Nov 22, 2008

Sport - In Conversation with Sachin Tendulkar

Joe Leahy

When I arrive at the Pride Hotel in Nagpur, in the dead centre of India, I wonder whether I’ve come to the right place. This slightly rundown but friendly establishment, opposite the airport, seems an odd place to be meeting one of cricket’s all-time great batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar, a former captain of his country and, since he overtook the West Indies’ Brian Lara last month, the man with the most runs in Test history – 12,273 and counting.

In India, where cricket is worshipped by people of every caste, colour and creed, Tendulkar is the symbol of something more than a game. Nine years ago in Mysore, southern India, one female fan was reportedly so distressed at the news that Tendulkar had a back injury and would not be able to play any more that she set herself on fire. “The way crowds respond to him, when he bats, when he scores, when he gets out – it’s close to deification,” says Indian historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha.

In fact, it is impossible for the 5ft 6in “Little Master” (aka “The Genius” and “Master Blaster”) to dine unmolested in public in India. Which is why, when he finishes training for India’s Test match against Australia in Nagpur the following day, I am ushered by two agents into the privacy of his hotel room.

Tendulkar greets me at the door looking tanned and fresh, wearing training shorts and a blue and white T-shirt with the name of the Indian team’s sponsor, Sahara, emblazoned on the chest. I step over the exercise ball and dumbbells on the floor and sit on a couch while he orders room service for us.

He asks for one portion of butter chicken and, as a vegetarian option, one dish of creamy corn and spinach, or “palak with some plain roti or naan bread and a portion of rice. Concerned that, as a foreigner, I might not share his taste for hot food, he reassures me that the chicken is “not that spicy”. “I ate this last night,” he explains.

Tendulkar’s familiar, slightly high-pitched voice is a constant presence on Indian television, endorsing everything from Royal Bank of Scotland to Aviva insurance. Some advertising industry insiders estimate he makes about $1.5m for each contract each year.

Yet despite this ubiquity and his status as a living deity, relatively little is known about this quiet 35-year-old from Mumbai, who, except when it involves standing on a cricket field, shuns the limelight. And, as he politely bats away my opening, rather gentle conversational deliveries, I can see why.

He becomes more animated when asked how it felt to become Test cricket’s greatest run scorer. The moment arrived after tea on a mid-October day during the first innings in Mohali, when he glided a ball off his bat to take three runs, then looked to the heavens and pumped his fists.

“It was a bit emotional,” he says, leaning forward, alluding to the fact that his father Ramesh Tendulkar, who died in 1999, was not there to see it. “I’m sure he would have been a proud man and the initial years of international cricket that I spent with my father were very important years for me. His support, his guidance, nothing to do with cricket but just in general the support and the direction that I got from him was extremely important.”

The late great Australian cricketer Don Bradman said that the modern player he most saw himself in was Tendulkar, like Bradman a methodical batsman. But cricket may be even more dominant in Tendulkar’s life than it was for Bradman, whom he met in 1998 on the occasion of “the Don’s” 90th birthday at his house in Adelaide. Outside, the world is absorbed in the news that Barack Obama has won the US presidential election but Tendulkar says he has been too busy preparing for tomorrow’s match and has not heard about it yet. Such focus goes with the territory for top-class sportsmen but with Tendulkar the immersion is possibly deeper.

He was born in Mumbai (then Bombay) on April 24 1973, the youngest of four children. His father, a novelist, aware that his son had prodigious talent as a cricketer, put him in a Mumbai high school known for its emphasis on cricket. It was also around this time that the boy met his coach and mentor Ramakant Achrekar, who believed that “match practice” – training by playing full games – was the best way to forge a young cricketer. He had the young Tendulkar play more than 200 matches a year. He would finish school then go to the Shivaji Park ground in central Mumbai in time to play the second innings of a match. After that he would move on to the nets to practise batting until he was ready to drop.

