NEW DELHI, India — In the strata of intergalactic star power, few athletes can outshine Michael Jordan.
Sachin Tendulkar may very well be one of them.
That’s right: Sachin Tendulkar. Never heard of him? He’s probably the greatest cricketer ever.
For billions of people outside the US, he overshadows Jordan, Tom Brady, Pele and Wayne Gretsky. Combined.
In his native India, it’s almost impossible to exaggerate just how much Sachin Tendulkar means to people.
This month, he’s playing his last match ever, before retiring.
And the world — or at least a significant part of it — is coming to a standstill to mark that moment.
Bollywood stars are changing their schedules to watch the 40-year-old cricketer’s final game. Newspapers have argued he should be made sports minister. He has already been given a seat in the Rajya Sabha, India’s equivalent of the US Senate. A special gold coin is being minted with his face on one side – it was tossed on Wednesday to decide whether India or the West Indies would bat first for his penultimate game in Kolkata. The West Indies captain called heads and the coin landed Sachin-up.
Spectators were handed Sachin masks. A waxwork statue of him was erected outside the dressing rooms. In a pre-match presentation he was given a silver banyan tree, symbolising the resting place of the Hindu god Krishna — the allusion is not subtle.
At the end of the first match, two airplanes will drop 199 kilograms (439 pounds) of rose petals on him — a kilo for each of the tests he has played, and 199 Chinese lanterns will be released into the sky. The entire schedule for international cricket has been re-arranged to give him the chance to play his last game in front of his home crowd in Mumbai.
Still not getting it? How about this: like Michael Jackson, he has endorsed both Coke AND Pepsi.
The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar on November 18 will bring India to a standstill, if its firecracker feet allow, to watch its favourite cricketer stride out to bat for the last time. With any luck, he’ll make another century — an individual total of 100 runs or more that usually puts the scorer’s side in a strong position. He already has 100 centuries in international cricket — 29 more than his nearest rival.
But Sachin Tendulkar is more than an athlete. He’s the embodiment of South Asian ambition, an avatar of India’s emergence as a power in the world.
A creation myth
When Sachin first went out to bat for India, aged 16 years and 223 days on November 16, 1989, the Berlin wall was being demolished. The Soviet Union had just left Afghanistan. Tim Berners-Lee was founding the internet.
The country was hamstrung by the impenetrable regulations of the Licence Raj, barely able to feed its millions. India’s leaders were clinging to its status as the main non-aligned power by offering homage to each of the superpowers. Yet they were almost impotent against Chinese border incursions.
Things weren’t much better on the cricket field.
In the 1980s, India was usually among the also-rans, battered by the mighty West Indies sides, subdued by the Australians and snubbed by English players who declined to tour the subcontinent with its strange food and noisy, unruly crowds. A world cup win in 1984 provided a temporary fillip, but confidence was only a fleeting sensation for Indian fans.
Sachin’s swagger changed all that.
Sachin Tendulkar in Lahore, Pakistan in October 1989. (Ben Radford/AFP/Getty Images)
He announced himself in a test series against Pakistan, India’s rivals on and off the field. A Pakistani firebrand, Waqar Younis, bowled at the 16-year-old, hurling a ball that reared off the ground and smeared Sachin’s nose across his face. Blood dripping onto his white shirt, the boy picked himself up and smashed the next ball to the fence.
India had a new hero.
While India’s politicians struggled with a sinking economy, culminating in a bailout by the International Monetary Fund in 1991, Sachin gave Indians something to cheer. At first his feats were relatively modest. He hit 119 runs to stop a sure win by England in Manchester, then gave a similar performance against the Australians in Perth.
But soon India had true success on the field. Sachin was the talisman.
When India beat England in all three matches of their tour in 1992, Sachin led the way.
Cricket suits the Indian character like no other sport. The pace of the game is like an Indian wedding, which can dawdle for hours then explode into life, almost without warning. Caste and religion are forgotten when Indians take to the maidan, the large, no-frills parks where boys play street cricket with taped-up tennis balls and broken down bats.
Batting is an all-or-nothing experience. There are no second chances. Out means out, for the rest of the game. When a batsman is dismissed, a part of him dies, his chance gone until his resurrection in the next match — if he gets another match.
