25 years of Sachin Tendulkar: How the little master united India as a nation

Sachin Tendulkar during his early days

Roll back the clock by 25 years, the future of the world's largest democracy, the world's most electric yet precariously gargantuan nation was in tatters. In 1989, we were a nation in stark poverty, overly protectionist and thus largely backward. On the economic front, there was absolute skepticism about opening up the doors, while on the sociological front, the nation was rife with religious carnages. If this wasn't enough, the Mandal commission's affirmative action had incited several caste groups to clash, thus threatening the very pluralistic idea of this nation.

Hence, the concept of India – a nation that has a national holiday for Eid, Christmas, Guru Nanak Jayanthi, a nation that had a Muslim President inducting a Sikh Prime Minister, who was given way by a Catholic woman, a Roman and a nation with 80% Hindu population – was under siege. The sense of brotherhood stems from belongingness drawn from a unifying force called democracy, which unfortunately till then had belied our secular discourse.

However, at the turn of the decade, there came breaking the glass ceiling a prodigy, a curly haired, cheeky young imp. For a quarter of a century from then on, we would grow at a hemorrhaging rate, averaging at 8, with the world beating a path to our door step. In less than two decades since 1989, the Muslims and Hindus would embark upon a joint prayer at a mosque, praying for India's victory over Pakistan in the 2011 World Cup semi-final fixture in what can be construed as the most heart warming sight for the fathers of this vastly paradoxical nation. How this diminutive shy toddler – with his self-styled buccaneering swagger – would forge this unity, thus facilitating the conflicting groups to find a common cause is what forms the body of this write up.

Last year when Tendulkar retired, he had left the country in a paroxysm of mourning. A common occurrence for two decades now, all the nation spoke of was about the impending departure of the master from the nation’s de facto national sport. The media were quick to catch on this fever, and there were endless paeans for the master, thus neglecting every other potential headline. This prompted an angry article from an activist who accused the media of neglecting other news of national importance and debating endlessly over the "banal inevitability of a sportsman retiring from his game when the going was good". Further, interesting was a reaction to this article by someone who'd grown in rural Bihar with vivid memories of the unifying force Tendulkar was.

He watched TV, certainly a luxury for that strata of the society, on tractor batteries only to get a sight of the master wielding the willow, and he'd witnessed the entire village – Bumihars, Brahmins and Dalits alike – cheering this young lad. He didn't mince words when he said the nation needs more Tendulkars to dissolve the boundaries between the North and the South, Hindus and Muslims, the upper castes and Dalits. The internet, often replete with pseudo seculars and an overwhelmingly vociferous saffron brigade, all of a sudden looked truly secular. It was a manifestation of how nationalism had permeated to the grass-roots levels of the country notwithstanding the stress and strain that besets it. Hence, Tendulkar's success was emblematic of his countrymen's rise to assertion.

For many years before 1989, India was used to sporting mediocrity. It was appalling how such a populous nation faired so dismally Olympic after Olympic. India was in a serious dearth of sporting heroes, and sporting success was something the nation hitherto hadn't tasted. Conquests were something Indians had heard only in history and fables, and majority of the times they were in the receiving end. Hence, when the tables were turned and in reality when some Indian was taking it out against the cricket powerhouses, it was nothing short of gratifying for another Indian, now watching this unwind in his television. Thanks to liberalization, televisions were now a household item and so was Tendulkar. However, what led to what isn't clear.

India did possess some of the best batting talents in Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath, but Tendulkar's game was on a whole new level, with a never seen before aggression. The authority and confidence his shots exuded was so uncharacteristic of an Indian sportsman till then. For an average Indian, watching Tendulkar bat was more like watching a commercial potboiler, with the hero battering and whipping every goon who came his way. After all, we are a nation who made chief ministers out of these commercial heroes and hence concomitant with it was the enormous veneration.

A farmer cheated by the monsoon, a low wage worker crippled by unemployment, a daily hawker arm twisted by the local landlord, the middle class confronted with rising prices alike found common cause when they cheered for Tendulkar. He was the solace after a long day's work, the respite in the times of adversities and the reason for the smile in 1.2 billion Indians. As he danced down the track and hoisted Shane Warne out of the park at Sharjah, there ceased to exist Mohammedans, Hindus or Christians; there existed an Indian, who rooted unanimously for his fellow Indian. The eardrum ripping chants of "Sachin Sachin" across the globe was one in unison, a blend of people of different faith chanting one mantra, for one God. No Hindu ever boasted of Tendulkar belonging to his faith nor did any Muslim despise Tendulkar for he hadn't circumcised. Tendulkar was as much a son to a Muslim father, as much a brother to a Dalit as much a hero he was to a Hindu.

