Sachin Tendulkar    Getty Images
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro, to and fro / O my Sachin Tendulkar, from long ago Getty Images

They have all watched Sachin Tendulkar bat. They have worshipped, idolised, criticised, and admonished him on the cricket ground and off it. And along with them grew the man, first with baby-steps, then in giant strides, eventually becoming Brand Tendulkar. Abhishek Mukherjee narrates the story of Brand Tendulkar through the 1990s, and beyond.

I was there, along with a hundred thousand others, about ten per cent of whom had entered Eden Gardens using illegally acquired tickets. Aravinda de Silva s masterpiece had helped Sri Lanka recover to 251 for 8.

India lost Navjot Sidhu in the second over, but there was hope, for that little man was out there. Sixty-five of the best runs he scored, keeping a quality spin attack at bay on a turning track; when he was dismissed the score read 98 for 2; when the Calcutta crowd forced match referee Clive Lloyd to award the match to Sri Lanka, they were 120 for 8.

No, not all Tendulkar innings were like this. In fact, very few of his innings were of this pedigree. But this was the reflection of what India perpetually feared in the 1990s, a sense of emptiness, of hopelessness when Tendulkar got out.

Yes, there was an era when the Indian audience, glued to the television during run-chases, switched their sets off when Tendulkar got out, for they feared a 98 for 2 would become a 120 for 8. It happened sometimes, but only occasionally, but the dread was always there.

There was a reason behind that feeling. It was not irrational.

The face of India

CK Nayudu was India s first great cricketer. Perhaps Palwankar Baloo predated him, but we are talking of the Test match era. Few matched the charisma of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. But there can be no doubt whatsoever that Sunil Gavaskar was the first megastar of Indian cricket; and he was the only one till Kapil Dev came along.

Gavaskar scored runs in West Indies, Australia, and Pakistan. Whether the runs were scored against quality attacks is something numbers will answer; what I am trying to emphasise on here is the fact that Gavaskar did something unprecedented: he gave Indian cricket a face.

Kapil did the same. Few events have been as impactful in the history of Indian cricket as World Cup 1983. Fans got to know that Kapil could take wickets on unhelpful tracks, at home and overseas, and on his day, massacre any bowling attack with the bat.

But they seldom got to see Gavaskar and Kapil in action in their halcyon days.

Despite the greatness of the duo, however, the loyalty of Indian fans was divided. While Gavaskar got the suave Dinesh Suiting commercials, Kapil s accented Palmolive ka jawaab nahin won hearts and brought smiles.

In the 1980s Gavaskar and Kapil were like chalk and cheese: they were both national heroes, but appealed to different kinds of masses. Gavaskar was often perceived as the sophisticated professional, while Kapil was projected as the talented simpleton. The fact that they were not exactly on the best of terms only added fuel.

Were public perceptions about the two men correct? We could only make assumptions in the era limited to All India Radio and Doordarshan, in the era when there was no option but to accept journalism at face-value. And journalism was often swayed by patriotism and read like fairy-tales rather than facts.

Whatever the reasons were, India s fan base in the 1980s was divided between a batsman and an all-rounder, just like their illustrious counterparts from the other side of Wagah.

Then Tendulkar arrived, with satellite television hot on his trails. And Indian cricket was never the same.

Amalgamation of fans

It is commendable even today, the way Gavaskar and Kapil have retained their fans despite the facts that a few decades have passed. But how did it all start?

Indeed, what source did the Indian cricket fan have in the 1970s for overseas matches? Remember, Gavaskar made his debut in West Indies, which meant that almost invariably the match report did not appear on the following day. A small box on the last page of the newspaper was dedicated to the match, with incomplete scores.

India got to know Gavaskar had scored 774 runs in debut series. India never got to see those runs, the same way very few got to see Sadiq Mohammad being forced to ask for a helmet against Kapil, or the great man braving immense pain to bowl India to a remarkable win at MCG.

No, India saw none of these. They had access to unfamiliar (to most) British accents on BBC, but that was about it.

