I have met Sachin Tendulkar only twice, although I and a couple of billion people know him very well. Our personal chats took place at ‘meet the press’ type events while the cricket team was on tour in South Africa and Pakistan. At these, reporters take turns to ask two-questions, one-on-one. One of these questions is: ‘Hi Sachin, how are you doing?’, so I thought I’d make the best of the second, when I got my chance in Cape Town in 2003.
Sachin had just come off a stunning 75-ball 98 against Pakistan at Centurion. It was an innings that left the pundits in the press box gasping. There was some talk at the time of ‘infighting’ in the Pakistan camp, contributing to a less than 100 per cent performance, especially in the bowling department. Meaning that Waqar and Wasim were fighting.
I banished that thought by the time India were 50 odd in four overs. The Pakistan attack was incredibly accurate that day: they bowled almost unerringly at the sweet spot of Tendulkar’s bat.
Which is why I asked him: “Is this the best you’ve ever hit the ball?”
“No. That was a few years ago. In the West Indies in 1997, I got a bad decision when I was feeling just right.”
He pointed out immediately afterwards that it had taken him eight years of international cricket for batting to “feel just right”. For most people that span is a career. For Tendulkar, he was only about a third of the way there.
I have no idea how long he can go on from now, nor where he will go. Where do you go after 50 centuries in test cricket? If you ask Tendulkar, he is likely to say you first get to 51 and then think about it.
After all, his first hundred came pretty late: in his ninth game, after about nine months of waiting. Some cricketers, like former Indian opener Chetan Chauhan, wait a lifetime and never get there. I asked Chauhan a rather cruel question recently: could he ever imagine an individual getting to a half century of centuries? He said he could not. There wasn’t enough cricket being played those days, besides, the Indian attitude was less about winning than it was about not losing.
This attitude changed with the arrival of Kapil Dev in the 80s. Tendulkar’s advent made winning more of a possibility, each inning reiterating this intention. But it was when Virender Sehwag announced that he was in the house, that a fearlessness came into Indian cricket: go for the double hundred with a 6.
If you have a career this long, then that is one of the pitfalls. And one unfortunate consequence is the impression that Tendulkar doesn’t win matches for India. He gets to hundreds, but India loses. One loss that cemented this notion came a long time back. Against Pakistan in Chennai in 1999, he scored a hundred that brought tears to a billion eyes (partly because India lost!) and gave us a game that not just Chepauk, but all of India stood up to applaud.
It wasn’t enough. Tendulkar, it still appears to Indians, gets to his hundreds — as he did in Centurion — and India loses.
Let’s look at the facts, though. Sachin has got just 11 of his 50 hundreds in games India has lost. He’s scored 20 in Indian wins, another 19 when games were drawn.
He has been asked the ‘why don’t you win games for us?’ question before. He wears a sardonic smile when he answers that one. Usually saying a few of his tens of thousands of runs must have contributed in some way to Indian victories.
But the impression will not go away. With each milestone, Sachin seems to confirm for us that he is a great ornament to Indian cricket. Not a match-winner.
There is a demonstrable flaw in that argument (the numbers speak for themselves), so I look for answers elsewhere. Perhaps we react viscerally to sport. We like it hot. Sachin’s game used to be that way once. Now, in Viv Richards’ words, he has added a “more mellow and more refined flavour to his batting”.
Sir Viv understands it. We don’t. So just for us, Sachin, how about another India vs Pakistan, Centurion 2003? Just the once. We won’t ask again.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2010.