• World

The God Of Big Things

14 minute read
Bobby Ghosh / Mumbai

Sachin Tendulkar wishes people would just get out of his head. Since March 16, when he smashed cricket’s equivalent of the sound barrier by notching his 100th century–a single-innings score of 100 or more runs–for his country, the player deified by a billion Indians and revered by half a billion other cricket fans has been dogged by questions about what he would do next. Having reached a mark previously considered impossible, would he play on? Or would he walk away from the sport he has dominated for more than two decades? And if so, would he become a businessman, a TV pundit … a performer of miracles?

The incessant inquisition, carried out by Indian media that have long banked on Tendulkar’s popularity to sell papers and score ratings, finally got to him on the very day of his 100th 100. “Critics haven’t taught me my cricket, and they don’t know what my body and mind are up to,” he told the Indian magazine Open. It wasn’t for them to judge when his time was up, he said; when he feels “unable to serve India, I will stand down and give it all up.”

It was an uncharacteristic display of pique from a player who is known as the Master Blaster for his aggressive batting style but is almost as famous for his placid demeanor off the field. No one is ever going to confuse Tendulkar, 39, for John McEnroe. By the time we meet, a month later, Tendulkar has regained his composure, but his manager has asked me not to use the R word. Retirement is not on Tendulkar’s mind.

In fact, he’d like to have nothing on his mind at all–no critics, no records, absolutely nothing. When he goes out to bat, Tendulkar seeks “the zone.” It’s a mental state familiar to great athletes in which the mind filters out the crowd, the opponents, the score and other distractions; performance is guided by a magic combination of intuition and muscle memory. Tendulkar speaks of it in terms more spiritual than sporting: “I need to surrender myself to my natural instincts,” he says. “My subconscious mind knows exactly what to do. It’s been trained to react for years.”

Tendulkar admits he hasn’t yet mastered the ability to get into the zone at will, for which bowlers around the world must be grateful. He has breathing techniques, tricks to psych himself up, but even so, he makes it only “50% of the time,” he says.

It’s a miracle he can get there at all. Of Tendulkar’s many achievements as a cricketer, perhaps the most difficult is the one he must repeat every time he bats for India: carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire nation on his back. It is the heaviest burden borne by any modern sportsman, and his ability to carry it for more than 22 years while utterly dominating his sport makes a good case that Tendulkar is the world’s greatest athlete.

God at Bat

In cricket, a batsman who hits a century, or a “ton”–another term for a 100-plus-run innings–displays the most consistent measure of batting prowess. Great players end their careers with anywhere from 25 to 50 such scores. Tendulkar’s ton of tons is beyond great. Every sport has record breakers, but of his contemporaries, only Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong and prescandal Tiger Woods come anywhere close to matching him in redefining the realms of possibility. Leo Messi may be the best soccer player on the planet, but he has Cristiano Ronaldo nipping at his heels; Tendulkar leads his closest challenger, Australia’s Ricky Ponting, by a staggering 29 centuries.

Even more impressive is Tendulkar’s record as top scorer in both of cricket’s main formats–the exhausting five-day tests and the intense one-day internationals. Usain Bolt would have to win the marathon as well as the 100 m at the London Olympics to approach that level of achievement. Unlike in baseball, a cricket batter keeps hitting until he is out. Tendulkar once hit 241 runs while whacking 436 balls without getting out. You need a calendar to keep score for this guy.

Tendulkar’s genius stems from a combination of physical attributes–superhuman hand-eye coordination, lightning reflexes, powerful wrists and near perfect balance–and a voracious appetite to keep accumulating runs to utterly dominate bowlers. Opponents have tried to intimidate him with speed and bounce, with guile and spin, all to no avail: he has no Achilles’ heel.

He performs within a national sports culture that is uniquely difficult. Cricket is important in England and former British colonies in the Caribbean, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, but it competes with soccer, rugby and other sports for popularity. In India, cricket is the all-consuming passion. Although it was introduced by the British as a pastime for elites, Indians turned the tables on their colonial rulers and made cricket a true people’s sport, played with as much enthusiasm in the streets and slums as on the manicured lawns of exclusive clubs. It’s hard to think of another nation so obsessed with a single sport. Indians like to say that of their top 10 sports, cricket ranks No. 1 through No. 9–and nobody knows or cares what comes 10th.

