REMAINING ALWAYS YOUNG

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By Raju Mukherji recalls his interactions with a great cricketer and an extraordinary person
  • Published 19.10.13
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My first interaction with the Little Master was in 1992. He was in England at the time as the first-ever overseas professional for the Yorkshire County Cricket Club. I happened to be the coach of Kailash Gattani’s Star Cricket Club on its tour of the United Kingdom. Sachin Tendulkar had played for this team in 1988 at the age of 15 and the following year too he had made another tour. In late 1989 he had also made his Test debut for India in Pakistan against the fearsome duo of Imran Khan and Waqar Younis.

Sachin had phoned to find out how the young boys were doing and if they were good learners. I was quite amazed to observe his sense of belonging and commitment. He himself was just 19 at the time, in a new environment and among hardened professionals. But he was genuinely concerned about how the young Indian cricketers were doing in the UK. I asked him, “Are you enjoying your own cricket here?” He replied, “Sir, cricket is not merely enjoyment to me. I worship cricket. It is everything to me. My 24-hour companion.”

Over to 2011. The IPL 4 was on. I was the match referee in a match involving Tendulkar’s Mumbai Indians and Kumar Sangakkara’s Deccan Chargers. On the way to the pitch for the toss, according to the custom of reminding the captains of their responsibilities, as soon as I began, “Young men,” Sachin raised his hand and said, “Did you address me as young?” Caressing my grey beard, I replied, “With my kind of beard, what else can I call you?” Immediately he replied, “One request. Please never shave your beard. Then I shall always remain young. You know some people consider me to be old.”

Behind the wit, there was, perhaps, a sense of pique. A very natural sentiment for a person who was selflessly serving the nation for more than two decades.

Another episode in the same match revealed the magnanimity of the man. At the toss, when teams are exchanged between captains, Sangakkara indicated that he had forgotten to bring the team list with him. This was a serious issue of code violation. But with the whole cricket world looking at us, I did not want to create a scene. I raised my eyebrows at Sachin and he coolly nodded that he was fine without the list. The whole incident took just a couple of seconds and the toss took place without anyone else realizing what exactly had happened.

This was sportsmanship at its best. For a captain to allow the opposition to delay submitting the team list is unheard of. But Sachin Tendulkar did it with grace and ease. I asked Sangakkara to get the team list before we left the field. The embarrassed Sangakkara was full of apologies and had the team list brought by another player.

Another incident is related to IPL 5. I found that Sachin was running on the pitch while taking runs. No batsman is allowed to run on the patch between the two sets of stumps. But Sachin kept doing it more often than not. After the innings, as the match referee I asked the umpires if they had noticed Tendulkar’s mistake. One of the umpires was Asad Rauf of Pakistan.

Asad laughed, “Rajuji, please don’t even think about it. He has been doing this for 20 years. But... no umpire has ever raised a charge against him on this issue because of two reasons. First... although he runs straight between the wickets, he never does anything to spoil the condition of the pitch. And second, we have such high respect and affection for him that we cannot even visualize raising charges against this gentleman.” This is the kind of regard and admiration our Little Master has earned from hardened professionals around the world.

Another episode in IPL 5 stands out in my memory. I had penalized Munaf Patel with 50 per cent of his match fees for abusing the Australian umpire, Rod Tucker. Munaf came to my room to plead, but so upset was I that I turned down his request. As captain of the Mumbai Indians, Sachin could have come to a ‘hearing’ to defend his player. But he did not. I thought it was very sensible of him not to come to the defence of a man who did not deserve any assistance. Munaf’s fine amounted to Rs 9.5 lakh. Tendulkar realized that Munaf deserved the heavy fine as punishment. The upright gentleman in him has no time for people, even colleagues, who commit crimes and expect sympathy.

In late 1989, he made his Test debut. At just 16 years and some days he was among the youngest ever to play Test cricket. The man who put him on the highest platform was none other than Raj Singh Dungarpur, the chairman of selectors at the time. Other selectors objected, primarily because of his youth and also because he was replacing a player of Mohinder Amarnath’s calibre. The rest is history, as the cliché goes.

Before the arrival of Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman, the young man had little by way of support as a batsman. He was among cricketers who spent time in conspiracy and conflict. To succeed in such an environment needed extraordinary fortitude and strength of character. The callow youth was expected to win matches for India on his own. He was fighting not only the opposition but also the corrupt within his own team.

That he survived in that ambience speaks volumes for his character. The 25 years of international cricket, from 1989 to 2013 (both inclusive), demonstrate his astounding form and fitness. Never once was he involved in any controversy. Never once was any doubt raised about the man’s integrity and honesty. His popularity is worldwide. Even battle-weary opponents have been known to be his ardent admirers.

Comparison with Sir Donald Bradman is inevitable. Sir Don himself acknowledged that his wife had told him that Sachin Tendulkar’s batting reminded her of Don’s skills with the bat. But comparisons between geniuses of different eras are odious. I feel if Sachin had been born in 1908 he would have achieved as much as Sir Don did. And had Sir Don been born in 1973, he too would have achieved as much as Sachin has.

Tendulkar’s social service is hardly ever reported. He hates publicity for doing what he wants to do for the downtrodden. His gratitude to his early coach, Ramakant Vithal Achrekar, is well known. He has not forgotten the man who helped him lay a firm foundation when he was a youngster.

Sachin’s respect for seniors is legendary. Time and again he has mentioned that Sunil Gavaskar’s mentorship had helped him. He has the highest regard for former players. In a country where Test cricketers are thought to be the only experts on the game, Sachin holds the opposite view. He himself was thrust on top not by any former international player, but by a first-class cricketer, Dungarpur.

Cradled in the best tradition of Mumbai cricket, Sachin grew up in the strong Marathi stronghold of Shivaji Park in Dadar, which has given birth to numerous cricketers of outstanding calibre. Indian cricket lovers owe a debt of gratitude to Sachin’s elder brother, Ajit, who understood that Sachin preferred the outdoors to the confines of a classroom. He took him to the no-nonsense coach, Achrekar. The low profile coach was sensible enough to realize that Sachin was a natural and needed more opportunities than text book coaching. He allowed his young ward to bat till the cows came home.

Now that the little-master-turned-great-batsman has decided to retire, I salute him for the wonderful time he gave us.