Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Sachin Tendulkar: A Question of Legacy

Experts have long pondered the tedious question of how history will remember Sachin Tendulkar. The answer lies simply in the generations of cricketers he has influenced, inspired

Abhilasha Khaitan
Published: Dec 13, 2013 07:17:11 AM IST
Updated: Dec 23, 2013 09:04:25 PM IST
Sachin Tendulkar: A Question of Legacy
Image: Ryan Pierse / Getty Images
2013 CELEBRITY 100 RANK NO. 4: Tendulkar's career got its final touch of credibility when Sir Don Bradman, whose bust can be seen in the background, likened the Indian's batting style to his own

The year is 2037. A 16-year-old is limbering up in the bullpen with his coach’s voice booming through the speakers in his helmet. He dare not press the button that will mute the tirade that threatens to be the background score for his debut. He is forced to listen to a litany of reasons why he would never be a Sachin Tendulkar—and this was supposed to be motivational. The boy grits his teeth, shakes his head and tries to wish away the pressure.

How could anyone match up?

They say the illustrious old man of world cricket—now living a quiet life on an island named after him—could make the ball travel higher than the tallest skyscraper; that he mysteriously grew wings while running between the wickets; that he made bowlers break down in the middle of a game. And this was in the 1990s, when bats were made of wood. He had seen some old videos but they were not half as grand as the tales they were told at camp.

The kid had become a national story because he was considered similarly talented but even the thought of measuring up to Tendulkar was as onerous as taking on all 20 Avengers in one go. Before fear could entirely overtake him, it was time to run out into the glass dome. The arena reverberated with chants of his name.

The only way he knew how to calm himself was with the thought: What would Sachin do?

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Back in 1998, Sachin Tendulkar’s career was getting its final touch of credibility. In a defining moment, Sir Don Bradman, the Australian batting legend, had likened his own batting style to the young Indian’s. Tendulkar was 25 at the time. That affirmation was enough to put any lingering scepticism to rest. He was unreservedly crowned heir apparent to Bradman’s throne.

Now, in 2013, Tendulkar is considered the gold standard. You could almost pity the boy he chooses to anoint his successor. Stacking up to him, even sans the superhero cape fantasy writers have a habit of adding, is a fool’s errand: Most modern-day cricketers shrink from any comparison.

Since the age of 16, Tendulkar has been a larger-than-life figure dominating world cricket and the collective imagination of its fans. Before he even stepped on to the national stage, he was already the brightest star in the school cricket firmament. Safe to say, where Tendulkar went, the spotlight followed—and it was never as intense as last month when he finally said farewell to the game. Not even his worst critic could resist joining in the sentimental goodbye.

However, as the focus shifts to the Indian team’s fortunes in South Africa, and on whom the mantle of the No. 4 batting position will fall, Tendulkar is no longer top of mind. It is as it should be in the after-life, as it were, of a sportsman, which is drenched with the inevitability of moving on. Already on the maidans, the young boys talk of newer heroes. “It is not that they don’t mention Sachin but they are equally enamoured with the likes of Virat [Kohli] and [MS] Dhoni,” says Raju Pathak, coach of Rizvi Springfield, the school that has produced prodigious run-scorers over the last few years (most recently, boy wonder Prithvi Shaw). This transition has been going on for the last couple of years, he says.

But the Tendulkar effect is less about direct transference and more about a chain reaction. Even the youngest admirer of a Rohit Sharma or a Virat Kohli—or of their successors or those after them—will inextricably be linked to Tendulkar by virtue of his influence in reshaping the sport over the last couple of decades. Picture Indian cricket as a family tree and you will find him at the apex, connected to the very last link. His teammates, both old and new, are less intimidated, more grateful, for the association.

For those still scrambling to define it, this, here, is very quietly his legacy.

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Fact: The Tendulkar legend may not assume the mythical proportions imagined at the beginning of this piece. This is unlike Bradman, who has become almost sacred; his place as the best batsmen ever is non-negotiable in some parts of the world, even though there are hardly any left who have watched him play. Tendulkar, on the other hand, is more open to scrutiny because his life and times are not left to storytellers and blurred recollections. So as his records get rewritten, his technique analysed and personal failings noted, the memories will become hazier, less imposing. This is the lot of any modern great. Ask Michael Schumacher.