Sometimes, the coach would load the area with more than 30 fielders and then give Tendulkar one rupee if he could survive the session without being caught out. Once that was over, he had to run around Shivaji Park – about five times the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground – in full gear with bat and pads. “I was always up for batting but I didn’t enjoy running in particular,” Tendulkar recalls.

The training paid off. He made his first appearance for India against Pakistan in Karachi in November 1989, aged 16, and the following summer struck his first Test century against England. He quickly became a hero round the world but particularly at home. According to Ramachandra Guha, Tendulkar’s extreme popularity was in part due to the fact that India was undergoing an internal crisis in the 1990s, with communal strife at home between Muslims and Hindus and enduring economic difficulties. “Tendulkar became a sort of one-man band aid for the Indian psyche,” Guha says. It was around this time that there was an explosion in the number of infant “Sachins” born in the country.

In today’s more confident India, Guha believes the player is more like an elder statesman. Though Tendulkar is typically rather more low-key when asked about his national status or celebrity. “If you do well people tend to put their hands together and appreciate what you’re doing whether that’s right or wrong or whatever,” he says, “so eventually you’ve got to judge for yourself what is right or wrong, then you [need to] have a solid team and in my case, my family’s played that role.”

The doorbell rings and lunch arrives on a wheeled table. One of the agents urges us to eat it straight away rather than letting it get cold. I load up my plate with the butter chicken and some naan, while Tendulkar scoops some rice, butter chicken and palak on to his plate. Despite training this morning, he doesn’t take a big helping. He talks more about the lessons he learnt from his father. These were not really about cricket but about the importance of being a decent person.

“People will obviously remember you as a cricketer but the ones who’ve actually interacted with you and spent some time with you, they will remember more about you as a person,” he says. “This is one thing that will be permanently with you – cricket at some stage is going to have to end.”

It is a rule he has tried to live by, keeping his personal life private and emerging with a clean name from troubles such as a match-fixing scandal that swept world cricket in the late 1990s (when he was Indian captain) and sullied the reputation of many other Indian players.

How has he managed to avoid more intense scrutiny? Partly by staying away from the parties and Bollywood lifestyle that attracts many younger Indian cricketers. “Wherever it’s noisy I don’t go there, it’s not my lifestyle,” he says, adding that he prefers to spend time with his wife Anjali and children Sara, 11 and Arjun, nine, who he says has already “picked up a bat and loves his cricket”. “I’m not a party person,” he adds rather needlessly.

It is a message he tries to pass on to junior members of the India team. In this celebrity-mad country, where people build shrines to their favourite actors, the pressure of fame is capable of quickly extinguishing a budding cricketing talent.

“It’s also up to an individual not to get carried away and not to forget why the rest of the things are happening,” he says, referring to the fame and glory. “They’re happening because of cricket. Once you start giving more importance to the other things, gradually cricket starts taking a back seat. That’s where the careers get stagnated.”

. . .

I suggest celebrity endorsements could also be distracting for players but unsurprisingly, given that he has eight contracts to endorse products, he disagrees, saying that these each only take a couple of days or even just a few hours of his time each year. “As long as it’s not affecting your game, I don’t see anything wrong in it,” he says, looking vaguely annoyed for the only time during lunch.

He also dismisses my suggestion that an innovation such as The Indian Premier League, a competition based on the shortened 20-over form of the game, which has attracted foreign stars, around $2bn in television rights, and provided a lucrative pay day for players – could erode cricketers’ enthusiasm for playing for their countries. He prefers to emphasise the opportunities the IPL has given young Indian players to play with greats such as Shane Warne, the Australian spin bowler who captained the Rajasthani Royals to victory in the inaugural IPL this year. Tendulkar himself leads the Mumbai Indians, the team of his home city.

We talk about returning to the table for second helpings but get distracted by the subject of his retirement. Or non-retirement. Tendulkar has had some trouble with injury this year. Does he think of retiring? “No I haven’t to be honest. I don’t need to think about that right now and if I start feeling like that I’d immediately know it’s time to move away from the game.”