The pressure on batsmen is immense. Depression and suicide are high among cricketers. The risk of getting out breeds caution among players — a Moneyball approach that prompts accusations of dullness.
Sachin plays without fear.
His aggressive shots, his confidence and willingness to embrace risk make him a batsman who makes bowlers anxious. He has flayed some of the greats of the game, players held in awe by fans, oppositions and teammates alike. He is known as the Little Master, standing 5 feet 5 inches, a tiny figure against some of the 6 feet 6 inch fast bowlers he faces. But his small stature helps him weave and dodge so he can punch the ball to the boundary rope. Sachin fans have cheered when a teammate has got out, knowing it means they will finally see their hero play. When he gets out stadiums empty, TVs are switched off.
They pay to watch Sachin.
The 1990s were good for Indian wallets. Successive governments began to dismantle the Licence Raj. Reduced regulations allowed American and British companies to invest in call centers, while others looked at the billion-strong population as a new customer base rivaling China. And television executives saw the best way to reach those customers, who had bought millions of TVs to watch their favourite thing: cricket.
While Sachin Tendulkar was blowing away opposition on the field, cricket’s Machiavelli, Jagmohan Dalmiya, was doing the same in the boardroom. His predecessors on the Board of Cricket Control for India (BCCI), the sport’s governing body in India, lacked confidence in dealing with the rest of the cricketing world. They were awed at Lord’s, the “home of cricket” in London and the headquarters of the world governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC).
By 1996 Dalmiya had translated India’s passion for cricket into a vast TV audience that gave the BCCI enough influence to challenge the dominance of the English and Australian boards. Dalmiya was elected chairman of the ICC and began to arrange cricket to better suit Indian interests.
Sachin was a vital part of the plan. His popularity enabled Dalmiya to sell Indian TV rights for ever-growing sums. In 2012 Rupert Murdoch’s STAR group was prepared to pay $700 million for the rights to screen India’s international and domestic matches. Advertisers love the huge audiences, and they love Sachin, whose face has adorned billboards and featured in commercials for Adidas, Colgate, Fiat cars, Canon, Sanyo, the National Egg Coordination Committee, a brand of cement, and, of course, Pepsi and Coke.
He’s worth about $115million on his own.
Sachin Tendulkar celebrates after scoring a century during the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 match between England and India on February 27, 2011. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)
With money pouring into Indian cricket, Dalmiya was able to call the shots, to the shock of the old guard, moving the ICC headquarters from London to Dubai and allowing the BCCI to act as it wanted.
India’s position in world cricket is a fantasy of how some nationalist politicians would like the country’s diplomatic relations to be, with other national sides approaching the BCCI as supplicants, rewarded for good behaviour with a lucrative tour of India with lots of matches at prestigious stadiums. Those with ideas above their station are put in their place.
A month before Sachin announced his retirement, the BCCI decided that its team would not tour South Africa as planned. Instead, the West Indies would visit India for a two match series. The unilateral move may have bankrupted South African cricket, so reliant is it on Indian TV money. The South Africans reacted the only way they could — by sacking their chief executive Haroon Lorgat after the BCCI demanded that he apologise for some unspecified offence.
The BCCI’s move was widely seen as having been orchestrated to allow Sachin to play his final games on home soil, against a West Indies team which even its most committed fans would admit is inferior to the South Africans, currently rated the world’s best test side.
For not every Indian cricket fan is a fan of Sachin Tendulkar. There are those who believe he went on too long, that the BCCI indulged him in his search for record book entries at a time when younger, fresher players would have brought the team greater success.
Yet Sachin’s triumphs and enormous public profile have made him un-droppable; six of his teammates were less than two years old when he made his debut in 1989. One wasn’t even born.
It’s hard to remember life before Sachin.
His final moments in test cricket come at a time when his country is also feeling its way into the future.
The pace of the economy has faltered, and the exuberance of growth and the anticipation by some Indians that their country is about to take its seat at the top table of world powers is being replaced by a nervousness about what might happen.
Voters will likely be presented with a choice in May 2014 between a new scion of the old guard in the form of Rahul Gandhi, whose family have provided India with three Prime Ministers so far, and the seductive yet divisive figure of Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist politics make India’s minority Muslim population apprehensive.
Maybe Sachin will provide a third option.
After all, he already has a seat in Parliament.