Happy Birthday Sachin Tendulkar: Recalling the day God became human – Sachin’s evolution from destroyer to grafter is a tale for the ages
If you grew up in the 90s, then you’d relate to this scenario. Think of a cricket match where India plays an opponent. If it’s a Test match in India, you know that you won’t be disappointed because Anil Kumble will run through the opposition, but in the other scenarios – a Test match outside the subcontinent or an ODI, whether at home or away – there is a sole factor that ensures you’ll watch the match. And if Sachin Tendulkar gets out early, you turn the television of and say, “Nahi dekhna hai, yaar. Baaki sab bhi out ho jaayenge.”
That was India’s dependency on Sachin Tendulkar. And on most occasions, he would take up the challenge and live up to the expectations of his teammates and the billions of fans who were glued on the television or the radio.
Whenever I’d read a scorecard the day after an India match, Tendulkar, even if he had gotten out early, would have scored over a run a ball and given India a decent start before the rest of the team collapsed after him. He was the one-man army when it came to batsmen in the Indian side until Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, and Virender Sehwag let him breathe and play a game like a general leading his troops, rather than a soldier single-handedly entering a minefield on ‘God Mode’ to destroy the opposition.
When people saw the twin innings at Sharjah, they said he was the best batsman in the world. Prior to that series, India had a home series against a Mark Taylor-led Australian team. Tendulkar had just given up captaincy (the first term) and it was handed back to Mohammad Azharuddin. Free of the burden of leading the side, Tendulkar, who had shown consistency even as captain, was in a different zone. He scored his first first-class double hundred when Australia played Mumbai, then followed up with two centuries – one in Chennai and one in Bangalore – in the three-Test series. In the ODI tri-series that also featured Zimbabwe, Tendulkar gave India starts, but went berserk in one particular ODI against Australia where he hit five fours and seven sixes in his century.
Then came the 1998 tri-series in Sharjah (also involving Australia and New Zealand) and the desert storm that people still talk about nearly 20 years later. After his 134 in the final (played exactly 19 years ago on his birthday), Australia ODI captain Steve Waugh said, “There is no one else who can bat like this guy, but then I haven’t seen Bradman bat.”
I would watch these matches with my eyes wide open. I’d be stunned at the range of cricketing shots, particularly the one he would hit fast bowlers for a straight six. This shot was unique because Tendulkar would not budge. Like he would play the straight drive, this was the straight whack and it was a shot that I could watch again and again.
In 1999, Pakistan played a series in India after a 12-year gap. The Wasim Akram-led squad had some formidable names that included Saqlain Mushtaq, Waqar Younis, Shahid Afridi and Inzamam-ul-Haq, just to name a few. People remember Anil Kumble’s 10/74 in New Delhi, but the first Test in Chennai that Pakistan won by 12 runs is forever etched in my memory.
Tendulkar had fallen for a duck in the first innings, when he tried counter-attacking Saqlain who was bowling beautifully. Going ahead with his shot, Tendulkar totally mistimed it and it was caught by Salim Malik. The Chennai crowd went silent and that was the end of that.
Pakistan batted again and set India a target of 270. At 82/5 victory looked bleak, but Tendulkar played what I believe is his finest Test innings. While beginning aggressively at the beginning, a niggle in his back hindered any big hitting. Sachin battled, like a wounded soldier, grafting his runs, as opposed to destroying opponents and punishing the bad balls for four. When he reached his century, there was no major celebration because he knew India had to cross the finish line. When Tendulkar reached 136, Saqlain bowled a ball similar to the first inning, Sachin played a similar shot and was caught by Wasim Akram.
India needed 16 runs and three wickets. Four runs later, India lost the match.
Tendulkar was awarded the man of the match, but refused to accept it. India captain Mohammad Azharuddin said he was in the dressing room and was ‘extremely upset.’ Reports that came later even said he was in tears. It also began the end of the destroyer, and slowly introduced the grafter.
And that day, for me, God became human.
Watch the heartbreaking innings here