - which worked out to nearly a lakh of rupees (with more than one sponsor those days joining the pool) - there was a JK television set in it for me. Add to that a spot collection of nearly Rs. 70,000 (by way of money spontaneously given by a public overwhelmed by the fact that Pataudi's India had beaten Lawry's Australia) and we had roughly Rs. 1,65,000 in hand.
''This was the point at which Pataudi discreetly chose to remind me about my suggestion of sharing the prize money'' added Wadekar. ''In that dizzying moment, it was unanimously decided that the entire Rs. 1,65,000 would be shared among the 15 members of the team, while I kept my television set. It seemed a fair deal and there was no rancour whatsoever about Pataudi's holding me to my word. In any case, I had my television set. Remember how much a television set meant those days. Thus, from that moment in which we won the (December 1969) Delhi Test, it was decided that all money that came in as cash would be shared and anything that was won in kind would be kept by the player so awarded. The principle worked well right through my tenure as captain - even later, though the percentage of sharing became 25-75,'' concluded Ajit.
As for the current 20,000 pound award to Sachin, Wadekar says that, considering the extraordinary circumstances in which it came, it would be churlish for the rest of the team to even raise the matter of a share. In fact, Wadekar drew a subtle distinction here. He said that, in the case of a prize announced before the match, the winner became known only after the game was won and lost. Whereas this award of 20,000 pound, he observed, was announced, in Tendulkar's 'exclusive' name, even while his innings was still in progress - during that qualifying match against Australia. Therefore, surmised Wadekar, this money belonged to Tendulkar alone!
A vote taken among the viewing public would yield the same verdict that it is a 20,000 pound award earned by Tendulkar by the sweat of his brilliant brow. Our players today receive, each, Rs. 90,000 for a one-day international; and Rs. 1,20,000 for a Test match. At least in the case of that pre-final Sharjah match against Australia, none of our players bar Tendulkar merited more than the mandatory Rs. 90,000! Only Tendulkar deserved more and he got it in the shape of that 20,000 pound sterling.
''But even this is peanuts considering what our players earn today!'' somebody in cricketing authority let it be known to me. That is neither here nor there. Here in India, we had eyes only for Tendulkar. There in Sharjah Sachin alone stood tall among the ruins. In other words, the 20,000 pound award is important, in the eyes of the viewing public, because it came to be bestowed upon Tendulkar for a singular achievement.
In fact, this award, looking to the setting in which it came, is not much different from the Sunil Gavaskar Fund, organised by The Times of India in the triumphant hour in which Wadekar and his men returned from the West Indies, over 27 years ago. That special fund, in Sunil's personal name, was in recognition of debutant Gavaskar's spectacular contribution to India's first ever series win over the mighty West Indies, early in 1971. Sunil's 774 runs from 8 innings in 4 Tests (for a phenomenal average of 154.80) came from a most impressive sequence of 65 and 67 not out; 116 and 64 not out; 1 and 117 not out; 124 and 220. Those were the days of 'No spirit like team spirit'. And Chairman of Selectors Vijay Merchant even made a public plea to The Times of India to convert the Gavaskar Fund into a Team Fund. But the fund remained in the name of Sunil Gavaskar. By the same yardstick by which this 20,000 pound stays in Sachin Tendulkar's name.
As for the car, the only dispute, luckily, is whether we should not be saying, from now on, that ''Sachin must Opel'' rather than ''Sachin must open''! Sachin once expressed his open admiration for Richard Hadlee as the bowler he found most difficult to negotiate. And what a ruckus there was, in the New Zealand team, when Hadlee won that snazzy car for his world record-approaching performance in terms of Test wickets. The agreement in the New Zealand team, till then, was that even prizes won 'in kind' were to be converted into cash for the money to be equally shared by the team members. But Hadlee, suddenly, chose not to go along with the idea of splitting the value of that showpiece limousine with the rest of the Kiwi team. Hadlee said he wanted to keep the car for himself as a status symbol.
Result: New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney stopped talking to Richard Hadlee! All instructions on the field to New Zealand's only matchwinning bowler were, from that instant, communicated by Coney through his vice-captain John Wright. All New Zealand forgave Hadlee once he became the world's highest wicket-taker with 431 Test victims. But Coney congratulated Hadlee only through an interpreter, any champagne for the man ran counter to 'team spirit'!
By contrast, nobody in India grudges Sachin either the Tendul- car' or the cash. But I must here enter a caveat against Tendulkar's being hailed as being as good as Sir Donald Bradman. Bradman hit 6,996 runs from 80 innings in 52 Tests. When, upon Sunil Gavaskar's matching Bradman's feat of 29 hundreds in Tests, The Don acknowledged the Indian opener as his peer, Sunny felt enough was enough. ''It is very generous of Sir Donald to think of me in such terms,'' said Sunny, ''but not until someone scores 6,997 runs from 79 innings in 51 Tests can he claim to be The Don's peer.''
Take a second look at Bradman's 6,996 runs from 80 innings in 52 Tests (ave 99.94). Tendulkar, please do note, has already played 61 Tests and 92 innings, yet has but 4,552 runs (ave 56.19) against his name, a whopping 2,444 behind Bradman! Tendulkar has yet to hit a double hundred in Tests; Bradman had 10 scores of over 200 in his 80 Test innings; and five of those 10 Test scores of over 200 exceeded the 250 mark. Indeed, in one innings (Australia vs South Africa, Adelaide: 1931-32), Bradman finished on 299 not out, all but adding one more 300 to those two triple tons (334 and 304) against England.
In his first-class career, Bradman crossed 200 on no fewer than 37 occasions; Tendulkar has only this season (eight years after being in the first-class game) hit his first 200. And Bradman, when he became Australia's captain at the age of 28, ''lost nothing to the extra responsibilty - leading his country in five series between 1936 and 1948, he did not lose one and, indeed, won four decisively''.
This is not being said to belittle Sachin's record as India's captain. Not for a moment. The only idea is to draw pinpointed attention to the sheer absurdity of already placing Tendulkar on the peak on which Bradman alone still has a right to stand. Okay, so Bradman never played one-day cricket.
Yet it is on printed record that ''his fielding in the deep or the covers was brilliant'', so that The Don had the basic prerequisite to try his hand at instant cricket, too, if it had been there in his time. Bradman, in his 21 years of first-class cricket (losing some of his most productive time to World War II), averaged a century in every three innings he played. And he had, in this span, six scores of over 300.
Another like Tendulkar? Possible. Another like Bradman? Impossible!
Tendulkar is Tendulkar and let us adore him as such. Don Bradman was orthodox like Sunil Gavaskar; Sachin Tendulkar is unorthodox like Vivian Richards. There will, therefore, inevitably be occasions when Tendulkar will get out in 'striking out' a path of his own: ''Genius does what it must.'' At such times, there is no point in Gavaskar's becoming overcritical of Sachin for ''getting too experimental''. For Tendulkar's stroke production, at all times, is a reminder of the fact that only dead fish swim with the current.