India saw Gavaskar and Kapil in Ranji Trophy, a platform where Ajit Wadekar and Rajinder Goel were often more feared than Gavaskar and Kapil, men from their states. Some, who went to the ground during Tests, saw Gavaskar and Kapil play. Others only read about them.

Then television arrived, but these were the days when Doordarshan telecast was archaic (and that is being polite). The video was grainy, the scoreboard minimal, the cameras limited, and the overall coverage unsatisfactory. How were you supposed to know whether a spinner had really trapped a batsman LBW if you were watching from behind the wicketkeeper, with the gloveman obstructing your view?

There was a small news bulletin on Tendulkar that surfaced in Ananda Bazar Patrika, circa 1988 (it resurfaced very recently on social media). But then, who took school cricket seriously?

Tendulkar appeared on an issue of Sportstar along with Salil Ankola and Vivek Razdan, the other two debutants in the series, on the verge of India s tour to Pakistan. Doordarshan did not telecast the first two Tests. The third was a boring draw, but it was the first time India got to see Tendulkar bat, albeit on a featherbed.

Then came the Sialkot Test. Tendulkar was hit on his face. There was no concept of stump microphones. The feeble main khelega that later attained iconic status was not even audible. The teenage boy was brave, but he was nowhere close to be called great.

We saw highlights of him being caught by John Wright for 88. We saw highlights of him saving a Test with Manoj Prabhakar. We saw highlights of him setting every blade of WACA on fire with an astonishing display of strokeplay.

The new hero was soon replacing the previous icons. Curiously, he was linked to both: when Gavaskar, by then a former cricketer, gifted Tendulkar his own pads, it became news. Kapil, on the other hand, had an overlap with Sachin: they did a Boost commercial together, were double-wicket partners, and bowled in tandem to tilt the Hero Cup final of 1993 in India s favour.

Gavaskar fans saw Tendulkar as one of them.

Kapil fans saw Tendulkar as one of them.

Mothers wanted to feed him all sorts of homemade food and became concerned over who chaperoned him on overseas tours (call me sexist if you like, but I base my conclusions based on a reasonable sample size).

Fathers disrupted meetings for score updates. Is he there? suddenly became a question as important as what s the score?

Years later, a story did rounds on social media. A cricket-agnostic Barack Obama apparently admitted that he was told USA production dropped by 5 per cent when Tendulkar was at the crease. The story if probably apocryphal, but I will not be surprised if that had actually happened in India in the early 1990s.

Then cable television arrived. And, almost unbelievably, the Tendulkar myth did not fall apart. In fact, it grew as people saw him bat, saw his teammates bat, and the television sets, as mentioned above, got switched off on a regular basis the moment Tendulkar got out.

Even cricket-agnostics became part of the Sachin-craze. And as sales of television sets increased, a familiar sight became more and more popular outside electronics shops.

They all waited outside, glued to the windows, watching Tendulkar bat. Nobody asked them to leave, for they knew that the crowd would disperse, but would return soon. They did not change channels either, for they had to watch Tendulkar themselves. And, of course they knew exactly when the pavement outside the showroom would be empty.

Years later, in end-2013, eminent Bengali poet Joy Goswami would write a poem. Here is a feeble attempt at translation:

You stand there, on the pavement;

The television screen glares back at you from the showroom.

Suddenly it rains. All you have to cover your head is a handkerchief.

Someone opens an umbrella. Three others try to huddle under it.

You respond to every boundary with a cheer.

Then he is dismissed. And you yell in agony.

***

People, a hundred-and-twenty-one crores and more

Have replayed every ball in their minds

Some were dismissed for ducks

Some got to their hundreds

But none of them were ever chronicled.

***

No, Tendulkar never batted alone.

From boy to man

The world had geared up for West Indies tour of India in 1994-95. Brian Lara was fresh from his 375 and 501.

The series ended in Tendulkar s favour, but that had a lot to do with the fact that Courtney Walsh s West Indies came with a depleted attack (there was no Curtly Ambrose or Ian Bishop), and Lara was facing a three-pronged spin attack on pitches designed for them.

