Championing India

4 minute read
Shashi Tharoor

The greatest Indian to wield a cricket bat, and one of the sport’s greatest-ever players, has announced that he will soon retire — throwing the subcontinent into a paroxysm. Television channels are obsessed with the man TIME dubbed the God of Cricket — Zeus in the pantheon of cricketing divinity; newspaper editorials, watercooler conversations and social media speak of little else. A nation of 1.2 billion people is riveted by the impending departure of a diminutive (just 165 cm) giant, Sachin Tendulkar, even though, at 40, he is well past the normal retirement age for athletes. Tendulkar’s talent coupled with his longevity — he was such a prodigy that he debuted for India at 16 — add up to him owning nearly all of international cricket’s batting records. The half of India’s population that is under 25 knows almost no other sporting hero.

His peers are devoted to Tendulkar too. “I have seen God,” said Australian rival Matthew Hayden. “He bats at No. 4 for India.” Said another cricketing immortal, Shane Warne, when asked about the best batsman he’d faced: “Sachin Tendulkar … without a doubt; daylight second.”

India’s passion for cricket is well documented, but Tendulkar elevated the sport into something more. His success is emblematic of India’s growing assertion on the global stage. When Tendulkar first started playing for India in 1989, it was still a developing country, seen by much of the planet as poor, backward and protectionist. In 1991, India liberalized its economy and embarked on two decades of galloping growth. The world beat a path to India’s door. Its democracy, its proliferating television channels, its software experts and burgeoning English-speaking middle class — all changed the country’s image. Pundits hailed India as the next power.

The India of 1989 belied what, on the eve of independence, its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called its “tryst with destiny.” The India of 2013, while somewhat deflated of late, brims with optimism and expectations of an ever better future. This period of self-reinvention coincided with Tendulkar’s ascension: India rose, and so did he. Tendulkar’s 24 years in topflight cricket mirror the transformation of India at the cusp of the 21st century.

Just as impressive statistics alone are an incomplete and inappropriate assessment of Tendulkar, the story of India in the past 24 years is not merely a table of numbers and graphs. It is a story of the transformation of a national psyche and the emergence of a fresh and inspiring sense of a coming renaissance.

Tendulkar is the epitome of that Indian dream. Despite its achievements and promise, India remains divided — and handicapped — by language, religion, ethnicity and caste. Tendulkar transcended the heritage of a stratified society. In a land too long in the thrall of fatalism, his prowess on the field promoted the idea of the rational, autonomous individual, substantially shaping his own destiny. Tendulkar showed India how to celebrate individual merit and revel in the unusual distinction of boasting the world’s best at something. He helped Indians forget the bad news around them — sectarian strife, riots, terrorism — and rally round a common cause. Democracy has long been the one force to unite India. For two decades, there’s been another: Sachin Tendulkar.

The Indian government has named Tendulkar to the upper house of Parliament, in a seat reserved for cultural icons. Given the admiration in which he is held and the hold he has on the allegiance of the Indian people, he could speak on any public issue with a moral authority that very few could rival. If Tendulkar wants to use his position in Parliament as a bully pulpit, he could have a significant impact on public life.

Amid the national adulation, commercial endorsements and international success, Tendulkar has managed to remain uncontaminated by scandal or controversy in a sport that has been laden with examples of both. Fame has not turned his head: he remains modest, soft-spoken and self-effacing. He embodies the best of what India can be — a world leader whose achievements elicit universal admiration while being uncontaminated by braggadocio or triumphalism. In hailing Tendulkar, India hails a symbol of what, as a nation, we collectively aspire to be.

Tharoor, an Indian government Minister and Member of Parliament, is the author of 14 books, most recently Pax Indica

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