When a little kid danced down the track and clobbered Abdul Qadir, the famed leg-spinner of Pakistan, we celebrated. Even though it was an exhibition match we rejoiced as if a war had been won. And this was not about cricket. It was something else.
People say cricket is our national fix. No two ways about it. When we won the 1983 Prudential World Cup and every newspaper carried Kapil Dev’s famous grin on its front page, we knew we had done it. It was our way of announcing to the world – “See, we are world champions and you call us a Third World Nation.” The country was in a state of shambles. There was a civil war kind of situation, a religious bastion had been invaded, a Prime Minister was assassinated, there was carnage on the streets, poverty, corruption, and by the time the decade was about to end the new Prime Minister was embroiled in a huge arms deal payback controversy and the nation was caught in caste-divide. It is no wonder that cinema, which is considered to be a reflection of its society’s mood was mundane its best and worse than terrible at its worst. The previous decade was angry and it reflected in our cinema. But the movies produced in the 1980s were confused, like the times. The aesthetics were garish, the stories knotted into a formula or two and the music, cacophonous to the core. In the real world poverty and unemployment chased us like a curse, the media highlighted Godmen who became superstars, stories of reincarnation came to the fore. My understanding is that listening to rebirth stories gives us the fortitude to bear the present life.
So when we won the World Cup in 1983 we were euphoric. Cricket was the new calling card. Our hockey sticks were turning into match sticks. True, we hosted the Asian Games but like always hardly won anything. Our cricketing glory coincided with the advent of colour television. It was a colourful outfield we saw when India won the Benson &Hedges Tournament in Australia in 1985. Our spirits soared. We were indeed world beaters. But we could not exult for long. A certain Mr Javed Miandad happened in Sharjah and we also lost a much-hyped semifinal to England in the 1987 World Cup hosted by us. The curse of being hosts. But the downfall had begun very rapidly. The Indian cricket team started losing regularly the world over and whenever we met Pakistan in Sharjah it was time to pack our bags even before the match would begin. So, in cricket too, we were proving to be losers.
Despondency was the key when a young lad, much feted at home for his exploits in the domestic circuit left for Pakistan under Krishnamachari Srikant. We lost the exhibition match by four runs but Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar was on his way to becoming a legend. It was no coincidence that the year was 1989 and the despondent decade was about to end. It was in that tour of Pakistan that something else of greater importance happened. We all know by now how Sachin was bruised by a Waqar Younus delivery and despite being down for a few minutes, he replied in kind with a scorching hit to the boundary. That was it! Rajiv Gandhi and his role in Bofors and also India’s infamous role in Srilanka and VP Singh’s role in creating a caste-based nation were all going to get an antidote. SACHIN TENDULKAR.
The 1990s too began disastrously. Divisive caste-based politics raised their ugly head. The youth protested by immolating itself publicly. And Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. The mayhem had just begun. In continuation, a mosque was demolished. It wasn’t just a structure that was destroyed but a veritable end to co-habitation of India’s two largest communities. As if the marginalization of the Sikhs in the country wasn’t enough, the Muslims felt claustrophobic. Since 1947, the Hindu-Muslim equation was always schizophrenic but now the animosity couldn’t be contained. And the blasts in Mumbai shook the fabric of the nation, all over again.
But there was some positivity happening. Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao along with Dr Manmohan Singh opened up the Indian economy. It was a step in the right direction. Simultaneously, Tendulkar was taking giant strides. The old guard – Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri and Dilip Vengsarkar – were fading away. Sachin Tendulkar shone on greentops in England and the electric-fast pitches of Australia and he had signaled to the world that India had something to be really proud of.
When India won the Coca Cola cup sometime in 1998, there was an enduring image of Tendulkar driving an Opel Astra and his teammates hanging all over. This was the time when India was on the cusp of an economic turnaround of sorts. And Tendulkar symbolized it. He sort of proclaimed to the world, you work hard, you work well you will reap rich. He was already a multi-millionare before he hit 30 and there he was the latest pinup boy. His transition from an ordinary middle-class beginning to super-rich icon was inspirational. There was much to cheer now. The economy was shaping up well, there were more jobs in the market and towards the end of the decade there was political stability.
In the 21st century, the cherubic lad from Mumbai suburbs had become Brand Sachin Tendulkar. India too had taken giant leaps. The middle-class now could own their own homes, there were more jobs what with multi-national companies having stepped in, mobile phones and Internet had made the world a much smaller space. In short, the Indian middle class, especially in the SEC A region, was climbing up the charts. He was now more vocal. With the advent of the internet, he exercised his rights to speak aloud in blogs. Nothing was going to stop him.
But there was something amiss with India’s relationship with Sachin Tendulkar. People were beginning to note chinks in his armour. In 2006, the Times of India published a picture of him doubled up after being dismissed by Asif, a rank new comer then. The article cleverly was titled: “Endulkar?” Injuries, intermittent lack of form and the emergence of fresh talent were seen as some of the reasons as Sachin becoming somewhat unfavoured by the masses that adored him. For the past half decade, calls for his retirement were echoing in the press. Suddenly, with the advent of the social media, it was right there in the middle. People called him selfish, playing only for his records, regional so on and so forth. Every time he would score heavily, people would predict his failure in the next innings. He was even considered unpropitious – “Whenever he scores a century, India loses.”
So what happened? How did the relationship between Sachin and the Indian cricket lover sour? Was this just a case of irrelevant trolling or are we reading too much into the issue? Whatever, but there is one probability. In the beginning, Sachin was one of us. In fact, he taught us how to be proud and face all onslaughts with a smile and turn victorious at the end. He showed us how we could take on the world . So when he gained financial strength we granted it to him. He was one of us, after all. So, we celebrated his success. When he sold products, a lot of us were sold to the idea. But as the centuries piled on and new records were broken, we were taken aback in the rise of endorsements. The press told us about his wealth and slowly a sense of indignation stepped in. He was no longer one of us. He was now elite. Somewhere there was a sense of betrayal. How could this poor li’l boy become so successful that we could not even dream of emulating his success? So every time he failed, we celebrated. When India won the World Cup in 2011 and he was hauled on to the shoulders of celebrating teammates, we celebrated. This time not because he had a successful tournament but because he was about to call it a day. We were sure he was going to announce his retirement. But he didn’t. Damn it! And then there were back to back failures in England and Australia.
Finally, as Tendulkar prepares to play his final test series, there is a debate whether he called it a day on his own or whether it was at the orders of Sandip Patil. Whatever be the case, we have to accept the fact that the relationship between Tendulkar and his nation is a complex one and the assessment cannot be an open and shut case at any given point of time. Arguments and counter-arguments will continue over a prolonged period of time and his real contribution to his nation and the game a matter of perspective.
For me, Tendulkar’s achievement has to be understood in context of the times he started in. He was not just a good cricketer – he was an icon during a phase when the Sitaram Kesris and Chandrashekhars were our leaders, when terrorism ruled the roost, when nothing inspired us youngsters he came in and showed us how to hold our head high. He was much more than a cricketer, he was the man of the hour, of all times. What is his single biggest contribution to India? One simple, point, I feel – giving hope to a directionless nation of the 80s and 90s.