Tendulkar s 85 at Wankhede set up India s win. Opening batting, Lara hammered 91 at Mohali to set up West Indies win. Tendulkar dominated the 5-ODI series as well as the triangular Wills World Series.

But that was not the point.

The Indian audience had never got to see Gavaskar vs Boycott or Gavaskar vs Richards or Gavaskar vs Greg Chappell or Kapil vs Imran or Kapil vs Botham or Kapil vs Hadlee when the standards of live telecast met a certain level.

In other words, the legends of Gavaskar and Kapil had were already implanted in public minds before they saw any of them play, in person. Tendulkar, on the other hand, did not have the advantage of a myth already built around him. Throughout his career, every ball he faced was scrutinised by critics and fans alike, for Tendulkar had become a part of the Indian living-rooms.

What was more, few got to watch Gavaskar s contemporaries Richards, Greg Chappell, Javed Miandad unless they played India. Or Imran Khan, Ian Botham, and Richard Hadlee, let alone Clive Rice.

Had Indians seen Richards plunder the English bowling in 1976, Gavaskar s stature would probably not have been the same. Had satellite television brought Imran of 1988 from the Caribbean to living-rooms, or Hadlee through the 1980s, Kapil would possibly not have been hero-worshipped.

Tendulkar was the first Indian cricketer to start in an era when he did not have this massive advantage: every contemporary of his was seen and scrutinised and compared to him, thanks to cable TV. From Lara to Ponting to the Waughs.

Gavaskar and Kapil were heroes for select few, who scanned the last page of newspapers, maintained (or scrupulously ignored) records and thronged to grounds. For most, they were an outcome of what these select few projected.

Tendulkar s talents and shortcomings were there, for everyone to see.

Tendulkar vs Lara in 1994-95, thus, was the first great cricket contest telecast all over India, catered to by improved Doordarshan v2.0. Millions were glued to television sets. The telecast, by now, had reached unprecedented standards in the country. Television sets were sold like never before. ESPN arrived in India.

India saw Tendulkar bat in colour. There were proper scoreboards. During England s India tour of 1992-93, Sky Sports had already shown the standards live telecast can achieve. ESPN made sure that the quality did not suffer. And Doordarshan surpassed all expectations.

Now, finally, Indians watched their hero as one of flesh and blood, pitted against his greatest rival. It was not about who emerged on top; it was about the spectacle.

Tendulkar was viewed more than any of his predecessors. Tendulkar made dinner plates make a seamless transition from dining tables to living rooms; and he did that to several households who hardly cared about cricket till Tendulkar peaked.

As was inevitable with the rapidly increasing popularity, cricket became showbiz. Cricketers became products. And Mark Mascarenhas made sure Hailing from the most-populated cricket playing nation, Sachin became the first super-product of cricket.

By the time World Cup 1996 arrived, the erstwhile 16-year-old that mothers wanted to force-feed homemade food, the teenager who wore Action Shoes to save a child and claimed that Boost was the secret of his and Kapil’s energy, now looked back at India from every billboard. Brand Tendulkar had arrived.

But something more had also happened. A new word something never used in cricket as per my knowledge was used to refer to Tendulkar.

God.

Not that God-hood did not exist earlier. After all, people flocked for a darshan of Gavaskar in the 1970s. Superstars in India, from politics, cricket and Bollywood, all had to deal with this phenomenon.

But this was the first time the divine term was used for one person.

Nothing official

India were heartbroken after being knocked out of the 1996 World Cup, but not before they saw three spectacular Tendulkar performances, one against Australia and two against Sri Lanka.

But before that, something happened. After Coke clinched official sponsorship for the World Cup, Pepsi ran a string of commercials with the tagline Nothing Official About It. There were seven advertisements; one of them was a collage, while the other six featured Walsh, Bishop, Dominic Cork, Dickie Bird, Azhar, and Sachin.