So to begin to comprehend Tendulkar’s place in the Indian consciousness, imagine how Americans might have felt about Michael Jordan if they followed no sport but basketball. Then imagine that Jordan’s team represented not just Chicago but the entire nation. You might begin to understand that the common Indian expression “Cricket is my religion, and Sachin is my god” is not really a joke. Tendulkar says he tries not to think too deeply about the adulation and claims his fans’ hopes for him don’t match his own. “Something which still gives me sleepless nights,” he says, “is, ‘How will I go out and keep that standard and live up to my own expectations?'”

Tendulkar’s deification is also testament to the fact, deeply discomfiting to most Indians, that their giant nation is a sporting Lilliput: heroes are few and far between. Every Olympic year brings forth great hand wringing about India’s inability to compete with other large nations–India’s haul from Beijing in 2008, a gold and two bronze, was its best medals tally ever. (China won 100.) Its only consistently world-beating performer outside the cricket pitch has been chess champion Viswanathan Anand.

The scarcity of sporting success feeds a national inferiority complex. Growing up in India, I learned to take comfort in pseudoscience trotted out by PE teachers that we were genetically disposed to pursuits of the brain over brawn. (It didn’t work; I was good at neither.) “We’d come to think of ourselves as too soft, too physically weak to win on a playing field,” says historian Ramachandra Guha. “Sachin showed us that was nonsense–not only could we play, we could consistently beat countries that were supposedly of stronger physical stock.” (Indians routinely refer to Tendulkar by his first name, a sign of both affection and possessiveness.) It helped too that Tendulkar was no physical giant who could be dismissed as a one-off: at 5 ft. 5 in. (165 cm), he’s almost exactly the national average for male height.

When Tendulkar played his first match for India in the fall of ’89, he was only 16, one of the youngest debutants ever; I was 22, already too old to fantasize about a career as a cricketer. But I could live vicariously through the prodigy. After all, we shared a middle-class upbringing and a sketchy academic record. I did not imagine myself smacking the big Australian bowlers around as Tendulkar did at Perth in 1992, when he scored a breathtaking 114. Even so, I partook of his success: I walked taller, dreamed bigger and felt, like hundreds of millions of Indians, that I too could take on the world. Our chance was just around the corner.

Pitchman Perfect

There had been great Indian cricketers before Tendulkar, but his arrival coincided with momentous events that would catapult him and his country to dramatic successes. In the summer of 1991, India began to liberalize its economy, unshackling private enterprise and unleashing a burst of consumerism. Almost overnight, we got access to dozens of TV channels. The market was flooded with new companies and products, including foreign brands that had long been denied access to India. The TV channels needed programming, and cricket was an obvious lode of ratings gold. The new brands needed pitchmen, and who better than the Master Blaster?

He already had the makings of a marketer’s dream: cherubic in appearance, soft-spoken and scrupulously well behaved, he was the ultimate Mr. Nice Guy. His father was a well-known novelist, but Tendulkar himself was a man of few words, steering clear of controversy on the field and off. When four colleagues were thrown out of the sport for match fixing, he largely kept mum. When he eventually broke the hearts of millions of Indian women and got married, it was not to a Bollywood star or supermodel but to a pediatrician turned homemaker named Anjali. The couple mostly stayed home and worked hard to keep their two children out of the limelight.

At the start of his career, Tendulkar, like most cricketers at the time, had to hold down a job in order to make ends meet; he worked at an apparel manufacturer. In 1990 he did his first ad, an embarrassingly low-rent affair for a cheap moped. Two years later, he was endorsing Pepsi and was on his way to becoming cricket’s first millionaire. In 1995 he signed a five-year, $7.5 million contract with a sports-management company, the first deal of its kind in India.

For much of the 1990s, his exploits on the cricket pitch were solo efforts: he was world-class, the team around him less so. That great 114 against Australia in Perth? Despite Tendulkar’s brilliance, India lost the game by a humiliating 300 runs. That pattern was repeated over and over again.

Still, his wondrous bat would keep Indian hearts beating. Says Anirban Blah, who runs the celebrity-management firm Kwan Entertainment: “We’d watch as long as Sachin was batting, because there was a chance we could win. The moment he got out, we switched off the TV set and went back to work, because we felt victory was no longer in the cards.”

But Tendulkar was influencing a new generation of players such as Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly who would soon arrive on the national stage with an aggressive, winning mentality that owed as much to Tendulkar’s exploits as to India’s new economic confidence. By 1998, the Indian team entered most games with a decent chance of winning. The following year, I wrote a story for TIME on the upcoming World Cup. There was little debate over who would be the first cricketer on the magazine’s international cover: Tendulkar, representing not just India but the rising power of Asia over the game.

