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Lucky 13 or unlucky

Okay, first things first. Do you remember life before Sachin? If you were born after 1979, you don’t, not really. Same as people born a decade or less before Sunil Gavaskar made his debut have only a Sunny-less blur on their memory disk before SMG brought Indian cricket into a different focus.

Remind yourself of this: Sachin Tendulkar began playing for India at the same time satellite TV began to spread in the country; he began about eight years before the use of mobile phones began to go viral in the country and roughly ten years before the Internet began to wrap itself around us.

Since these are now the chief means through which we “receive” him, it is hard to remember a time when you could see a tender young Tendu batting in blurry black and white; when you heard about yet another unbelievable innings through a transistor pressed against a hot ear; when you juggled with the receiver of an old-fashioned land-phone, tangling the wire around your neck as you hurried to call a friend to discuss some crazily perfect shot he had played.

In those days, he had a couple of names that commentators used almost more often than his surname: one was “the Boy from Bombay” (soon to be mangled by settler-types as the “bwoy from Moombwoy”) and “Young Satchin”.

Looking back, it’s equally hard to remember the person “young Sachin” was in the first five-six years of his career.

I remember calling his agent (on a landline, natch) to get an interview for a cricket documentary I was making for BBC Television. “He’ll talk to you, no problem, but only two conditions. Please, no questions about politics or money.”

I’ve never agreed to anything more quickly. When we met near the nets at Wankhede, I was 34 and the damn kid was 20. Only one of us had his heart thumping at a dangerous rate and it wasn’t the short guy. Actually, I realise I’m lying: with me was my sound recordist Suresh, also a cricket bhakta, and he, too, was tight with excitement. That changed once we began filming.

A few minutes into our first interview with Young Sutch, Suresh was biting his lip and staring daggers at the wall. Answering the questions, Sachin was open, polite, composed, seemingly all there for us in body and mind, but, standing three feet away, you couldn’t hear a word he was saying! The voice was low, incredibly soft, and all the sentences were drowned in this painfully shy mumble.

The next day, we went early to catch him at the Bombay team’s nets. ST was giving team-mates slip-catching practice and making it tough for them. Bat held just so, precisely slicing the fast throw-downs at different nasty angles, the guy was in full voice. Between each throw, without looking back, he was calling out with perfect voice projection: “Ball watch karaa!” or “Jaagtey raho!”

Suresh leaned into my ear and whispered: “Aisa nahi ki uskey paas voice nahi hai, right?”

At the nets, we set up to film ST batting. I decided to place the camera at a slightly wide silly mid-off, but astutely with the net between us and the bail-bald stumps. Ranjan Palit is normally the bravest cameraman on earth, someone who’ll lean out of an open monoplane to get his shot, or perch on any precarious ledge, or stand up to a gang of village lumpens in the dead of the night, all of it without flicking an eyelid.

That day, Ranjan, never a great connoisseur of cricket, was slightly nervous. Tendulkar was practising against Bombay’s Paras Mhambrey, Salil Ankola and Co, then one of the country’s nippiest pace attacks, and Ranjan didn’t quite trust the net to protect us.

After filming ST middling a few defensive shots, Ranjan looked up at me. “Ei, guru. Besh hard maarchhey kintu. Ektu pechhoney shift kori (Hey man, he’s hitting them quite hard, should we shift back a little)?”

“No, no, I’ll catch it if it comes through,” I replied. Suresh, a Bombay boy who knew his cricket, let loose a high-pitched chortle and I realised I’d just uttered one of the silliest things I would ever say. ST was just warming up. Over the next 45 minutes, we were privileged to be in the close vicinity of one of the most frightening drills in sport. Three tall, strong, extremely lithe and increasingly riled young men repeatedly tore down the grass, one after the other, to fling a small, lethal, round red object at a man almost half their size; the short man didn’t get hit even once, neither did his pads, nor did the stumps behind him; the only thing that met the ball was the middle of the willow, unless the short man withdrew his bat to let a delivery go, unless he ducked under a bouncer, precisely, as late as possible, watching the ball rocketing towards his head for as long as he could.

I still remember the music of it. The bowler’s feet pounding closer, the scuff of the delivery jump, the soft thump of the ball landing, the hard, sweet tap of the bat, the sizzle of the ball shaving the ground or the airy whip of the net as it bulged, interrupting a lofted shot.