Take a moment to recall the Tendulkar commercial. Tendulkar, full of boyish mischief, is at street cricket, lofting the ball to glory. He smashes the windscreen of a carrier full of Pepsi. The owner of the van, a Sardar, is obviously agitated, but offers Sachin a Pepsi once he realises who the culprit was.

We will come back to this commercial later. Meanwhile, let us move on, for there was cricket to look forward to after the World Cup. There was Tendulkar to look forward to.

Converting stones into milestones

The 122 at Edgbaston, when none of his teammates reached 20, was among the best, as was the 169 at Newlands. There were those desert-storms. There were many, many assaults that Shane Warne is not likely to forget anytime. There was a dazzling hundred at MCG. There was that 136 at Chepauk played under severe back pain, and that 97 against South Africa at Wankhede. And more. In most of these innings, the gulf between him and his teammates was vivid enough for all to see.

He was made captain, and failed with the bat during his phase to the extent that he averaged only 51.35 while leading. Captaincy took a toll, they said. In all fairness, during his first stint as captain, he led India to home victories against Australia (albeit in a one-off Test) and South Africa.

He could not win a series in South Africa a feat no Indian captain has managed to achieve till date; and he lost in West Indies, where he was crippled by the loss of Javagal Srinath. His second stint was much poorer, though, once again, he was up against two champion teams.

He was sacked as captain, and sought out poor Warne for vengeance. That phase of cricket has been chronicled too vividly for a recollection here.

But despite the series, the Tendulkar image was not the same anymore.

What happened, all of a sudden? Tendulkar s form was certainly not on the wane. While India were finding new ways to criticise him, he was busy regaining from and relinquishing to Lara the No. 1 spot in ICC World Rankings.

Perhaps inevitability had struck. The brickbats were probably triggered by the two new Indian heroes, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. Of course, Mohammad Azharuddin was always there, but being an Azhar fan seldom had to do with numbers.

Perhaps it was because India could finally afford to relax, with the arrival of their new heroes.

Being a Tendulkar fan was no longer fashionable. Reebok had already assigned sobriquets to Dravid (The Wall), Azhar (The Assassin), and Anil Kumble (The Viper); the Leo Burnett team the brain behind the campaign claim they had one for Srinath as well. While few remember the others, The Wall stuck in public memory. Seldom do people remember that the name was the result of a Reebok ad campaign.

Do note the names Reebok sought out for the campaign. The captain along with the finest fast bowler and spinner. Tendulkar should ideally have been the fourth, but Reebok probably wanted a parallel, a rival for the Brand one associated with the great man.

Whatever was the reason, The Wall grew in stature. At this stage of his career, Dravid had played only one defining innings, at New Wanderers in 1996-97. His 1998-99 heroics in New Zealand were a thing of the future. But thanks to Reebok (and television), Dravid had acquired the image of an invincible; to his credit, he stretched himself beyond his limits to make sure he did justice to the name till his peak started in the early 2000s.

The Wall has become synonymous with him and has created the perception of defender against dangerous foreign attacks, even though records show that Dravid performed quite poorly against South Africa and Australia, and when he travelled to Sri Lanka. Yes, he made a lot of runs in 2003-04 in Australia, but that was when McGrath, Warne and (during the Adelaide Test) Brett Lee were absent from the attack. His overall record against the best sides of his time remain ordinary. The Wall brand, however, remains intact.

But let us get back to the late 1990s. Pepsi came to the fray as well, joining the Reebok tune. They got Dravid to practise batting, not yielding to the temptations of fashion or dancing women around him. He batted on, as if there was no end to it. The Gentleman brand was also getting built. Do note that commercial was aired less than two years after Tendulkar’s Nothing Official About It campaign. The contrast is not a coincidence. There was a conscious marketing strategy to project Dravid as a parallel to Tendulkar.

But let us get back to Tendulkar. Tendulkar was still India s finest batsman, but now his brand had a rival. Somehow, from somewhere, there appeared another tag: Tendulkar was selfish and played only for his records.

