Sachin Tendulkar: a big hand for the little master
It’s been a year of some very sad losses, so it’s something of a relief to write something marking the end of a legend rather than a life. By Monday morning, when India’s match against the West Indies draws to a close, Sachin Tendulkar will be a Test cricketer no more. For the 32,000 people rammed into the Wankhede Stadium in his hometown of Mumbai – and millions of others across India and beyond – it will be a swansong of epic proportions. After nearly a quarter of a century as arguably the pre-eminent cricketer of his age, from the biggest cricket nation on earth, sports stars simply don’t come bigger than the Little Master.
Tendulkar’s achievements on the pitch are simply astonishing, even for those with scant knowledge of the game. Since making his debut in 1990 he has amassed a century of centuries (the previous record was 35); he holds the record for appearances (this is his two-hundredth test (663 appearances in total)) and runs scored (34,283 – more than double the previous record) in international cricket and he is commonly held to be second only to Sir Don Bradman as the finest batsman to play the game. In terms of his superstar status in India, imagine combining David Beckham’s fame with Sir Steve Redgrave’s achievements – and doubling it again.
Yet in England, outside of émigré communities, it’s always been difficult to get a handle on Tendulkar’s achievements. Brian Lara we know and love, because Lara had both insatiable style and a sadistic determination to humiliate Englishmen at every opportunity he could get (Lara’s three world-record batting scores all came against English sides). Yet not only was Tendulkar not as flamboyant as Lara, either as a player or character, he rarely entered English consciousness apart from on a few rare occasions.
Not that he didn’t frequently hammer England: he did (oh God, he did). Yet, in testament to his mighty talent, the one team in test cricket that Tendulkar seemed to relish playing the most – above and beyond even India’s arch enemies Pakistan – was the Australian team of the 1990s and early 2000s. Tendulkar used to enjoy thrashing probably the greatest cricket team of all time around the park (his highest average for a serious test nation is against them); England were mere mediocrities to be dispatched with the same ruthless professionalism reserved for any other team.
The one exception to that rule came in December 2008, in the days following the Mumbai terror attacks. Tendulkar, for all his achievements, had something of an (arguably unfair) reputation as a big-game bottler and was only slowly emerging from a bad run of form that many thought would end his career. Yet in the Chennai Test, with England odds on for victory, he guided India through to a memorable victory, with another century and the highest run chase in Asia. The sight of Tendulkar dedicating the victory to his home city of Mumbai was a powerful reminder of sporting excellence’s ability to rise above the grim realities of the present.
That gift – near sporting perfection – was something that Tendulkar has kept on giving throughout almost all my lifetime. Was he the greatest ever? No, and he probably wasn’t even the greatest of his generation (though that’s a debate for another time). But he has always had, both on the pitch and off, class to spare. When the Little Master bows out on Monday, his loss will be felt deeply in India. But anyone who cares about real excellence should feel a pang. And bowing out at 40 with a happy family and second career still to enjoy? That’s a damn fine obituary to write.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.