Sachin Tendulkar was 10 years old when in 1983 Indian cricket suddenly, even inexplicably, turned into a sky-bound butterfly from the plodding caterpillar it had been since the British began to play with bat, ball and umpire. There was nothing exceptional about the team that Kapil Dev took to the World Cup tournament in England that year, except perhaps Kapil himself. He was the most remarkable of the cricketers peeping out from a new India rediscovering its confidence. Kapil shrugged off his limited English with a laugh that was neither silly-aggressive nor cringe-inducing inferiority complex. Kapil spoke with both bat and ball till the world understood his language.
A prophet should not be born before his time. The World Cup victory of 1983 was the launching pad of a mission to supremacy. Sachin entered his teens at precisely the moment when Indian cricket began to zoom towards a stratosphere of ability and wealth that would have been dismissed as absurd even in an anthology of fairy tales.
Before India lifted the 1983 Cup by defeating a jaw-frozen West Indies, international cricket was run along sniffy caste lines. The Brahmins, England, and Thakurs, Australia, dominated the game. The West Indies claimed headlines sometimes with meteoric dazzle — who can forget Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith? — but remained 11 players until Clive Lloyd knitted a team. The underclass consisted of old colonies, India, Pakistan and New Zealand, with South Africa as the ghost at dinner [heard on radio but never seen].
If Sunil Gavaskar was the outstanding talent of the old world, then Sachin was pilot of the ship that discovered and conquered an array of unknown continents. The audience explosion could be heard in cash registers. His first advertising contract was the kind of figure considered sufficient as seed money for heavy industry. The brave Mark Mascarenhas, who signed that extraordinary commitment, never doubted that it made perfect business sense. Neither did young Sachin have any doubts.
If Sunil Gavaskar was the outstanding talent of the old world, then Sachin was pilot of the ship that discovered and conquered an array of unknown continents.
Cricket had its genius galaxy before Sachin came; it will have even more talent after he has retired. But it is given to only one man in a century to change the content, culture, horizon and history of his craft. Sachin Tendulkar is that architect who saw barren land dotted with a few oasis spots, and turned it into a megapolis of the Indian imagination, a vast boundless city of green stadium and television set that thrives in both reality and virtual reality.
I shall not dwell upon Sachin’s mesmerising grace which reduces his bat to a scalpel one moment, a jeweller’s tool in another, and the Nordic god Thor’s hammer when he gets into a thunderous mood. We live in an age of permanent television with its audio-visual banquet. Every viewer is his own Neville Cardus when watching Sachin. Description seems an intrusion upon the magic bond between Sachin and each of his starlit fans in a unique universe. This is adoration, mind, not mere admiration. Sachin has given at least two generations a memory of greatness that will feed their conversations till they stumble into their graves.
The talk around him is over. The talk about him has only begun. Two decades later memory will do what it always does, exaggerate, but only because people never know how precisely to recall a wondrous dream that they have been privileged to witness in the space beyond life’s cage of the mundane. When Sachin is 60 he just might recognise himself in the stories that will lift many an evening around a bar or drawing room. But he must never intervene to infect that stardust with the sprinkle of statistics, or even perhaps facts.
Sachin Tendulkar is a legend not in his lifetime, but in our lives. His life belongs to him. His memory belongs to us.