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The “symbolical” cricketer: Sachin Tendulkar

This tribute to Tendulkar has just been published in SACHIN : Genius Unplugged, edited by Suresh Menon.

“Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle,” wrote CLR James in Beyond a Boundary. “It is so organised that at all times it is compelled to reproduce the central action which characterises all good drama from the Greeks to our own: two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group.”

Where “the dramatist, the novelist, the choreographer, must strive to make his individual character symbolical of a larger whole,” in cricket that “symbolical” quality is inherent. “The batsman facing the ball does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is his side. This fundamental relation of the One and the Many, Individual and Social, Individual and Universal, leader and followers, representative and ranks, the part and the whole, is structurally imposed on the players of cricket.”

In the case of Sachin Tendulkar, that representative, “symbolical” function has been exponentially compounded. I like to imagine him roaring around a late night Mumbai in one of his flashy cars, revelling in the surrounding darkness, the emptiness, the anonymity. Free of the burdens of representation. Able to be, for a moment, not the One who must bat for the Many but merely one among many.

I was travelling in India in the autumn of 1989 and followed the mounting excitement over the 16 year old batting phenomenon. At the time, having watched a succession of talents traumatised by teenage celebrity, I worried whether any youngster could survive such attention and expectation without damage.

Since then, the pressures of sports-stardom have intensified. Can we be sure that the geniuses of the past would have been able to sustain their best form in the relentless glare of today’s celebrity culture? Or that they would have succeeded in negotiating the numerous pitfalls accompanying a degree of wealth and renown previously undreamed of?

It has been argued that Tendulkar is the beneficiary (and victim) of a an Indian culture of hero-worship, but this theory severs Tendulkar from his times and therefore obscures his significance. His career coincides with the rise of neo-liberal India and its competitive, aspirational ethic. For the class of Indians that in these years entered and embraced the global consumer culture, Tendulkar became a powerful signifier. If Sachin hadn’t existed, India would have had to invent him. The dominant culture of the day demanded an icon of success.

This success has been seen as simultaneously “individual” and “national”. Tendulkar’s personal achievements were represented as a triumph for India as a whole, a sign of the country advancing on the world stage – like Indian corporations opening plants in Europe or the USA. Unwittingly and unwillingly, he found himself at the epicentre of a popular culture shaped by the intertwined growth of a consumerist middle class and an assertive, sometimes aggressive form of national identity. National aspirations and national frustrations were poured into his every performance, and this during a period in which the nation passed through some very dark moments (Kashmir since 1989, Ayodhya in 1992, Mumbai in 1993, Gujarat in 2002, Mumbai in 2009). How he’s not been crushed by it all remains at least in part a mystery.

Tendulkar has been a modern man playing in a modern style in the modern marketplace – and that’s what makes him of supreme importance to Indians. He’s a home-grown genius excelling in a transcontinental spectacle, a high-value icon of personal success in a globalised economy, a world-beater bred in the heart of Mumbai’s status-hungry middle class. Yet he’s survived largely untainted by the turmoil, factionalism, jealousy and corruption surging around him.

Tendulkar must be one of the least criticised of all modern super-stars. No other figure of remotely comparable celebrity has been treated so kindly by the media and the fans. Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, not to mention Azharuddin and Ganguly, his predecessor and successor as Indian captain, all had much rougher rides. As did Warne, Lara and Muralitharan, not to mention Amitabh Bachhan, Shah Rukh Khan, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or David Beckham. Tendulkar has never been subject to the kind of detraction, justified or not, which all these others have suffered.

Why should that be? For a start, Tendulkar has been careful to make no enemies and give no offence. He has accepted the friendship of every political party and refused none. Despite his exalted status, he knows his place as a sports star and has been careful not to overstep its bounds. Playing cricket has always seemed his exclusive priority. His occasional poor spells may have raised concerns but no one suggested he was distracted, arrogant or indifferent. The modest demeanour is said to be unaffected, but it has also served well as a personal survival strategy. It enables him to avoid controversy and thereby apply himself exclusively to the one battle he really cares about: against the opposing bowlers.

What’s more, India (and the larger cricket world) wants and needs Tendulkar to be pure, innocent, transcendent. Somehow he has managed to absorb that mass projection and reflect it back; he stands solidly on his pedestal. Sachin started young but unlike many others he’s managed to stay young. It’s clear he takes an unadulterated joy in playing cricket, in solving the endless problems it poses, ball after ball. Cricket has always been his primary means of self-expression, so absorbing, so efficient that he hasn’t needed to assert himself in other ways.

