It was 1991 and a Ranji Trophy final between Haryana and Mumbai was being telecast on the television. It was the last day with Mumbai needing 300 odd runs in the last innings to win. The situation was bleak with wickets falling around Vengsarkar who was the only batsman playing with some semblance of sense. Then a young kid all of 18 entered. My father said to me, "Watch this man" in Marathi and told me about his exploits in Pakistan where he played despite being whacked on the nose by a gentleman named Waqar Younis. I was 8 years old with no interest in watching cricket since it looked boring watching a game played over five days with no guarantee of a result. Then that young kid set out to open my eyes towards the beauty of the great game. He scored 96 runs in around 75 odd balls with some pretty awesome strokes. Mumbai lost the match but I was hooked for life. Sachin Tendulkar made me fall in love with cricket on that day.
My entire cricket watching life has been centered upon Tendulkar. They say cricket is a team game. They say that the team towers over the individual. I agree with them. However Tendulkar is different. Somehow when Tendulkar is batting you forget about the team. You know it is unpatriotic and irrational but when Tendulkar hits a century, one does not care about the fortune about the team. I am not the only one who thinks on those lines. It is only here in India where a home team wicket is cheered i.e. when the second wicket falls. There is a bond that many Indians have with Tendulkar which is irrational and difficult to comprehend.
Perhaps it has to do with the early 90s Indian cricket team. The Indian cricket team in the early 90s was full of flat track bullies, an old and toothless Kapil Dev, two token "fast" bowlers (when Srinath was not playing), an inexperienced Kumble who was not yet adept at bowling in foreign conditions and one another spinner who worked only on Indian tracks. India won in India but sucked outside. If even two shards of grass were found on the pitch the Indians got nightmares and batted like snails with a hangover. It was dismal seeing the paper tigers collapse and making a fool of themselves and the fans who rooted for them. In all this, Tendulkar was an exception. Other batsmen scored in patches, he scored consistently. The Perth century in 1991 should have merited at least a draw but India were walloped. The 169 against South Africa wherein he played a breathtaking counterattacking knock with Azhar deserved more than a loss. The 136 against Pakistan in Chennai in 1999 deserved only a victory but India lost. The 1996 World Cup saw Tendulkar in imperious form. However in the semi final he lost his wicket and India collapsed. Between 1990 and 2000, Tendulkar averaged an astounding 80.16 against quality bowling opposition of those times (Australia, England, South Africa, NZ, Pakistan and West Indies). This is more than on occasions when India won (53.70). Most of Tendulkar’s runs and centuries during his prime days went in vain.
With all this, it was but obvious that people would start giving him more importance. Tendulkar became the symbol of hope for all cricket fans including myself. Especially after his double bill performance in Sharjah in 1997, he became bigger than the team. He brought in the money and the huge contracts. He won matches single handedly (of course only the ODIs where you do not have to take 20 wickets to win) and he got the recognition as a great batsman from the Don. What more could you ask? Indians are suckers for individual performances and Tendulkar gave them something to cheer about in spades. Then Dravid and Ganguly got settled into the team. Dravid became the Wall and India no longer relied just on the Master to counterattack and provide brief entertainment before the inevitable loss. Then Azhar got kicked out and the age of Dadagiri began. With Laxman coming on his own against his favourite whipping boys, a steady stream of fast bowlers coming first under the tutelage of Srinath and now Zaheer, Harbhajan establishing himself and Kumble reinventing himself, the team started to actually perform in the overseas Tests. Also unlike a decade earlier, the batting did not depend on Tendulkar alone. This also coincided with a dip in form of Sachin which was exposed more and more as the others started to dominate and Tendulkar began playing a supporting role. Unfortunately for Tendulkar, he was not in his peak when India consistently took 20 wickets. His contributions were there in pivotal wins but they did not stand out. If this same team had been there when he was in prime form, those great knocks would have come as part of victory and not just as a diversion from a humiliating loss or a frustrating draw. Also those Tendulkar baiters would have shut up.
I mean what is with these idiots? They keep on carping about how he is obsessed with records and that he has not won India matches. It is a common argument that Tendulkar has not won many matches on his own. With respect to ODIs, that is rubbish. There are countless instances where his knocks were decisive the latest being the finals in Australia in 2008. With respect to Tests, he has not won a match singlehandedly because it is just not possible. In Tests you have to take 20 wickets to win a match. Also there are 20 innings played by your team. One sole effort is just not enough. People speak of Lara’s heroics against Australia in 1999 when his great innings of 153 won a match. However one forgets that it was set up by great bowling by Walsh and Ambrose which restricted Australia. When Lara scored over 600 runs in Sri Lanka, WI still lost the series 0-3 because there was no one to take wickets. Then there is the supposed weakness while chasing. During his pomp, there have been lots of matches where Tendulkar has guided the run chase and players a match winning knocks. After 2000 some of his greatest knocks while chasing include the brilliant 98 against Pakistan in WC 2003, a 95 on a green pitch against some hostile Pakistan bowling in Pakistan in 2006 and the century in the first final against Australia in 2008.
To quote some statistics:
In ODI matches against countries (Australia, England, Sri Lanka, NZ, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) which have a consistently good bowling attack where India chased after 2000, Tendulkar averages 37.26. While this is below his career average, it is still good enough to warrant a place in the Indian side. When India won those matches, the average goes up to 41.73. In tournament finals, it jumps up to 57.60 – against quality opposition while chasing. All Tendulkar baiters, if you want to check, be my guest and check for yourselves. Seriously, what have you been smoking?
Some more statistics with respect to Tests now:
There have been 22 Test matches where Tendulkar played in the fourth innings after the year 2000 against the opposition mentioned above. In this, his run tally is the third highest in the Indian team after Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly. Of these matches, Indian won or drew 15 matches. In these, Tendulkar’s tally is 284 runs at an average of 47.33 which is the most after the Wall whose figures by the way are unbelievable. While Tendulkar’s figures are not on level with his career figures, an average of 47 in matches drawn or won is good for a player thought to be at his worst in the fourth inning.
In conclusion, Tendulkar has been an extraordinary player who has endeared himself to millions of Indian and non Indian cricket lovers to such a degree that his presence on the batting crease becomes an event in itself overshadowing the match going on. Some people hate him for not living up to his pre 2000 standards. His career has transcended many generations. He is part of my first memories of watching cricket and he remains a major reason to watch it close to two decades later. Cricket without Sachin is a hard to digest prospect. I still hope that I have to cope with it only after a couple of years.