Among the pantheon
It's probably the only facet our media has missed about him. They haven't investigated whether someone somewhere has sculpted a metallic statue of him and placed it among the pantheon worshipped by the millions of this country. Today, when that idol among idols faces his 100th Test, may well be the auspicious day when someone somewhere performs that public consecration --- with his blown-up colour pic to start with.
But, come to think of it, such an event at this juncture hardly matters: Sachin Tendulkar is already god to legions of our cricket fans as well as to those other legions who don't understand a stitch of the great game excepting that his bat unites the whole country as nothing else and does the nation proud.
A god is not rated by the number of miracles he's performed. So it must be, I suppose, with Tendulkar. His long career's aggregate of runs run and blasted, awesome as they are, are best left to the custody of computer-armed statisticians and their intricate juxtapositions.
The overwhelming fear and ferocity his bat induces in the enemy's demons is the yardstick that matters. What matters equally is the utterly uplifting confidence his tenure at the crease creates in his camp and the electricity his stunning strokes generate among the watching public; and whether you're watching him on TV or in the stadium, or listening to the radio, the impact is the same. That, one supposes, is a mini-miracle itself.
Ironically enough, it's a tribute to Tendulkar's talent unlimited that every walk of his to the crease imposes immeasurable nervous tension upon his worshippers. There's that father's son, a prosperous man of 29 summers, who gets so wired up on every such occasion that his life-worn father smiles --- but inwardly, lest the childish empathy is offended. That young man's high-strung state of mind breaks into an exultant shout of "Shot, Sachh..in!" every time his lord of the willow smacks one to the fence, but quickly returns to nervous eyes and taut heart. This goes on till the one whom Gavaskar calls "The Champion" is finally dismissed and it's time to stop watching the game --- for a while at least, till the gloom is gone.
Ah, Gavaskar, the original "Little Master", another revered figure of another age not so long ago. How does "Little Master II" compare with his predecessor?
Comparisons no doubt are odious, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't indulge in them now and again. Well, Gavaskar was more compact and solid in defence, and certainly more elegant in that domain of batting. The way he let a buzzing swinging ball go outside his off-stump was an art form itself, arms raised, eyes calm and all that. His despatches to the fence too were, so to say, suave, not bludgeon blows. And Gavaskar was also less, much less, harmful to his fan's blood pressure. Not a moment of dangerous living. No sudden bursts of crackling fireworks, excepting, perhaps, that electrifying century and more at Chennai's Chepauk Stadium when he smote Malcolm Marshall & Co. and shredded him and all, bouncers and all. Like the rest of his stint at the crease, Gavaskar's dismissals too tended to be clinical, almost copybook.
The same cannot be said of his present day "Champion". Tendulkar's increasing penchant to shun the "V" area and instead use the dexterous turn of the wrists even to a fast one on the middle or off-stump alarms the fan's heart beat and, some times, yields an l.b.w. or bowled victim. Gavaskar was more correct, more patient, more reconciled to playing the Atlas of the team --- that when, as an opener, he faced the biggest ever bunch of the fastest, fiercest and nastiest bowlers of all time. Remember, too, that he did that with a self-designed skullcap that was at best a poor clone of the helmet.
In short, Gavaskar was all cool and classic; Tendulkar is elan and explosive; Gavaskar was the steadily flowing civilisational Saraswati of yore; Tendulkar is the rapids of the Ganga at its source. Both are equally sacred, each in its own way.
What about Tendulkar's standing vis-à-vis Don Bradman, the legend whose tally of Test hundreds he overtook at Headingley the other day? Though some have likened the two, one must beg to differ. Leave aside Bradman's village background, his self-development and his much fewer opportunities. His tonnage of statistics alone compels dissent on assigning an equal rating for the two. Six first-class centuries in six consecutive innings; two Test triple hundreds, of which one was in a single day; seven double Test centuries; 117 centuries in first-class matches; a Test century in every third innings; an average of 99.94 in 80 Test innings, of 95.1 in 338 first-class innings and of 90.27 in a career total of 669 innings --- all that is a tale fit for a fairy tale. And against Jardine's leg-theory of bodyline in 1932-33 --- that was such a physical danger that it was later banned --- Bradman's average for eight Test innings was 56.57, without arm-guard, chest pad and helmet.
Let's then be humble and admit it. The Don was, is and will be, the one and only; like The Buddha, like Jesus and like Mohammed the Prophet, there cannot be another.
But Tendulkar is unique and ineluctable in his own way, thank you. There's absolutely no denying that. He may not be the Kohinoor of cricket, but he's somewhere high up there all right. His moments of impishness, impatience and impudence are not his faults, really; they're the faults left there by the Creator --- to show up man's frailty, man's inability to cut all diamonds of equal carat. It's verily like even the bountifully blessed Bradman being denied the solitary boundary that would have given him the magical Test average of 100.
Tendulkar's bowling itself manifests a cornucopia of cricketing genius in his blood. Medium-paced in-swingers, leg-cutters, diagonal leg-breaks and googlies --- he has them all, and can bowl them all in just one brief spell. He once bowled us to victory in a crucial one-day encounter against South Africa. If he had taken to that stream of cricket, Kumble may well have been decommissioned several seasons ago.
As a captain of India, Tendulkar chose a stint too short to enable a seasoned assessment. He was wise enough to realise that captaincy was not his cup of tea --- at least not when it was served to him. And Ganguly's emergence with fair success may have snuffed out his second innings at the top. We are unlikely to ever know, therefore, whether he had in him the cerebral and leadership qualities that Bradman and Gavaskar had.
But who cares for that bit of the unknown world? Tendulkar is our fair, smiling and handsome god of the cricket bat --- the bludgeon he wields like the mythical mighty mace of Lord Hanuman. Does it matter really if, as alleged sometimes, he doesn't win matches enough for India? And that he hasn't yet scored a triple Test century? After all, which god in the world pantheon grants every wish of every worshipper? Does it matter really that staking one's life on Steve Waugh's bat provides better insurance? Batters like Waugh are toiling commoners risen to riches; Tendulkar is born royalty, not to be gazed upon too long. And remember, above all, the pressure he carries on his perpetually helmeted head matches the weightiest bat he has carried in contemporary cricket.
The wonder of it all is that he performs what he performs with so much enthusiasm and passion and relish. When India won the Test at Headingley the other day, among the first to sprint for uprooting a souvenir stump was he, the man who had played his 99th Test as though it was his first at age seventeen.
Another wonder is that he does it all so self-effacingly, without even a touch of vanity. It's a rare quality of a rare young man, so adored and rich he can have thousands at his feet. That is why the man now playing his 100th Test will once again patrol the deep at The Oval in London, spiritedly chasing the cherry, throwing it in or catching it --- not as someone exiled to wilderness but as one in isolated splendour unmatched by all but the gods.