Instead, he is ready to take part in another series, this time two Tests against England in December. Though the news that he will be rested from at least some of the seven preceding one-day internationals, which started on Friday, is a reminder that, at 35, it is wise for him to choose his battles a bit more selectively.

As we wrap up, I try to draw him one more time on issues outside sport. As the favourite son of the state of Maharashtra, what does he think of a growing political movement among rightwing Hindu activists there against immigrants from other parts of India settling in the state capital Mumbai?

He seems to start to answer the question before thinking better of it and retreating quickly back to familiar ground. “There are different people who’re actually based in Mumbai ... to be honest I’ve not followed politics much. It’s never been my interest. I’m more of a ... I follow different sports. I follow Formula One, tennis. I’ve always been a big fan of John McEnroe, after that Sampras and then Federer, Federer would probably top the list.”

Aware this is as far as he is ever likely to go, I have one final question. What, in his opinion, defines a great batsman?

Back on less tricky territory, he is a little more expansive. “I feel sometimes that calling someone great ... that terminology is used very loosely. According to me, when you call someone great, that guy should have spent more than 10 years at an international level,” he says.

“It’s natural to get excited,” he continues, “but I think there are two sides to a coin: on one side, somebody just showing promise and, on the other side, also delivering – and when they match, they can go hand in hand for a number of years. That’s when the player is remembered for years to come.”

The supreme modern batsman
There are more flamboyant batsmen. Batsmen with marginally higher batting averages, writes Ludovic HunterTilney. Batsmen who are more destructive or harder to dislodge. Yet Sachin Tendulkar stands alone as the supreme modern batsman.

Tendulkar is widely considered the heir to Don Bradman, the best ever batsman. The flame was handed down by Bradman himself who, observing the Indian in 1996, was struck by an uncanny similarity of styles. “His compactness, technique, stroke production, it all seemed to gel,” Bradman said.

Another Australian legend, the leg-spinner Shane Warne, confirmed Tendulkar’s coronation when he judged the “Little Master” to be the best batsman he had bowled against. The next best, Brian Lara, came a distant second in Warne’s view.

Tendulkar has less flair than Lara, whom he last month overhauled as the leading run scorer in Test history, but a stronger all-round game. Short and squat, he has extraordinary balance and is nimble on his feet – Warne joked that he suffered nightmares of Tendulkar skipping down the pitch towards him to clatter the ball back over the bowler’s head.

The Indian has scored runs against all forms of bowling on all types of pitches. He can bat aggressively or defensively as the situation demands; his range of strokeplay is unequalled.

He has scored more Test centuries (40) and more one-day international centuries (42) than anyone else.

He plays shots with surgical precision, not so much demolishing a bowling attack as dismantling it with deft flicks and powerful strikes. The calculated violence that gained him the nickname “Master Blaster” has faded as age and injuries take their toll.

Tendulkar is highly methodical – in 2003 he entered a Test match against Australia after a run of innings in which he had repeatedly been dismissed playing an off-side shot. He resolved to eradicate the shot from his repertoire and proceeded to score 241 not out, mostly on the legside, against one of the best bowling attacks ever assembled.

The sole criticism levelled against him as a cricketer is his supposed failure to play match-winning innings. Former Indian cricketer Kapil Dev complained last year: “Sachin has big records to his name but until he wins matches for India .... people will raise fingers at him.”

It is a contentious viewpoint, bitterly contested by Tendulkar’s hundreds of millions of fans. It also overlooks the extent to which he has transformed the identity of cricket in India, bringing professionalism and focus to a game still bearing the fusty stamp of amateurism. He channels a nation’s resurgent ambitions into a remorseless appetite for runs.
I congratulate him on India’s recent performances against world champions Australia (particularly a 320-run victory in the second test in Mohali) and he simply replies that “it’s been quite good”. He is unassuming in person and earnest, always keeping eye contact. “How you end is what matters, so we’d like to end on a high note,” he adds, referring to the fourth and final Test the following day (which India went on to win).

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