When the time comes for Sachin Tendulkar to step away from cricket he will be remembered, unquestionably, as one of the greatest ever players. Arguably, however, the Little Master may come to be regarded as a key Indian figure for a much broader set of reasons. Put simply, as India has ‘risen’ in the wider strategic and economic sense, that national ascent has been matched and reflected in the sports sphere by Tendulkar.
Consider this. When Tendulkar made his Test debut against Pakistan in November 1989, it was just a few days before the then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi would demit office. Since then, Tendulkar has endured as an integrating national figure while V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao, A.B. Vajpayee, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral, Vajpayee again, and Manmohan Singh have come and largely gone. That is, while Tendulkar has been a fixture in the Indian team, he has witnessed nine prime ministerships. Further, he has seen the switch of prime ministers coming from the once triumphal Congress to the Janata Dal, SJP and BJP and the Congress again.
Some might consider this simple coincidence and, in some ways, it is, but the contours of that changing social and political scene may be intertexted with the cricket story. The starting point is with Tendulkar being simply the greatest player India has produced. There have been ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ players before and alongside him: Vijay Hazare, Pataudi, Kapil Dev, Gavaskar and Anil Kumble to name some. But Tendulkar is the only one admitted to the ranks of “greatest ever”.
Importantly, he achieved that status by appearing, for a very long time, in losing sides. Take one of his earliest and best innings. In Perth, early in 1992, he batted on the fiery WACA wicket where D.K. Lillee and co had wreaked havoc in earlier years. Batting against Merv Hughes, McDermott, Reiffel, Whitney and Moody, he made one of the greatest centuries ever seen on that ground, 114 out of 272 while players like Manjrekar, Vengsarkar and Azharuddin fell away. And he took some knocks in doing so. He failed in the second innings as Australia won by 300, but so did everyone else as India lost 10 for 59 in the second innings. But that first innings knock established him as a serious player, and he was still short of 19 years of age.
For the next decade, he was frequently in that position, the man around whom an innings was built, and frequently the only major contributor in a losing side. Yes, India won the odd series and tournament, but Tendulkar was invariably the player who showed signs of what India might be.
In an odd and different way, he has been the successor to that puzzling genius, K.S. Ranjitsinhji. Along with many other things, Ranji showed the cricket world what Indians might accomplish, and he did that by playing for England rather than India, so in that way was able to show countries like Australia a very different vision of India. But there was an exceptionalism to Ranji, in that he was the exception that proved the rule. With Tendulkar, there is more a sense that he is the exception who has inspired other exceptions.
That is why the political analogy here is apposite: in some ways Tendulkar’s trajectory has been the marker for India’s remarkable rise to world influence over the past couple of decades. He is the sports equivalent, as it were, to figures like Lakshmi Mittal, Aishwarya Rai, Vikram Seth, Ravi Shankar and Amartya Sen to identify some from very different fields. These are all people who, in their fields, have transcended boundaries by their performances but have at the same time shown what India might achieve.
In some ways, Tendulkar is bookended by Manmohan Singh. When the urbane economist was drafted in as finance minister by P.V. Narasimha Rao to begin the long task of economic reform, India was that bureaucratically sclerotic entity that many loved to hate. My own favourite story dates from the early 1970s when I encountered a colour television set in a home in Hyderabad. Having not seen one in Australia or New Zealand, I asked from whence it came. It turned out to be manufactured in a local factory, but could not be exported because of tariff and related rules and regulations that then filled several pages. Here was India’s genius hidden from the world by virtue of its internal processes. Those stories of innovation in India but hidden from the world were legion. Manmohan Singh began to change all that.
So did Sachin Tendulkar. On cricket fields around the world, he showed repeatedly what Indian cricket might be and was, in fact, working towards. There had been earlier periods of success but they were fleeting, some players showed great talent but rarely sustained the promise. Tendulkar, though, had technical perfection, innovative technique, enormous concentration, a quietly combative streak, commitment to task and an advanced brain for the game. It seems a long stretch, but that matched what Manmohan Singh brought to the economy and national life, but Tendulkar brought it to the international masses rather than being noticed only by the international technocrats.
Both figures began to be successful. India began to win important series and did that with more consistency. After a period in the opposition, Manmohan Singh became prime minister and in many ways began to gather both the benefits and disadvantages of his earlier reform work. He leads a coalition government which showed the changes in the Indian political landscape, and generally oversaw an India whose market performance became the focus of the world in diverse fields ranging from manufacturing to international students via IT and call centres.
Tendulkar, meanwhile, had in many respects now inspired another set of excellent players around him, like Ganguly, Kumble, Dhoni, Harbhajan and more lately Gambhir, Pujara, Ashwin and a host of others. This coterie began a series of great successes that took India to the No. 1 spot in world Test rankings and a World Cup win. Cricket became a major symbol of India’s new ability to achieve and to compete. At the heart of that lay Tendulkar, even if his prodigious feats of earlier years were paling to a shade displayed by the excellent and really good rather than great players. There were exceptional moments—his outstanding batting in Australia when India lost the 2007-8 Test series kept his team in contention and underlined his ability to perform away from home. Tendulkar has been the fulcrum on which India’s success has swung, in much the same way as Manmohan has been the pivot in the political sphere.
It is striking that they have such similar paths: both came to notice in the early ’90s and attracted world notice, both served to change the national pulse, both enjoyed major success in the early 21st century and, ironically, both face calls for their imminent retirement amidst team setbacks.
One intriguing point, of course, is that Tendulkar has strayed into Manmohan’s world by accepting a nomination to the Rajya Sabha. Some critics saw that as a cynical Congress attempt to focus attention away from some of its internal troubles, but others again saw the appointment as a recognition of the symbolic power Tendulkar has amassed in India through his representations of its potential. In another strand, Sachin has always been perhaps the focal point of the periodic Indo-Pak series which carry as much political as sporting significance, especially now that his early rival Imran Khan has political aspirations in Pakistan.
Tendulkar, then, will and should be regarded as one of the most outstanding cricketers of all time. He is in that regard a global as well as an Indian figure. But he has been much more than that, and may continue to be so in future. He has been the sign of what India can achieve in a competitive world, and that is why he has won the riches and awards that signify more than a mere sport. He has made it possible for India to compete at the highest level of cricket, and has inspired the mass support that goes to cricketers in a way that is matched, in a different style, by the examples set by the Ambanis and the Tatas, and all those other Indians now dominating their fields around the world. Sachin Tendulkar has been a truly transformative national and global figure.
(Stoddart is one of the world’s foremost sports scholars and author of many books on cricket, society and politics.)