There was nothing new in this. The same strange story had done rounds when there were the iconic Gavaskar and his nice-guy brother-in-law Gundappa Viswanath batting together for India.

Of course, Tendulkar was no longer the baby-faced boy of the early 1990s. That image of innocence was a thing of the past. He was the bread-earner of the family. He was as prolific as ever, but was no longer a boy. As India found out, growing up may be cool, but it also makes you more open to criticism.

If Brand Tendulkar was built on success, Brand Dravid thrived on unselfishness. There was also a kind of innocence that one used to associate with Tendulkar. The same people who laughed when Tendulkar had modelled for Gillette alongside grown-ups (Kepler Wessels, Allan Border, and was Botham the fourth one?) laughed when chhota-Jammy danced to the tune of jam-jam-jammy.

Dravid rose in stature as India s new brand, despite being nowhere as prolific in terms of run-scoring. The fact that Dravid played bridesmaid to Ganguly in their first two Tests was referred to, as was the fact that he was the man who witnessed the two ODI triple-hundred stands as well as the World Cup 1999 assault on Sri Lanka from the other end.

A certain amount of the balance tilted towards the underdog. A small, specific chunk of Indian fans looked at Tendulkar as the usurper of the throne was rightfully according to them, for reasons unknown Dravid s. This, despite the fact that Dravid averaged 45.84 in the period between his debut and 2000, excluding matches against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, while Tendulkar had 59.05.

In case you are wondering, under the same parameters, Navjot Sidhu averaged 50.40, Sadagoppan Ramesh 49.58, Ganguly 45.61, and Azhar 44.61.

To be fair, Dravid s humility and hunger to perform beyond his abilities helped his cause, but it was probably India s perpetual support for the underdog that tilted scales in his favour. He was, after all, the ubiquitous support act at this stage of his career.

Bengal had found their long-awaited hero in Ganguly, and the fact that Dravid had ushered on him the moniker God of Offside helped him gain an all-India stature.

VVS Laxman was yet to play that one career-defining innings. And Indian bowlers, unless they were all-rounders, never enjoyed a hero s stature in India.

But despite Ganguly, who was scaling new heights in ODIs at this period, Dravid was hailed as India s great batsman who never got his worth .

ODIs, where Tendulkar was still so ahead of other in sheer volume of runs that no comparison will be worth pursuing for some time now, had found a new pin-up boy in Ajay Jadeja.

As for Azhar fans, they persisted. They still persist, despite the maimed image.

Brand Tendulkar was no longer the undisputed leading brand in Indian cricket. He had to regain his image. And despite the numbers and some of the most outstanding innings in the history of cricket, Brand Tendulkar s authority in Indian cricket was under threat, for no apparent reason.

Had this been due to a lack of form, it would perhaps have been understandable, but Tendulkar averaged at least 58 in each of the last four seasons in the second millennium.

What was more, if we go by ICC retrospective rankings, Tendulkar was still flirting with the No. 1 spot, Lara being his only competitor.

One must remember the projected image for Brand Tendulkar at this point. Pepsi roped in Tendulkar for as many as three commercials: one with Warne and Carl Hooper; the second, with Shahrukh Khan; and the third, where Tendulkar appeared amidst a sea of his own masks.

Do note the trend. While sponsors were building a brand for Dravid, Tendulkar was a part of the lighter commercials. He was often not the only star in the ad. While Ganguly danced (why?) with Hrithik Roshan for Hero Honda and slowly a brand-essence of The Captain was built around him, Jadeja flirted with Bipasha Basu in Close-Up commercials.

Pepsi s focus shifted to multi-starrer commercials, often with teammates fighting over a bottle and Azhar claiming it. The trend had started with Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. Once they roped in Ganguly from Coke, they run a string of multi-starrer commercials. Taking the cue, Britannia used Ganguly and Dravid together before expanding the commercial to rope Tendulkar in. ALSO READ: Tendulkar bids teary-eyed farewell to cricket

Consistency, as we know, is often boring. They lack the glamour of the tragic hero. Think Karna. Think Achilles. Or, if you need a contemporary example, think Severus Snape.

