When Sachin Tendulkar struck his long awaited 100th century about a month ago in Bangladesh, the nation was supposed to celebrate. He was after all, the darling of the country, someone who has been followed wherever he went for the last two decades, an idol, a role model, even a god. And this was a feat that was never thought achievable in the history of the game, and doesn’t look like it can be broken by anyone else. It was but expected that the nation would go into a frenzy.
The national media did their bit : feature stories describing milestones in his long career, TV channels churned out their bulletins with Jai Ho playing in the background. But on websites like cricinfo.com and youtube.com, there was an outpouring of hatred by fans. Many called Sachin Tendulkar selfish, others said he was playing for records, and that he needs to hang up his boots.
Not once did anyone say that he didn’t look fit on the field, no one spoke about him unable to run, or his eyes and hand-eye coordination getting worse, or anything else related to cricket. The argument was that he was selfish and needed to be dropped.
It was then that I could see a clear reflection of my thoughts a few years back. I was out of my spiritual boarding school. I felt like a free bird, and a rebel. I remember having strong hatred for Gandhi back then. I could attribute some of it to the simultaneous release of three films on Bhagat Singh, but there was more to it than just the release of the films.
I didn’t know enough about Gandhi – just that he was a freedom fighter, and whatever else our books and teachers in school told us about him. There were a few others from our class as well, and we regularly sat together and spoke about Gandhi, along the lines of how he was responsible for all the problems in our country.
Much later, when I read more about him, I learnt that Gandhi was more than just a freedom fighter. And I also realised that most of the opinions I had harboured about him were wrong in the first place. What then, prompted me to hate him so much? I have asked myself this many times, and this is the closest I have come to as an answer.
Throughout our childhoods, we are surrounded by Gandhi, his principles, his photos, his teachings, his songs, his stories, and films on him. We had a subject called Human Values and books by Gandhi were used as our course material. This ubiquity, after a point, felt suffocating. And to be able to criticise Gandhi seemed like an act of rebellion for me. I did not understand him enough, so I went ahead and made my own opinions, often basing them on things my friends (who were equally, if not more ignorant) told me. Through some twisted logic, we believed that Gandhi was responsible for the partition, and that he was a propagator of Hindutva.
I have made my peace with Gandhi today. I have learnt to dissect his public from his private life, and have learnt to look at things with a broader perspective. But when I see criticism of Sachin Tendulkar, I can’t help feel that he has reached the same stage as an icon.
The most common criticism about him is that when he scores a century, India loses the match. This fact automatically translates to him being a selfish player who is intent on achieving personal milestones. This could not be further away from the truth.
The nature of the game of cricket itself means that individual performances are not as crucial to a side’s fortunes, as it is with other games. Take football, for example, where a goal by a single player could tilt the match totally in the favour of the team, thus critically affecting the match. In cricket, batting is just one aspect of the game. A century by no means implies that the team is going to win the match, because the game is divided into two halves – batting and bowling – and each of the aspects affect the match equally.
To further illustrate my point, let me give you the example of the match between South Africa and Australia in the March 2006. Australia batted first and scored 434, the highest score ever in a One Day International, and the first time any team had crossed 400 runs in 50 overs. Australia, however, lost the match at the end of the day because South Africa was able to score 438, thanks to the shoddy bowling by the Australians.
There have been umpteen such examples where individual performances did not result in the team winning the match, and this by no means implies that the performances weren’t good enough, it just means that the other aspect of the game wasn’t good enough on the day. That it happens with surprising regularity with Sachin is a reflection of our universally acknowledged poor bowling skills, and not because his centuries are not good enough.
Here, let me take you back a little into the past again. This was in the same phase when I was vehemently against Gandhi, circa 2005. Sachin Tendulkar at that time had been struggling for a year or so to score his 35th Test century, one that would result in him beating Sunil Gavaskar’s then highest 34. He was suffering from recurring back injuries, tennis elbow, and seemed nervous and edgy in the crease. I was among the many that rooted for his retirement from the game.
I remember the day he scored the century, this is what he said to the media – “Landmarks happen. You just go and bat because you want to bat well and get runs for your team. If you chase landmarks then it becomes a problem.” He made it clear that the fans had been demanding the century for a long time, and that it was quite stressful. I remember reading it with cynicism.
However, if I look back at the incident now, I realise he knew what he was talking about. If he had retired then, we wouldn’t have witnessed some of the greatest knocks in the history of the game. He went on to make a spectacular comeback, a resurrection that culminated with him becoming Player of the year in 2010. We wouldn’t have seen his knock of 200, or his crucial role in the World Cup last year.
It is actually a matter of great credit to Sachin Tendulkar that no one is talking about the way he is playing his cricket, how he is running between the wickets, or his fitness. The criticism is always generic – that new blood needs to be infused into the team, and that it is high time he retired. From my experience seven years ago, I know that the decision to retire is best left to Sachin himself.
With the ruckus about him becoming an MP, I can see a clear link between my criticism of Gandhi back then, and the criticism Sachin faces today. It is not to do with him as a cricketer. It has got more to do with the rebellion involved in the bringing down of an icon.