Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tendulkar: The Run Machine, with a dash of humanity

Very seldom will this blog be given over to eulogising about one individual, besides Jesus of course. But today, a feat has been accomplished of such magnificence that I hardly thought I could leave it. Today, one man finally put the icing on the cake of a career which has so perfectly illustrated the beauty of sport; the way in which it can unite and divide people, the way agony and ecstasy can dwell alongside each other in complete harmony, and the capacity it has to create heroes.
That man is Sachin Tendulkar. That feat is scoring his hundredth international hundred.

For those uneducated in such things, cricket has a curious way of valuing milestones and statistical achievements. Scoring 100 runs is seen as immeasurably more valuable than scoring 99 runs, even though it makes only 1 run's difference to the situation of the game. There are batsmen who will score 30, 40, 50 game in, game out, who exasperate us hugely. Then we get a batsmen who will score a hundred every 6 or 7 games, and naff all else. Who is the great player of the two? You guessed it: the second one.

But Tendulkar was not like the second one. He simply scored hundred after hundred after hundred, with some 60s and 70s sprinkled inbetween. There have been more flamboyant batsmen, there have been more flamboyant characters, but never has a cricketer exhibited such astonishing productivity.

For 22 years of international cricket, Tendulkar has produced the most alarmingly high number of runs of any batsman in history. But part of the genius is that he did it carrying the hopes and dreams of 1 billion Indians on his shoulders every single day, and he never cracked, he never stepped back to 'manage his workload', he never went off the rails and was found drunk next to an upside down pedalo in blue Caribbean Seas. No, Tendulkar did the only thing he knows how to do; he scored runs.
This ability to handle pressure was never illustrated better than the world cup quarter final of 1996. India played Pakistan, and Tendulkar was batting with the young Virender Sehwag (to whom I will later return), in front of an adoring Indian crowd. He carried not only the hopes of every Indian in the world, but of every Hindu too. Bowling at him was the best fast bowling partnership in the world, along with the fastest bowler ever recorded. 150 balls later, Tendulkar had compiled an innings of measured, controlled, brutality. Without the expression on his face changing one iota, the Pakistani bowlers had been made to look foolish, and Tendulkar had not shown even the smallest hint of mortality.

And that has more or less been the pattern since. He has smashed record after record, including the magisterial way he became the first man to score 200 in a One Day International against the might of South Africa and Dale Steyn. That record has since been eclipsed by Sehwag, which seemed a travesty to me. It was like replacing the Ferrari F40 with the F50; the greatest car in the history of ever with one not even worthy of comparison, except that it is a bit more muscly.

Sure, there have been wobbles every now and then, and none more so than the year long gap between his 99th international hundred and his 100th international hundred. The stage was set in the 2011 world cup final. Tendulkar back in his home town of Mumbai, against an aging Sri-Lankan attack, and backed by 1 billion Indians, baying for blood. He had missed out on a hundred by 15 runs in the previous game against Pakistan, and this man rarely misses out twice. He made 18 serene, untroubled runs, before a full delivery from Malinga the Slinga bowled a full delivery, which found the edge of Tendulkar's flashing blade. For the split second between the faint nick, and the sound of ball thudding into wicket keeper Sangakkara's gloves, the entire cricketing world held its breath. Surely they can't do this to him. He must drop it; this is wrong. He did not. For what felt like the first time in years, Sachin Tendulkar blew it.

What followed was the Indian Juggernaut thrashing Sri Lanka to lift the world cup, and the great man was spared blushes. But it just didn't feel right. It was the beginning of the worst year of his career; scrabbling around desperate for those magical three figures. Balls he would have smashed for 4 in hears gone by were getting him out, LBW decisions were going against him, stunning catches were being taken whenever he hit a ball slightly off the ground. I remember seeing him smash dreadful balls from some mediocre West Indian spinner directly into fielders' hands. For once, he looked like the rest of us. Sometimes unlucky, sometimes drawing brilliance from opponents, sometimes a little bit rubbish. The little master was no longer a god to Indian supporters, no longer a machine to the rest of us; he became a human being, and a desperate one at that.

When it came, it came against Bangladesh- the whipping boys of test cricket. I expected it to feel wrong, like it shouldn't really count. That a man who had put Akram, Younis, Akhtar, Warne, McGrath, Lee, Pollock, Steyn, Walsh, Ambrose, Bond, Vettori, Muralitharan, Vaas and Flintoff to the sword, would collect his crowning run against a lowly Bangladeshi left armer seemed like it would be a travesty. But it didn't. It felt like it was simply another string to Tendulkar's considerable bow: that he could not only operate as the greatest batsman in the world, whom everyone expected to score runs without even thinking about it, but that he could also cope with disappointment, failure, struggles, desperation, and come out the other side of it by (what else?) scoring a hundred.

He completed that historical single, lifted of his helmet, and the sweat on his brow seemed all the more genuine. He did not charge round the ground, Brian Lara style, milking the adulation, he simply looked heavenwards, smiled meekly, put his helmet back on, and carried on batting. The final frontier, that of his own weakness and fallibility, has been conquered.

So what now for Sachin Tendulkar? It's obvious isn't it?
He'll put his helmet back on, carry on batting, and score some more hundreds!