Ganguly and Sehwag

The uphill battle for Brand Tendulkar had just begun. Though Tendulkar would not exactly lose form, the following five years or so would witness Dravid reach his peak, and new heroes emerge, as Team India brushed aside the gloom of match-fixing.

Other brands emerged as well to catch up with the big two. Ganguly, left in the background during the 1990s, was now the new captain, and unlike Azhar, Ganguly made headlines. Ganguly did things (good, bad, ugly… let me leave that to your discretion) that appealed to the camera and the mass.

Thus, when Pepsi focused on team commercials, Ganguly was the central character. When they did the famous African safari commercial (featuring Ganguly, Dravid, VVS, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, and Mohammad Kaif), Tendulkar was not included. He might have been unavailable, but as senior citizen, he would perhaps have not fitted into the commercial.

Minor detail: Dravid kept wickets during the commercial.

Was it a coincidence that Adidas did their famous Impossible is Nothing commercial with Tendulkar roughly around this time, portraying that the world came to a standstill when Tendulkar batted?

Brand Tendulkar took a curious shape. The sponsors were confused about his role, which was exemplified in the hilarious Pepsi commercial on the Friendship Cup of 2004. It followed the usual tone, Ganguly motivating Dravid, Yuvraj, Kaif, and Zaheer, luring them with Pepsi.

The problem was placing Tendulkar in the commercial. Ganguly was the captain, but he could not bully Tendulkar in a commercial. So, as the rest of the team walked out in the end of the commercial, Tendulkar waited to deliver the punch-line. Problem solved.

Minor detail: Dravid donned the big gloves in this commercial too.

Virender Sehwag, of course, was roped in by Coke early in his career. Reliance helped build the one-of-his-kind, down-to-earth Brand Sehwag with the famous Sehwag ki maa commercial.

While Pepsi and Coke were rivals, Britannia was not. Keeping in tune with their earlier multi-starrers, they got Dravid and Sehwag to act together.

It was not Brand Tendulkar anymore. Till 1997 or so Brand Tendulkar had been competing merely with Brand Shahrukh; half a decade later he was competing with his teammates. The images were well-defined: Ganguly was the captain (remember Toss ka Boss?, Har koi Captain nahin banta?); Dravid, the metrosexual; Sehwag, the happy-go-lucky man; and Yuvraj, the macho youngster interested in electronics.

On a lighter note, Kaif s name inspired Lay s to launch their Saif n Kaif flavour, also starring Saif Ali Khan.

As the likes of Irfan Pathan and MS Dhoni appeared on the scene, it suddenly seemed there were more cricketers than brands, or it seemed so. Almost every second Indian commercial seemed to feature a cricketer.

Why, otherwise, would Reynolds pens choose Tendulkar as a model?

Amidst all this branding, what happened to Tendulkar?

Tendulkar continued with his usual business in the new millennium. One dazzling show followed another, from Bloemfontein 2000-01 to Chepauk 2000-01 (yes, he was the one who scored the century in the decider and battled alone in the first Test even as Laxman made that magical 281 to turn the series around against Australia) to Trent Bridge 2002 to Headingley 2002 to Eden Gardens 2002-03 to World Cup 2003.

Tennis elbow threatened to end his career when he was barely thirty. He recovered, but he was hardly the same batsman when he did. But he persisted. The No. 1 rank that was rightly his and Lara s in the 1990s was not up for the grabs anymore.

By 2008 Tendulkar had slid to 24th on the charts. Then began the next big ascent one that culminated in him regaining the spot in 2010.

And Brand Tendulkar was rebuilt.

When World Cup 2011 came, months after the intense duel with Dale Steyn, Brand Tendulkar was still around, but Adidas had changed their campaign. Bring it On started with the words It s a young man s game. He has to reinvent himself.

And then, after his retirement, it all came to a full cycle, when Aviva made wonderful use of technology to have the 40-year-old talk to his teenaged version.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)