Clamours of retirement notwithstanding, whenever Sachin Tendulkar fields a ball on the field, the whole stadium erupts. Arunabha Sengupta writes why he continues to be an icon and why the retirement of the maestro will be more than a cricketing decision.
No. I am not here to suggest that Sachin Tendulkar should retire now.
He may or may not. The cricket world may be flooded with experts voicing their opinions, riding on analysis or groupthink. But, none of them can claim to know another genius of similar dimensions – to use as yardstick, compare, contrast and validate their claims.
Prematurely voicing “Endulkar” and concurrent thought, in inane wisecracks or reasoned articles, have a habit of coming back and haunting one for long. Ian Chappell knows it. So do a lot of naysayers who had bared their fangs and clamoured irrationally during his tennis-elbow days.
Ads may be hatched on the fly in poor taste, a small sequence of bowled dismissals may be hastily and erroneously concluded as the death rattle. But it is too early to believe that Tendulkar won’t come back with yet another display of genius – that will send critics scurrying for cover, conjuring up rationalising excuses to justify the great man’s continuing success.
However, at the same time, there is no denying that the retirement, when it comes, will be more than a cricketing decision.
In the sound and fury that is the Indian thought-space, dominated by sound bytes, celebrity worship and star culture, hyper-active television channels and media frenzy, Sachin Tendulkar continues to be a colossus in the public consciousness.
Tendulkar is a superbrand – the first sportsman of his kind in India. One with whom the country entered the age of free market, on whose achievements rested the nation’s dreams as Indians went through the process of becoming a global power to reckon with – economic and cricketing.
Sunil Gavaskar went through a similar restructuring of the commercial value of a cricketer, but it was Tendulkar who took it to its logical conclusion and – with his phenomenal feats in the last two decades – extended it beyond the ultimate limits of imagination.
Nike created a similar endorsing extraordinaire in Michael Jordan, the original super-brand. But Tendulkar became a brand almost on his own, who attracted investors with his personal magnetism, flashing his wide smile from millions of billboards and television screens, the first face every child learnt to recognise while growing up in boom-time India.
Even now, with ITC Sunfeast, Aviva Life, Canon and Coke, to name but a few, pumping millions into the essence that he brings in, there continue to be crores of rupees he carries on his wide shoulders.
And the corporates keep investing in his image. He may have lost a few vacillating followers in the last year or so. Yet, failure or not, the moment he fields a ball on the boundary line, spectators roar with the beatification of having witnessed him in action. That is the lure of a Tendulkar, and that is why he is still a prize catch.
Emotions and essence
Investors do know that in the face of the brand, product performance is just a minor nice to have. Giant sneaker companies can sell their wares for monstrous prices when all the shoes in the market are uniformly stitched in the same sweatshops in Vietnamor China – with the Nike swoosh or the three black marks of Adidas adding thelargely imagined esoteric magic that elevates the marked price to exorbitant levels. The Tendulkar differentiator in this aspect is a miracle in its own right. It will take much more than a slump to reverse the value that he brings in to the products.
In Indian cricket, we have often witnessed how a brand relegates performance to elements of near absolute unimportance.
People are still caught up with television re-runs of Sourav Ganguly waving his shirt from the balcony of the players dressing room balcony at Lord's, fixated with the projected image of a successful skipper – promoted through hundreds of leadership-themed advertisements. How many even realise that the Three-nation NatWestTrophy was the only tournament India managed to win in his five years of captaincy?
With Rahul Dravid’s continuing image as one who protects Indian line-ups on difficult foreign wickets, few remember that ‘The Wall’ was coined when Reebok featured him in ads, the sobriquet created by the advertising agency Leo Burnett India. And so caught up are we in this successful brand image that few realise that Dravid actually averages 29.71 in South Africa and just manages to push past 40 in Australia.
In such circumstances, 23 years of sustained brilliance, and near spotless record, has intertwined with the Indian psyche well enough to make unravelling way beyond a loss of form.
Besides, the heart plays a pivotal role in the millions that constitute the target market for the Indian corporates. Yuvraj Singh can make a comeback riding on waves of emotions without playing a single game since hospitalisation. With this in view, consider the one and a half generations who have grown up with the legend of Sachin Tendulkar as an essential ingredient of every living day. As this writer once wrote, “I have never known adult life without Sachin Tendulkar walking out to bat at No 4 for India. The day he retires, an entire generation of Indians will start walking alone.”
The impact of Tendulkar’s retirement will be far, far greater than that of any other great in Indian cricket. As with several other facets of the man, the enormity of the occasion can be perhaps compared only with the 1948 swansong of Don Bradman.
Hence even on the brink of his retirement, he will remain a cash cow for Indian cricket. There will be many, many investors whose money grabbing fingers will restfirmly on the strings that invisibly control the machinery of Indian cricket.
Small packets of time can be negotiated from decision makers through transactions – financial or otherwise – by powerful interested parties. Persuasive powers can work magic on the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and ultimately on Sachin Tendulkar himself. And the man is too great a batsman not to produce that one big innings that hastens him back into form. He has done it often enough, and one can rest assured he will do so in the future.
(Arunabha Senguptais a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)