December 12, 2019
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Prisoner At Home

Sachin's genius belongs to a new global cricket, the globe needs to see more of it

Prisoner At Home
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THERE'S always a sense of the miraculous in the appearance of great geniuses in sport or the arts. Their power to confound and transform our expectations makes it seem as if they had arrived out of nowhere. Of course, they never do. And Sachin Tendulkar, even as he outstrips all his contemporaries, is nonetheless a product of a time and place, and of a global cricket culture in a state of rapid but uneven evolution.

Look at the picture another way. It would have been cause for consternation had India not produced at least one global cricketing superstar in the 1990s, a decade in which the game has reached unparalleled heights of popularity and profitability in India and across the subcontinent, where 90 per cent of the world's cricket followers now live.

Gradually, the epicentre of world cricket is shifting to South Asia, and within South Asia, India remains by far the largest and most dynamic market. This fact of life causes much gnashing of teeth at Lord's, even as the English authorities seek to emulate their Indian counterparts by selling the game to satellite television and plastering every available space with sponsors' logos and advertisers' hoardings.

Of course, when it comes to cricketing genius, the efflorescence in Barbados in the '60s and '70s (the three Ws, Hall, Sobers, Greenidge, to name but a few) shows that size isn't everything. What counts is the place cricket occupies in the popular culture. And today, only in South Asia does cricket enjoy unchallenged pre-eminence among sports. In India, the game is a central component of popular culture; as important a binding element for Indian youth as MTV is for American youth. So Tendulkar has become the chief representative of a modern, urban Indian cricket culture, the most successful individual in a success-oriented, individualistic milieu. And, unlike a Bollywood star, Tendulkar can be exported. The idiom in which he performs is a universal one, readily comprehensible wherever the game is played.

Yet there remains a large section of the cricket world which has not seen enough of Sachin Tendulkar. His blazing sequence of one-day hundreds were struck in India, Sri Lanka, Sharjah, Singapore and Zimbabwe. In Britain, his record-breaking feats scarcely figured in the sports pages.

Indeed, there was more media coverage of his stunning performance in the Princess Diana memorial match—hosted by the MCC at Lord's—than there was of all his other exploits put together. At least that 125 off 114 balls—struck against bowlers of the cali-bre of McGrath, Donald, Srinath, Kumble and Macmillan—alerted spectators over here to what they've been missing. People had heard of Tendulkar's growing prowess, but few had witnessed it, even on TV. Like the Sri Lankans' vibrant display at the Oval later in the summer, the variety and aggression of Tendulkar's strokeplay in the Diana match gave the English a rare glimpse of the riches which are on display (at least to satellite or cable subscribers) week in, week out in South Asia.

It is, above all, across the scattered stages of the emergent new world order of one-day cricket—with its subconti-nental axis, radiating out to Sharjah and Singapore, Toronto and Durban—that Tendulkar's thunder and lightning have rolled and flashed in recent years. This is where the gold is, or at least where mining it comes easiest to the cricket authorities. But it's not just for selfish reasons that I would like to see Tendulkar's mastery exported more frequently to Britain, Australia and the West Indies.

Tendulkar's accomplishments flow from an almost frightening dedication to his craft, a dedication that breeds constant self-criticism and innovation. Without for a moment denying the sincerity of his frequent declarations that he plays first and foremost to serve his country, I suspect that for him, as for most great performers, the really potent motivating force is a compulsive need to engage with and refashion the refractory matter out of which he makes his art. In cricket, that means engaging with the toughest opposition in the most inhospitable or unfamiliar conditions.

Tendulkar finds himself a world star in a world game without an effective world authority or coherent system of world competition. For his sake, and ours, the sooner the ICC adopts a balanced Test league system the better. An integrated world Test competition would force the Indian authorities to schedule more Test series, home and away, and the English to face teams from the subcontinent (not to mention Zimbabwe) on a more regular basis, home and away. It would provide the ideal stage for Tendulkar, the modern Indian world-beater.

Of course, Tendulkar isn't the only great cricketer struggling to navigate the rapids, eddies and shoals of a fast-global-ising industry. Brian Lara too is a national hero in an international arena, and consequently bears a similar burden of patriotic expectation. But as captain of something called West Indies, an entity that has no institutional identity outside of cricket, Lara carries an even greater symbolic burden. In addition, the poverty of the islands, their tiny middle class and lack of infrastructure mean Lara can only fully exploit his talent overseas.

At the root of the recent conflict between the West Indies players and their board was the embarrassing gap between the status the players enjoy on the world circuit and the penury, parochialism and ineptitude of the administrators back home. The sheer size of the Indian and neighbouring markets means India does not have to peddle its stars around the world. However, this leaves Tendulkar as something of a prisoner of the Indian market, which may be a good thing for Indian fans, but leaves the rest of the cricket world poorer. More importantly, it also makes him something of a prisoner of the establishment, even as the sheer size of the home market allows it to get away with short-sighted scheduling and a host of routine inefficiencies. It's interesting to compare Tendulkar to some of the other sporting heroes of 1998. In France, at the sporting event which comes closest to meriting the ed that he only played under pressure from sponsors). In contrast, Michael Owen proved a sensation for England, and his world-beating, blink-of-the-eye change of pace has made him currently the biggest sporting idol in the country. The 20-year-old Owen has been carefully groomed for many years by his club, Liverpool, and like Tendulkar, he is unfailingly polite, warily diplomatic in avoiding anything that smacks of controversy, wholesome, patriotic, and very rich. Unlike Tendulkar, even if his national team fails he can expect to shine in club football, which provides an alternative international stage.

But Tendulkar and India are joined at the hip. The persistent counterpoint to his steady climb to this current mid-career apogee has been the disappointment attending the performances of his straggling teammates. Next to the English (who rarely win even at home), the Indians are the greatest under-achievers in cricket. Leading an Indian team in a sustained run of international one-day and Test success, home and way, seems to be the single most glittering peak Tendulkar has yet to scale. The preconditions for his even attempting to reach that summit are his reappointment to the captaincy and a change of strategy on the part of the Indian cricket authorities.

Cricket as an industry and a social institution is undergoing a period of rapid evolution, just as it was during W.G. Grace's long career. As a result, by the time Tendulkar retires, the stages he occupies and the audiences he performs for may have changed out of all recognition. Whatever else happens, the second half of Sachin's career is, therefore, likely to be even more challenging and unpredictable than the first.

 

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