Sachin Tendulkar retired from international cricket in November 2013

As limited overs cricket took over the reins from Test cricket, Tendulkar revelled and ended his career with a mind boggling 17,000 odd runs and 49 centuries. These numbers were never the cause for the adulation; the adulation came for the way he made them. Tendulkar was neither seen sledging nor showing dissent to every grossly unfair umpiring decisions he was subject to. With an understated personality, he stayed away from controversies, and the front pages were restricted to his on-field exploits. Opulence was something uncharacteristic of Tendulkar, and he largely distanced himself from the glitz and glamour, which have stifled many a promising cricketing careers. The integrity with which Tendulkar conducted himself on and off the field won as many hearts as did his centuries, transforming him to a hero in the truest sense.

Thus after 1989, the limping nation was made to gallop through the next two decades. With Tendulkar churning out centuries after centuries, breaking records after records, the economy grew and so did the sense of "Indianness". As the Tigers at home started becoming Tigers abroad, Indians dominated the academic sphere across the globe. As India won Tests in Australia and England, Indians were now heading the Research and Development wings of quite a few MNCs like GE and Philips. As India reached the top spots in Tests, Silicon Valley was being dominated by more Indians. India was now talked about in the corridors of world power, not only for its cricketing achievements but also for its economic dynamism, political stability, space programmes, nuclear accomplishments, the burgeoning English speaking class, the software experts and, last but not least, for its unity in diversity.

A nation that had been plagued by setbacks on every front was now brimming with optimism with the success story of the BCCI being the most gratifying one. Today, around 80 percent of the world's cricketing revenue comes through India, and in turn, BCCI is the richest board. The recently visible hegemony prompts me to draw parallels between the United States-the United Nations and the BCCI-the ICC. The IPL, a testimony to India's success story, is an example to the shift of power in the cricketing paradigm with the tournament being an annual event not just for India but for the entire cricketing globe, as well. None of the other cricketing nations have been able to host an event as rich as the IPL or even half of it. The going rate for a ten second advertising spot in the IPL was a whopping Rs.500,000, ten times greater than the London Olympics whose going rate was pegged back at Rs. 50,000. The BCCI's refusal to adopt the DRS when every other nation has ceded to it not only makes a big brother statement but also puts India in a spot seldom experienced in the political world.

Apart from the big bucks that narrate India's cricketing success story, another discernible achievement is the decentralization of Indian cricket. Bombay, the undisputed Ranji winner for close to 25 years, started facing defeats against states that were considered as cricketing backwaters. In the successful World T20 team of 2007, around 9 cricketers were from small towns and not from bustling cities. India's most successful captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni himself was from a middle class family from a tier two city of India. Most of these youngsters who made it from the rags have testified to the fact that it was watching Tendulkar that set the flames in them. These are subtler yet indispensable trivia on why Tendulkar was a better unifying force than democracy. One of the intended facets of democracy was representation and getting equal stakes in the success; however, close to two decades, Tendulkar, unknowingly, was outshining democracy.

Amid the corrupt and crony politicians, the voyeuristic and exhibitionist filmstars, Tendulkar was India's readymade role model. As he made his stride to stardom, he carried along a billion dreams, and, in a nation with close to 700 million people under 25, he was the conscience of a whole nation, an unadulterated one at that. He instilled in the nation a fresh sense of hope, thus a sense of coming renaissance. For a quarter of a century, he was the one common source of joy, of disappointment, of pride and of worldwide admiration. No community or group could stake undue praise for it, as the fame was truly and wholly India's.

The frenzied environment surrounding the 2011 World Cup, in all probability the last world cup for the master batsman, was the culmination of years of Tendulkar worship by this cricket crazy nation. As India was about to encounter Pakistan in the semi-finals at Mohali, a few hours from the Pakistan border, the entire nation was fevered, for once for the nation's cause, or its hero's cause as the hundredth hundred was impending now and nothing better than bringing it up against the country's arch rival Pakistan. All routes now led to Mohali with thousands of Pakistani supporters, taking a temporary visa, driving in to witness the grand encounter between the brothers.

The Muslims in India right royally rooted for India, outrightly for Tendulkar, while the Hindus wanted India to beat a cricket opponent, and not a Muslim country, called Pakistan. In the run up to this contest, in Kanpur, Hindu and Muslim priests held a joint prayer service. Muslims read verses from the Quran, while Hindus read from their holy texts, all for one common cause – India and, more importantly, Tendulkar. Juxtaposing this with a Pakistan captain's statement after the country’s loss to India in the 2007 World Cup final, where he apologized to Muslims worldwide for letting them down, you will understand the significant difference between the two nations and hence the economic prosperity and political stability of one.

Thus for a period of nearly 25 years, that sense of belongingness and brotherhood flashed into this nation's discourse. Through Tendulkar, I believe, India made a statement of what we, as a nation, collectively aspired to be.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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