Much before he commences strapping on his armour, a nation begins to prepare. Across the land in dispirited homes and listless offices, a strange frisson starts to course. The frisson has a hormonal edge, a near sexual charge. In pulsating minutes a sublime duet will be set in motion, it will play between the puissant boy- emperor and his loyal subjects. Soon the boy and his people will be locked in an intense jugalbandi, his every movement of preparation finding its echo in a million eyes scanning time dials, in a million feet beginning to fidget. When he shrugs his shoulders to loosen his cervical knots, a million backs will stretch in preparation for the combat. As he wraps on his elbow-guard, as he flattens his curls with a meshed helmet, his subjects, scattered over the different time- zones of his vast domains, will ready themselves in different ways, simmering tea, pouring whisky, and finally falling prostrate before the TV.
Brilliant men will take pause; important men will take pause. In tribute to one man’s magic, even the traffic will thin. In both statistics and soul, Sachin Tendulkar is not yet the greatest batsman to play the game, and he may well never be— the Don providing the one full stop in a game littered with question marks. He is perhaps not even the greatest Indian batsman to play the game— Sunny was a warrior of the highest rank, without fear, his talent forged in steel, and it does us no credit to dethrone him so readily.
However, all this is contingent on the "not yet". For Sachin is only 25, and what he is already, is indisputably great. (Comparisons with the Don and Sunny have to be seen in context of the pressure he plays under. The media glare is unremitting, the burden of expectation limitless, and the pace blistering. In their entire international careers the Don played on 10 different grounds, Sunny on 55: Sachin has already weathered 80 different arenas.) In time, he will be greater. In time he will create a mountain of statistics so high its crest will not even be visible to ordinary players. In time he will be knighted. And perhaps in time Sir Sachin will be greater than Sir Sunil, Sir Vivian, and who knows in some arcane reckoning even Sir Donald.
What he already has perhaps in more abundance than any other batsman in history is a certain buzz. It is what marks out the greatest sports legends. Muhammad Ali did not have the greatest win- loss record, but he had the buzz of greatness from the first moment he stepped into the ring to take on Sonny Liston; Michael Jordan has never scored 100 points in a game like Wilt the Stilt but he’s carried the buzz from the day he set foot into the NBA ; Pele had it as a 17- year- old. Sachin had it at 13, as a soft- skinned schoolboy; at 16 when he made his international debut he made it as a star.
What is this buzz? It is the X factor. It is where the analysis stops and the awe begins. It is the sense of a whole far greater than its discernible parts. It is Joyce without a dictionary. It is the outer frontiers of human ability and endeavour where ordinary humans can never hope to roam. It is the supreme admiration across which no envy casts its shadow. It is the promise of the impossible. It is god-head without religion.
It is this buzz that Sachin has, this lurking knowledge that he can do anything on a cricket field, that he can change the rules of the game with his bat— and occasionally ball— which brings the spectators to the stadiums. And also the connoisseurs, the experts, the players. The stories are legion of top international players stopping everything they are doing to watch this boy (man?) bat. Even the Don has nodded from his lofty perch. Six months ago, late one night there was a call from Wiltshire, England. It was the great writer Sir Vidiadhar, V. S. Naipaul, on the line. He had heard about Sachin’s back- to- back centuries at Sharjah, the first struck in a swirling storm. He had heard the boy bats like Bradman. Was it possible to obtain a videotape, on returnable basis, of those two knocks? The buzz spreads everywhere, and affects everyone.
It is to Sachin’s enduring credit that in 1998 he finally came to terms with his talent, his billing, and his place in the history of the game. The flicker of doubt that often shadowed his face vanished for good. For the first time the knowledge of who he is could be seen shining grimly in his eyes. A batsman doesn’t become Bradman or Gavaskar because he has unique potential; he does because he goes out everyday and ravages bowlers, and refuses to give them his wicket. In 1998 Sachin finally learnt to play by his own yardstick; not for transitory fame, but for permanent glory. In this, his annus mirabilis, the instinctive plunderer seemed to have learnt that the status he needs to seek is not that of a marauding Mongol but that of a grand Moghul, capable of both conquest and consolidation.
Through the year there was a growing feeling that the prodigy had finally come into his real groove, found his true metier. Today it can be safely wagered that Sachin will end up going places no one has gone before. In the one- day game, he could well end up becoming the definitive batsman, just as the Don is in Test cricket. In Tests, he will make more runs than Allan Border, hit more centuries than Sunny, and yes, make not one double century, but several, and for good measure perhaps reel off even a triple. This is not idiot fantasy, but a fair measure of the man’s worth and determination— finally in luminous evidence this year.
Above all he will continue to pack in the viewers as no batsman has in recent times. He has given us our most stirring moments in a generally gloomy year. And yet he can somehow make us soar beyond crass nationalism. Very often we don’t mind if India loses as long as we can see him conjure up one of his glorious displays of batting. Let him get out cheaply and hordes of us lose interest. Ajay Jadeja once said presciently that his grandchildren would not ask him about his performances but what it was like to play with Sachin Tendulkar. Indians are fortunate that the defining player of the era is one of them; and that he carries himself with a character and dignity first given rare contours by Sunny. Indians are lucky that a short, gifted man can, with a few swishes of his wand, take away the cares and drudgery of their lives and transport them to a 22- yard pleasure palace where the onslaught of disease and the price of onions is for fleeting hours no more real than a distant mirage.