India didn’t win the 1999 World Cup–Australia did–but Tendulkar served notice that India’s time was coming. By then he was unquestionably the world’s best batsman. Sachin became a popular first name for newborn boys, and his face was seemingly on every second billboard and TV commercial, hawking everything from cars to cameras and cookies. India’s economy, roaring along, growing 6.4% annually, was extremely good to its cricketing god.

He was great for the Indian cricket industry too. With hundreds of millions tuning in to watch him play, India became the biggest TV market for the sport, and cricket’s Mumbai-based governing body supplanted its traditional power structure in the hallowed halls of London’s Lord’s Cricket Ground. This also had an impact outside of cricket. Says Shashi Tharoor, an author and member of India’s Parliament: “Eventually, when an Indian company bought the great English car companies Jaguar and Land Rover, it made perfect sense–we already owned their national sport.”

But the pressure was beginning to show on Tendulkar. A long-untreated case of tennis elbow hurt his performances, and a spell as team captain was a failure. The man of few words didn’t communicate with his teammates well enough and couldn’t motivate them.

Surgeries in 2005 and the next year took him out of the game for a spell and brought with them an epiphany. During his recovery from the second surgery, he took part, unannounced, in a couple of friendly games, away from the spotlight and with hardly any spectators. For the first time in years, playing was just plain fun. Competing for India had become “so much about commitment and pressure and doing things correctly,” he says, he’d forgotten to enjoy himself. Those practice games, he now says, were “a game changer for me.”

And it showed. Back in national colors, he demonstrated a new gusto for batsmanship that disheartened bowlers everywhere as much as it thrilled spectators: his stunning 154 against world champions Australia at the start of 2008 may be his finest performance ever. The records came fast and thick: most runs, most centuries. Riding on a rejuvenated Tendulkar, India for the first time became the world’s No. 1 team, and last summer the country went nuts when the team won the World Cup on home soil. During the victory lap, teammates hoisted Tendulkar, their top scorer for the tournament with 482 runs, on their shoulders. “Sachin has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years,” said up-and-coming star Virat Kohli. “It was our turn to carry him on our shoulders.”

Ton of Pressure

No sooner had the fireworks died down, however, than pressure began to mount again on Tendulkar: he’d scored his 99th century during the World Cup, lighting up South Africa for 111 runs, and his countrymen wanted him to go past that new milestone. Wherever he went, he was asked when he’d score the ton of tons. The rest of the team suffered a dramatic slump in form, losing its No. 1 status to England. Criticism centered, unfairly or not, on Tendulkar. At 38, he was long in the tooth for a pro cricketer; wouldn’t the honorable thing be to retire gracefully?

Those questions preyed on Tendulkar’s mind, making it harder and harder to get into the zone. He came tantalizingly close to the ton a couple of times and claimed, implausibly, not to be especially stressed by the quest. But it was a full year before the 100th came, in Dhaka against Bangladesh, the final run coming in an easy single rather than a thumping blow; afterward, he admitted to feeling “50 kilos lighter.”

So what now for the Master Blaster? Twenty-two years is a long span in any sport. When I ask him to sign a copy of that 1999 TIME cover, he adds a tongue-in-cheek inscription, “Time flies!” He may not want to talk about the R word, but he turned 39 in April, so speculation about his plans will only grow. Several members of the great Indian team of the 2000s have hung up their gloves. In April, he was nominated to the upper house of India’s Parliament, the equivalent of Britain’s House of Lords. The position is mostly ceremonial, and it’s hard to imagine it will turn into a long-term career: Mr. Nice Guy seems ill-suited to the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics. And anyway, “the Honorable Sachin Tendulkar” seems a steep demotion from god.

The traditional postplaying career of TV punditry would likely be too small-bore for someone with an estimated net worth of $115 million. And his value as a national pick-me-up is waning. High on economic success, India may no longer need a dose of Tendulkar to feel good. “India’s self-confidence, which he helped to build, is now strong enough to cope without Sachin,” says Guha. “There is life in India after Sachin, but I don’t know what life for Sachin can be after cricket.”

Unless there is more cricket. Freed of the huge weight of expectations he has carried for much of his career, the world’s greatest athlete can now pursue a pure enjoyment of the sport he has enriched. History suggests an unburdened Tendulkar is a prolific Tendulkar, especially if he continues to unravel the mysteries of the zone. The satisfaction of reaching the zone is personal and intense, he says, even when there’s no winning outcome. He then quickly adds, “But I would want an outcome.” A world-class player can tolerate nothing less. So everybody please pipe down and let him play.

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