Would I be a little over the top – or worse, jingoistic – if I say Sachin Tendulkar’s century in Chennai was one of the strongest replies to the terror attacks in Mumbai?
But first, let me take you back two decades, to February 1988. I was a schoolboy at the nets at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. I wasn’t very good at the game, so I spent a lot of time fielding, stopping balls stroked by people who could actually bat.
It was just a couple of days after two then-unknown Shardashram Vidyamandir students, Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli, had gone berserk in a Harris Shield game against St Xavier’s High School. The two scrawny kids had belted everything hurled at them to the boundary, notching up a world record 664-run stand.
It was all Mumbai could talk about.
Coincidentally, just a couple of days later, Shardashram coach Ramakant Achrekar brought his team to practice at a pitch just a few metres away from ours. Their regular pitch at Shivaji Park had been dug up, if I remember right.
Our net practice ground to a halt as soon as we heard which team had arrived. We asked – in fact, demanded – to see Sachin. Our coach walked up to the Shardashram lads and yelled “Sachin, ikde ya!” (Sachin, come here!) A small, thin kid walked out from the crowded net, reluctantly, staring at the ground, too shy to look at us.
Someone asked: “Ae, tu hain Sachin?” (Hey, are you Sachin?)
A slight, almost imperceptible nod was the reply.
We tried to talk to him, but it was obvious he wouldn’t utter a word. Unimpressed, we let him go.
Then, he padded up.
There’s one thing common about greats in any field: there’s just something different about them as they go about their work. Not necessarily an extra flourish, just an aura that seems to engulf them as they get going.
Sachin, bat in hand, was no longer meek, shy or unimpressive. My eyes popped out as he creamed every ball. But more than that, there was something very perfect and beautiful about everything he did, even the simple act of picking up the cherry and tossing it back to the bowler.
Sachin’s success and subsequent anointment as Bradman’s successor is history and doesn’t bear repetition.
From all the wonderful innings he’s played, there are two that I will always remember. The first was in the 1999 World Cup. He had just lost his father, having to fly to India in the middle of the tournament and then choosing to return for that was what the poet-patriarch of the Tendulkar family would have wanted. He scored a century in the first innings after his return, against Kenya. He looked up at the heavens, as if to say this one’s for you, dad.
Chennai, December 15, 2008, was the next. Mumbai had just suffered the horror of a terrorist attack that lasted three days. Two hundred people had died. The city and nation were shaken, bruised. A sense of fear and despair hung heavy in the air.
Day 5, India chasing a record 378, a score never before achieved in the fourth innings in the sub-continent.
Sachin refused to get out. The analogy his bat drew was clear: It’s a terrible time for the nation, crunch time for the team. But, we can win.
And we did.
Here’s the difference between Sachin and any other modern-day great: An innings like this by anyone else would be a cricketing joy. But such an innings by Sachin can change the way a country views itself.
I’m not saying the century suddenly made India feel great again, but in the space of a few hours Sachin made many people like me feel hopeful once more.
“From my point of view, I look at it as an attack on India, and it should hurt every Indian, not only people from Mumbai,” he said after the match. “I dedicate this hundred to all those people who have gone through such terrible times. In no way am I trying to say that this will make everyone forget what happened in Mumbai… What happened in Mumbai was extremely unfortunate and I don’t think by India winning or my scoring hundreds people who have lost their dear and loved ones would feel better. It’s a terrible loss and our hearts are with them. All I can say is that in whatever way we can contribute to make them feel better, we’ll make that effort.”
As Sachin says in his latest endorsement: “I play for India, now more than ever.”