Cricket commentary is filled with psychological platitudes: we mutter about “competitiveness”, “determination”, “confidence” and counter-pose them to anxiety, self-doubt or timidity. We take these polarised categories for granted, assuming that one leads to success and the other to failure, though experience teaches us otherwise. It is always more complicated than that. Among cricketers, confidence and doubt are layered one upon another. When Tendulkar bats, there is confidence aplenty, but also introspection and circumspection. The confidence is without swagger. Tendulkar dominates but, unlike Viv Richards, rarely domineers. His low centre of physical gravity is matched by a low centre of psychological gravity, making him much harder to topple.

As the inheritor of the venerable Mumbai tradition of cultivated batsmanship, Tendulkar has seamlessly blended power and grace, efficiency and elegance, conscientious craftsmanship and quicksilver improvisation. Calculation and spontaneity are impossible to distinguish. That’s what makes his style “classical”: technique is grafted to imagination.

A great run-maker in both the Test and one-day formats, he stands at the intersection of the old and the new; through him we have seen one enrich the other. He paved the way for the contemporary masters of one day cricket not by abandoning his Test technique but by amplifying and accelerating it, opening the field to a wider variety of strokes. His average in the course of five World Cups stands at 57.93 – with a strike rate higher even than Viv Richards’.

But among Tendulkar’s numerous statistical achievements, it’s his record number of Test hundreds, one in every five and a half Test innings, that is the most impressive and may prove the most durable. Hundreds shape matches; they set up victories or stave off defeats. More than that, the compilation of a Test hundred is an art in itself, unique and demanding – because of the time it takes and because it requires mastering different bowlers with different styles, as well as changing field placings, weather and ball conditions, not to mention shifting partners at the other end. It demands an eye ever alert to the ball that’s not quite good enough, and equally to the one that’s too good. A test century is a feat of stamina and concentration, but also of vision: comprehending in single moments (again and again) the many possibilities in time and space embodied in the approaching ball. These qualities Tendulkar has possessed in abundance.

But for reasons that remain hard to fathom, his tenure as captain was deeply disappointing. He seemed to have all the qualifications: an exceptional cricket brain, an even temperament, the respect of his fellow players. What’s more he led a strong side featuring the likes of Dravid, Ganguly, Kumble and Srinath. Yet in his 25 Tests in charge, he won only 16% and lost 36%, compared to Azharuddin’s record of just under 30% won and 30% lost and Ganguly’s of 43% won and 26% lost. His record as an ODI captain was even worse: winning only 35% of his matches in charge, compared to Azhar’s 54.1% and Ganguly’s 53.9%. Clearly being a “symbolical” representative is not the same as being an effective leader. What was missing? His own batting suffered, but only marginally (his average as Test captain was over 50). The real problem was an inability to bring the team to the boil at the right time, to convert temporary advantages into winning positions. Perhaps the very qualities that enabled him to survive in the spotlight muted and subdued him as a captain. Great captains need personalities with an edge (not necessarily aggressive but at least authoritative); they impose an emotional tone on the team, which helps to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Because Tendulkar was without edge, he seemed to lack a lever with which to pry open his team’s talents.

One of the foibles of his captaincy was that he under-bowled himself, an error corrected by his successor, for whom he bowled more overs and took more wickets at a much lower strike rate (in both forms of the game). Unlike his batting, his bowling owed little to natural ability and nearly everything to cunning. That mix of off-breaks, leg-breaks and donkey drops appeared innocuous, but its mildness could mislead skilled batsmen into horrendous errors. It was always fun to watch.

Does Tendulkar have a dark side? I find it hard to believe that a life of so much creative energy, driven intensity, constant combat (ball after ball) could exist without its demons. Maybe they emerge from hiding during those pre-dawn drives along the Indian Ocean?

For non-Indians like myself, the joy of Tendulkar comes unadulterated. The awe he inspires belongs to no culture, carries no national overtones, and is both intimately personal and transparently universal. One of the major pleasures of watching competitors like Tendulkar is the sensation of awe they evoke. There is so much he does with ease that the rest of us can never hope to accomplish, even with prolonged and scientific training. The great thing here is that this awe does not leave us feeling belittled or inadequate. On the contrary, the wonder and marvel at what one of our fellow human beings can do is expansive, life-enhancing: the intricate coordination of mind and matter, the welding together of eyes, feet and hands in the heat of the moment, all driven by a single competitive purpose, yet somehow making a thing of beauty beyond that single purpose. At their best, great sporting geniuses challenge and extend our notion of what is humanly possible. Normally when this happens outside the sporting realm, it is experienced as disturbing or threatening, but somehow, within cricket’s redemptively trivial domain, it is irresistibly seductive.

So thank you, Sachin Tendulkar, for giving me as many of those invigorating awe-filled moments as any sporting genius of my time.