The price of tampering with a god

All hell broke loose when Tendulkar was treated as a mere mortal.
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The Independent Online

All the trouble happened because Sachin Tendulkar is a human being who is regarded as a god. It was a human being who fiddled with the ball in Port Elizabeth two weeks ago, it was a human being who had appropriate punishment imposed on him. But in India they saw only a god going about his normal business, and if gods do not transgress they certainly do not have judgement passed on them by mere mortals.

Tendulkar's status in his own country is wondrous to behold and difficult to overestimate. Think of David Beckham in England and multiply it a thousandfold. In a nation of a billion people the game of cricket is an obsession, and a religion, and for a decade Tendulkar has been its standard-bearer.

They could not, would not, believe he was capable of sharp practice, and the punishment of a fine of 75 per cent of his match fee and a one-match suspended ban was viewed as a heretical sanction.

If the match referee, Mike Denness, had penalised the other five Indian players but neglected to discipline Tendulkar there would have been a brief fuss but the sport would never have come close to the abyss down which it has been staring for a fortnight. Jagmohan Dalmiya, the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, might have been guilty of brinkmanship but in some ways he has only reflected the divine esteem in which Tendulkar is held. And of course he seized his opportunity to do so.

Tendulkar is a gentle, almost unassuming fellow, who has been careful to minimise his iconic status. One of his favourite phrases to try to put some perspective on his life is: "I am a normal person who plays cricket." But normality for him means never being able to go anywhere in India without being thronged. They come to worship, not to stalk. He has a ready answer, too, for anybody wondering how he can tolerate this oppressive lifestyle. "That is a normal life. It has been that way since I was 16."

He is unfailingly courteous but naturally distant. Such has been the splendour of his batting in all forms of the game – not serenely orthodox but clinical, exciting, thunderous and unbothered by bowlers with attitude – that it came almost as a relief to see him tampering with the ball. It showed that he had human frailties. Incidentally, his offence, while not to be condoned, was not so heinous that it is not widespread. Steve Waugh had it right when he said that if he did it he deserved the punishment.

The measure of Tendulkar's prowess is that he will not reach the age of 30 until 24 April, 2003. That makes him 28 years and seven months old going into the First Test match against England in Mohali tomorrow. His figures are breathtaking. He has now scored no fewer than 57 international hundreds, 26 of them in Test cricket, and sometime in the next three weeks will make it 58, 59 or even 60.

He has a Test-match batting average of 57.35, 81.25 in nine matches against England. It was against England in England that he first confirmed that he was in this for the long haul. As an auspicious schoolboy batsman great deeds were expected of him, but schoolboys have often failed to become men – let alone deities.

In any case, it was as a schoolboy that he first played Tests, at 16 years and 205 days old against Pakistan in 1989 with Wasim Akram hurtling in. He remains the fourth youngest to have played in Tests, behind Mushtaq Mohammad, Mohammad Sharif and Aqib Javed, and is comfortably the highest achiever of those who have been called on so early in life.

In England in 1990, there was an understandable inquisitiveness about the presence of this prodigy. From the First Test match at Lord's it was blindingly obvious that here was something special when he clung on at knee height to a one-handed catch for which he had had to run for 30 yards from wide long-off. It got rather lost in celebrations of Graham Gooch's 333 and 123, but Allan Lamb, who had hit the straight drive, can probably still not believe it.

On the last afternoon at Old Trafford that August the home side were running away with it when Tendulkar came in at 109 for 4, which was soon to be 127 for 5. He repelled boarders for nearly four hours, made 119 not out, became the second youngest Test centurion, and earnt India a draw. He has never since been out of the cricketing consciousness.

Perhaps his most resplendent innings (so far) was the unbeaten 155 he made against Australia in Madras (now Chennai) in March 1998. He had failed in the first innings, a victim of Shane Warne, but his revenge was immediate and substantial. His innings lasted just 191 balls, and Warne went for 122 from 30 overs.

Tendulkar cannot be intimidated by sledging, stares or mistakes. The South Africans tried it in the recent, bitter series which caused the disputes of the past fortnight. Tendulkar did not give them the pleasure of a response, either in his eyes or his body language.

He can still be guilty, however, of playing too many shots. The back-foot slash outside off stump can induce his downfall if he is in the mood. Although it had been thought that he had reached a stage where he was content to wear attacks down rather than attempt to impose his own mastery, the evidence is not yet overwhelming.

That he will overtake all India's batting records is certain. He is 3,010 runs behind their leading scorer, Sunil Gavaskar, and with the increase in the number of Test matches India are likely to play will presumably overtake that before he is 34. His desire is still intact, fuelled by the hero worship (which, again, shows his humanity).

"I realise people expect me to do well all the time. That is to be expected because everybody follows cricket in India. So I try to do the best I can but I don't think of it too much in the sense that I don't let it weigh on me much or bother me."

He spoke those words three years ago and his situation is exactly unchanged and unchanging. Still the level of his performance is phenomenal, still he keeps on producing. His average in winning Tests is 58, in drawn ones it is 76, and in losing ones it is a mere 41.80: that is why his success is so important to his side.

As captain he was a failure, partly because he is neither a formidable tactician nor communicator, partly because the selectors dared to interfere even with the great Sachin. India won only four of the 25 Test matches in which he led them.

Now he is coming home once more. He will receive a welcome fit for a god. It has to be fervently hoped that he will behave like one throughout the series. If the human should show through and he commits a misdemeanour, and the referee has to impose that suspended one-match ban, all hell will break loose again.