The 100th international hundred is just another mindboggling milestone scattered along the way in the course of a phenomenal journey. Arunabha Sengupta takes a personal look at the long path trodden by Sachin Tendulkar while he casts his eyes on the road ahead with some foreboding.
Anation which had held its breath for a year and a bit finally exhaled in collective ruptures of delirious emotion. One could hear the wheels of a country start to move again, and glimpse the disappearing weight of enormous dimensions that had for so long weighed down her favourite son.
As a record, a hundred international centuries is perhaps a juxtaposed milestone, with the addition of numbers from two very different formats making scant logical sense. Sachin Tendulkar already had many more hundreds in Tests and One- Day Internationals than any other batsman in history. Why make a big deal of a sum that just happened to add up to 100?
But, this is India. For untold millions, it had become a fixation around which revolved their innumerable lives, the hype that ruled their consciousness, that particular number which made the difference between ecstasy and frustration.
Hence, when it did come, a deluge of sentiments did wash over Indians all over the world.
And whilst it did cleanse the spirits of a country that had been suffering from increasing frustration and indulging in ridiculous criticism, in some squalid corners remnants of disapproval did persist.
It does not really matter.
To me the 100th hundred resembled Pele scoring his 1000th goal from a penalty- kick. As in the case of the greatest of footballers, the final step hardly tarnished the glory of the entire voyage.
One needs to remember that the hundredth was just a sparkling step in a walk that has left behind all other celebrated travellers. And to someone who considers himself blessed to have been able to follow the magnificent march ever since his first tentative step on the international arena, the journey has been one of eternal fascination – the milestones just splendid landmarks on the way.
A long journey
It began when I started sneaking surreptitiously out of the strict confines of a Roman Catholic institution – to follow the exploits of a fellow schoolboy whose blazing trail had just been sparked off in neighbouring Pakistan.
More than a couple of decades later, the trail continues to blaze along pristine paths where no mortal has treaded before.
Now, as a supposedly responsible manager and a cricket writer on the side, I creep behind the forbiddingly workmanlike windows with a careful ALT+TAB, and peep at his continuing saga of success on the pages and streams of the cricket web sites. While he sustains the insatiable appetite to score more and more, I retain the childish craving to break the rules and follow his awe-inspiring achievements. The ageless wonder has kept my faculty for fascination from being tempered by the flow of time.
The tale of Tendulkar has for long been intertwined with the story of the young Indian growing up in the 80s and 90s. His meteoric rise in the late 80s and early 90s was an unusually brilliant representative of the spark of genius which shone on painfully rare occasions in Indian sports and games. It rose from the shadows of despondence that defined the arena of a developing nation. The country waded through the heavy residuals of bureaucracy, vacillating before delayed embrace of computerisation and open economy, and chugged along ancient trodden paths that lagged decades behind modernisation – and during all this, a teenager showed that change was around the corner.
It was reflected in the audacity with which he stroked the ball, throwing caution and the baggage of the past to the winds, carving the revered Abdul Qadir for consecutive sixes, hitting the knighted Richard Hadlee inside out over the covers, taking on the might of the Aussie pace bowlers at the fast, furious Perth while established pillars of batting crumbled around him like bits of brittle bread. Impossibility was just about to be redefined, limits re-laid.
With the coming of globalisation, slowly but surely, India emerged as a force to reckon with on the global map. Along with the newfound confidence of being a player in the world in her own right, Team India too underwent a metamorphosis. The 27 for two specialist of the side no longer had the enormous responsibility of carrying the entire burden of batting on his shoulders. He was no more forced to ensure that India qualified for the finals at Sharjah before proceeding to lift those sixes off Michael Kasprowicz and Damien Fleming to try for an impossible win, bearing the brunt of the media if his single handed attempt at the impossible did not come off.
There matured a “Wall” to build the secure framework of the innings, a “very, very special” artist to paint it in peerless patterns, a “big brother” to stand up against the bullies of the world and a “Nuke from Najafgarh” to blast opposition attacks to smithereens. Sachin Tendulkar evolved from the one who specialised in fighting losing battles, the engineer of ephemeral dreams, to the quintessential torchbearer who could plant the flag of the nation on the highest pinnacles.
In boom time India, Tendulkar was that extra yard, that final frontier, that elusive peak which the Indian woke up to realise was within his grasp. The country no longer followed the crumbs dropped along the way by the West; it cut furrows where no other nation dared to venture. It was the wonder boy who had by now grown into a man who showed the way, taught them to live in the manner he went about scoring runs.
Through his straight drive, one was taught the art of persuasion, the ball coaxed to the fence with the minimum of fracas or force. In his paddle sweep was the schoolboy who continued to live, finding cheeky non-existent gaps in patrolled confines, to sneak out of the restricting circle into the forbidden boundary. In his upper cuts one came across real innovation, the new Indian who knew to take risks that amounted to audacious calculations. And his pull spoke of colossal confidence in self that defined the emerging superpower.
And now, 100 centuries and 33,000 runs later, he still goes on and on. Passage of time has probably rounded those rough edges of excitement that used to accompany every foray into the middle. The fractional fraying of the hand eye coordination has probably curbed the fearless arrogance of stroke-play. But, for each minute diminution in the treasure-store of ability, there have been replenishing pearls and diamonds from the many splendored vaults of experience. Time's erosion has been replaced and secured with timeless foundation. Having shown the way to take on the world, he is now the wise general who knows the virtue of consolidation, of accumulation.
He is now the Bhishma Pitamaha of Indian cricket, who cannot retire until the last sling and arrow of fortune is shot in the war that he had started waging for India decades earlier. Be it regaining the No 1 slot in Test cricket, a last miracle in a country of his choice, a final showdown against Dale Steyn or whatever it is that seems eligible to be that final feather in his congested crown, he continues to battle on. The one who has perfected his batting to resemble the benchmark of the Don, has perhaps the last personal frontier to conquer. Like many of the milestones he has left behind, it may as yet remain unseen to naked mortal eyes.
The lower depths of cricket
While Tendulkar has without doubt been the crowning achievement of the sport of cricket and the rejuvenated nation of India, what follows in the wake of his gargantuan glory brings to light the ancient Upanishadic teaching – everything positive comes with its own inbuilt negative.
In India, it has traditionally been far more important to build statues than to take care of them. There are hordes of so-called followers of cricket in our very nation who lift their hind quarters to pee their quaint peeves on the monumental achievements of the man.
These consist of the self-proclaimed defendants of the society who try to hide their irrational envy behind righteous indignation at a man making money for his phenomenal contributions; zonal yellow journalists, with a flair for statistical ignorance, who try to cut down each and every exploit of the remarkable cricketer with reasons and ratios that redefine ridiculous; armchair metaphysical scholars who vociferously object at a mortal man being given the sobriquet of 'god’. A most pathological bunch of losers ever. If the master symbolises the height of Indian achievements in the past couple of decades, these callous critics probably underline all that is wrong with the nation, bringing alive the celebrated history of colonial divide and rule, the propensity to wallow in the muck of one's own making, of being satisfied with glorified mediocrity.
However, the collective contamination of these social stinkers can do little to tarnish the halo that has been the result of two decades of resplendent brilliance, etched with one hundred glittering gemstones. Whatever is the final goal, I await it with an amalgam of hope and trepidation. While nothing would be dearer to me than this giant of a little man to conquer whatever peak he sets sights on, a part of me dreads the day when he will make his way to the pavilion for the last time.
I have not known adult life without Sachin Tendulkar at the crease. Without the master walking out at two-drop for India, a whole generation of cricket lovers will start walking alone.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)