Every few deliveries or so, Tendulkar would impatiently skip behind the wicket and underarm the accumulated balls back up the pitch. There was a spring in his step with which we were already familiar from TV. Returning to his stance, there was the coiled stillness. When receiving the ball, the unfussy grace, the short, deadly, unified movement of legs, torso, arms and wrists that disappeared the bat for a millisecond and sent echoes cannoning around the huge, almost empty stadium.

A few years later, watching Sachin in a TV ad during the ’96 World Cup, I remember thinking about his voice, about how it was now so present and clear, amplified by growing confidence off the field and honed by years of advertising work. But then the ad ended and the cameras returned to Tendulkar batting. He smacked a ball for four and the sound sent me back to the nets session at Wankhede. I suddenly realised that actually, this was the man’s real voice, this sound of that heavy bat middling the ball.

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Like some time traveller in a Terminator-type scenario, it sometimes feels as though Tendulkar was sent from the far future of Indian cricket to rescue his ancestors. And at some point, perhaps after the 2001 home series win against Australia, perhaps after the semi-final win in the World Cup in South Africa and before the Jo’Burg debacle, perhaps after the 241 in Australia, Tendu should have climbed astride his intergalactic bat and left, lifted off and gone back to “his” time, keeping himself fresh for future battles for India. In recent times, especially after the World Cup win in 2011, it feels as if this man of few words has “said” everything he had to “say” and now needs to locate his escape-craft and go.

Like thousands of others, I too have had a “shopping list” for Sachin Tendulkar. Except for the century at Lord’s and the couple of big triple centuries or a quadruple (one of them at Lord’s, of course, the other at, say, Perth or Jo’burg, never at home) to match Brian Lara, everything is ticked off as done, all the wish-list delivered in spades.

There is greed for still more, but perhaps that greed needs to stay unfulfilled. Besides the greed, there is the fact that this figure has been a constant marker over the last 23 years. With Gavaskar, you could see the change across the years, the runs fattening him, the politics narrowing his eyes under that wide-brimmed white hat, but Sachin in the samurai armour of helmet and heavy padding has visually remained more or less the same and we’ve got used to him being there, a kind of visual constant on the TV as the minor upheavals of deaths and births sculpted the other parts of our lives.

In a period when the “me first” culture has exploded into an obscene scale, Tendulkar has signified two completely contradictory values. One is the huge bravery, the consistent heroism of the individual. But the other is the constant reminder that one can be both unique and yet part of something much larger: Tendulkar has been a team man in a way Gavaskar, Kapil or Ganguly never were. And he has delivered all that he has while handling the pressure of mass expectation that very few people in the history of sport have had to absorb. In cricket, only one other player, Imran Khan, has dealt with anything comparable.

Tendu has never been touched by the match-fixing scandals but other kinds of stories, the kind that attach themselves to lesser cricketers and far more shallow people, have begun to flicker in his vicinity. There is a firmly held view that vanity has finally got the better of the man and wide guessing that the new hairstyle has been put in place to hide cosmetic surgery, that “Sachin’s facelift is getting in the way of his backlift”.

None of it matters. Sure, for those of us who remain unwavering fans there needs to be one, just one, final great Test innings that contributes to an Indian victory. But if this doesn’t happen, we still have 20 years of the richest archive to which we can go back. Of course, there are people who wonder what this monomaniac man will do outside cricket, who wonder if the Ferraris and fancy meals will ever fill the gap. Me, I’m more optimistic.

In 1994, after the nets session, we interviewed young Sachin for a second time and his voice was much stronger. At the time, growing icon that he was, ST was surrounded by the Shiv Sena and the likes of Manohar Joshi (Bal Thackeray’s chief sidekick, then boss of the Bombay Cricket Association and future chief minister), who were trying to turn Tendulkar into a Marathi mascot. Babri Masjid and the riots and blasts that followed were still fresh in everyone’s mind.

As promised, I avoided any questions about money or politics in the interview but the short guy had a mind of his own. At some point, in reply to a question perhaps about faith, he spoke clearly: “I don’t think people should misuse religion for political purposes.”

We were stunned, stumped. As Tendulkar approaches retirement, I remember that moment. The man is at a place where he can do absolutely anything he likes. He has a mind of his own and possibly a heart that’s not just his own. He is not yet 40.