“The same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile.”
Though he didn’t say it, it’s a sentiment that Sachin Tendulkar has carried with him throughout a career that is now nudging towards the quarter-century mark. For all the unimaginable highs, there have been terrible lows. And though they say no man is an island, in his case, he has often had to be.
The man who uttered those words about fragility, Ayrton Senna, has been dead nearly two decades. When Tendulkar made his debut, he had yet to win two of his three World Championships. Michael Schumacher, who retired last year with seven titles and 91 race wins, was still unknown outside Germany.
Carl Lewis, who turns 52 this year, was the world’s fastest man. Usain Bolt was three. Joe Montana, who now makes wine, was American Football’s premier quarterback. Steve Davis ruled the green baize, and Jocky Wilson, the chunky Scot who passed away last year, was the boss of the oche.
Diego Maradona was still around, with Marco van Basten, Roberto Baggio, Lothar Mattheus and Ruud Gullit, some of the other outstanding footballers of that era. The world hadn’t yet heard of Zinedine Zidane, who retired in 2006. Lionel Messi was two. Manchester United had been champions of England seven times, and not 20. Barcelona had yet to win the Champions League.
The oldest of Tendulkar’s teammates on that first tour to Pakistan in 1989, Arshad Ayub, turns 55 later this year. Memories of the other young ’uns from back then – Vivek Razdan, Salil Ankola and Maninder Singh – are lost in the mists of time.
Many of the journalists covering the Indian Premier League beat this year are far too young to have any memories of the early part of Tendulkar’s career, as are the majority of fans following the event. But for the wonders of YouTube and other archives, you’d be tempted to think that the story of the boy wonder who went on to become a run gatherer without parallel was a chapter from the Brothers Grimm.
Of course, cricket has some previous when it comes to greats attempting to defy the onset of time. Jack Hobbs played his final Test when he was 47, and went on to represent Surrey for four more seasons. Yorkshire’s Wilfred Rhodes won the last of his 58 Test caps at the age of 52.
The Tendulkar of today is unrecognisable from the teenager who set about Abdul Qadir in an exhibition game in Peshawar on his first tour. He bears little resemblance to the boy-man who stood on tiptoe to defy Australia on a Perth trampoline. There are merely faint traces of the player he was when Shane Warne was savaged in a Test series in 1998.
As the support cast around him changed – two generations of players have come and gone – so Tendulkar continued to reinvent himself. Once in a while, you can catch glimpses of the man who could hit the ball where he wanted, when he wished to. That sort of exuberant stroke-making was in evidence during a ‘second childhood’, between 2008 and 2011. After years of playing the percentages, he expressed himself as he had in his pomp, aware that the line-up around him was strong enough to afford him that luxury.
The performance graph has dipped since the World Cup win in 2011, but even as sports desks around the world keep retirement copy ready, the man himself shows little sign of walking away. What keeps him going is something that he alone knows.
In the movie, For Love of the Game, Billy Chapel, a 40-year-old baseball pitcher staring at the end, is asked by Jane, his lover: “You don’t lose much, do you?” “I lose,” Billy replies. “I’ve lost 134 times.” “You count them?” she asks. “We count everything” is Billy’s reply.
Like Billy, Tendulkar’s ability to recall moments and numbers from the past borders on the intimidating. For an interviewer, it can be embarrassing to go prepared for a chat on his greatest innings, and find him summoning up details from a cameo of 44 in Trinidad, a day when he felt in “near-perfect touch” against Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop and Rose.
Seeing Tendulkar in the IPL is to be reminded of the best lines from For Love of the Game. “You get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn’t pitching against left-handers, he isn’t pitching against pinch hitters, he isn’t pitching against the Yankees. He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.”
There have been so many halcyon days and years that we’ve lost track. But like O Henry’s last leaf, Tendulkar remains, keeping winter at bay. If we agree that a sense of purpose and destiny separates the greats from the rest, then we may find a clue to his longevity in something Senna said in his final years.
“On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit,” he said. “And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, ‘Okay, this is the limit.’ As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.”
Having left behind limits once considered out of reach, Tendulkar still wants to spread those wings. “Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back … play for her,” said Mia Hamm, whose 17-year career with the US women’s football team included a world-record 158 goals. Substitute ‘boy’ for ‘girl’ and ‘him’ for ‘her’, and you have Tendulkar in a nutshell.