Sachin Tendulkar: A Question of Legacy
Image: Courtesy: Pal PIllai - BCCI - SPORTZPICS
Not even his worst critic could resist bidding Sachin a sentimental goodbye in his farewell Test at Wankhede

But, even diminished in some future date, his legacy will continue to be visible to those that seek to see it—in the generations of cricketers that have either modelled their game on him or been inspired by his attitude towards cricket.

Experts have long pondered the tedious question of how history will remember Tendulkar. They have tried to answer it over the years with varying epithets and narratives. Inevitably, the discussion veers to his life after the cricket is over. Would Tendulkar do much to better the sport, will he open an academy or will he take on the BCCI?

But his post-cricket occupation, while potentially relevant, hardly defines his legacy. As cricketers of all manner—former, current and prospective—will testify using that ageless cliché, with Tendulkar all that mattered was how he played the game.

His purported successor, Virat Kohli, openly attributes his interest in the game to his reverence of Tendulkar. “I always wanted to be Sachin Tendulkar, all my life,” Kohli told Forbes India in an interview. He sounds like an unabashed fan boy, much like the rest of the Indian dressing room. Not too long ago, he was just that. “The way Sachin used to win matches for us inspired me; I don’t think anything else inspired me so much. I remember I went for a Test match in Delhi. I was about 12 and India was playing Zimbabwe,” says Kohli. “I got tickets for the side stands. I stood there, clasping the railing, hoping that he would come to the boundary once. He came. I was shouting his name. He looked back once and waved and that was a great moment for me. That was a Rs 300 ticket. That was the extent I could go to, to actually see him.”

Despite his childish ebullience on the field, Tendulkar’s senior statesman stature in the team was unquestioned. Even the captain, MS Dhoni, has been quoted as saying that he is still shy about approaching Tendulkar on non-cricket matters. Happily, this does not come in the way of his approachability on cricketing matters: He is ready to influence and advice, even unsolicited in many cases. The animated appreciation from his people—without a tinge of insecurity—is equally telling about the respect he commands and the grace with which he gets it.

“He taught us not only about the importance of good performance but also the importance of good on-field conduct. He taught us about what sort of mindset you need to have when you play abroad,” Rohit Sharma, another batsman who claims to have modelled his game on Tendulkar, told reporters after the Wankhede farewell match. Sharma, like others, basked in his older colleague’s approval.

“Whenever I do well, he always lets me know and congratulates me and wishes me luck. That’s all you need from him,” says Kohli. “It’s just amazing to speak to him about cricket. Even now, after 24 years of cricket, if you speak sense to him, he will be very keen on what you are trying to say.”

Tendulkar’s readiness to share ideas—not just give but take—has also helped with his own longevity. The last couple of years were peppered with disappointments and failure, but there was a dignity with which he handled the unusual negativity from the media. No justifications were offered; just an exit plan was rolled out whereby he started withdrawing from different forms of the game one by one. And even in the end, he was all about the cricket, reminding his now former team that they were privileged to be able to serve the sport. Even ‘god’ was only a servant of the game.

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The boy, meanwhile, took his stance on the 22 yards. The nerves were calmer, his mind sharpened. It had taken him a minute to switch gears but he was back in the zone. You see, he had figured out what Tendulkar would have done: Silenced the intrusive voice and prepared to face the coach’s anger.

He had read somewhere that Tendulkar had found the distraction of other people’s expectations an unnecessary burden, especially when he already carried the weight of his own. He had been a boy whose talent was spotted at the age of 10; clarity of purpose and lightness in the mind were necessary tools to grow as a cricketer, which was all Tendulkar had ever wanted to be.  

This 16-year-old, too, could only dream about the bat hitting the ball. But he had another secret wish. That, perhaps, if he did it well enough, one day Tendulkar might finally notice how he batted somewhat like him.  With that faint hope in his heart, he looked straight into the bowler’s eyes, the India flag shining on his helmet.

(With inputs from Shravan Bhat)


(This story appears in the 27 December, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Bharani Srivatsa

    really true!!! master

    on Dec 13, 2013