Smashin' Sachin lifts a nation

Robert Winder reports from Bombay on the player the locals believe is unequalled

You could have been forgiven for thinking, during the build-up to last week's one-day match at Gwalior, that only two men were playing. India versus the West Indies became, in the eyes of both publicists and spectators, Lara versus Tendulkar.

One or two people tried to resist the tide of opinion. "Only people who know nothing about cricket," said Wes Hall, "think that this match is just about Lara and Tendulkar." But he was swamped. No one could resist the temptation to see a game that included the world's two most exciting players as a head-to-head. Cricket being cricket, it seemed likely that both men would fail. In the event, it was a duel in which only one man had bullets in his gun. Lara was controversially given out for two, while Tendulkar, dramatically dropped on 20, went to scythe a marvellous man- of-the-match winning 70.

Actually, it is not really a contest. The West Indian has not had a happy year, but most neutral pundits (such as Mike Atherton, for one) still reckon that Lara is on another level. He has, after all, smashed batting records no one thought would ever be broken. And he has done so in a manner that is almost excessively stylish. He already has disciples: one of the United Arab Emirates opening batsmen, Azhar Saeed, has obviously tried to copy that spectacular backlift. But no one can imitate the dashing speed and ease with which Lara toys with the bowling.

But Tendulkar is also a phenomenon (there is, in cricket, room for more than one). Certainly in India you do not find many people who believe he has an equal, and a glance at his CV is enough to tell you why. Cricket is a game measured, in the end, by statistics, and Tendulkar's record is almost freakish.

Here are the highlights: At the age of 14 he scored 326 not out for his school, Sharadashram, in Bombay. He was opening the batting, as it happened, with Vinod Kambli, who clumped Ambrose for six at Gwalior the other night. The two schoolboys put on an opening partnership of 664.

On his debut in the Ranji Trophy, India's senior domestic competition, Tendulkar scored a century. He was 15. He then became the youngest cricketer ever to score 1,000 runs in Test cricket. He was 19 years, 217 days. Two months later, he became the youngest player to have hit five Test centuries.

Since then, he has become the youngest player to reach the milestones of 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000 runs.

There is almost no end to it. Tendulkar played Test cricket at the age of 16, and scored a century just a year later (against England at Old Trafford in 1990). The only sign of frailty is his overall average. Up to the start of this World Cup, he had played 101 one-day matches and scored 3,202 runs at an average of 36.4 (Lara, in fewer matches, has scored 3,749 at 44.6).

But this slight fallibility is actually an essential part of the greatness which the Indian public has conferred on Tendulkar. His face is on hoardings everywhere. Hundreds - or sometimes thousands - gather to watch him practise, or just to get off a bus. Crowds wave banners that look like foreign currency transactions - 6+4=10dulkar - which seems almost fitting. Last October, he signed a deal that will probably make him the world's richest cricketer. WorldTel, the company that bought the television rights to this World Cup for $10m (and sold them on for $23m) will manage the marketing of Tendulkar, and have guaranteed the player an undisclosed number of millions.

The reason is not just that he racks up the numbers, but that he does so with the kind of spirited ferocity not normally associated with Indian batsmen. The Indian greats - such as Sunil Gavaskar - have traditionally been patient accumulators. Kapil Dev was idolised for his six-hitting, and now Tendulkar, who initially seemed like a classical strokeplayer, has turned into a bully as well. In one-day cricket he opens, and he does take chances. Occasionally, he is criticised for not batting long enough - but the crowd adore him for the risks he takes.

The other night, in Gwalior, Curtly Ambrose looked hot. He bowled Ajay Jadeja and Navjot Singh Sidhu with in-slanting rippers. But Tendulkar just stood there, unfazed, and punched him away to the boundary off the back foot. He stands ominously still while the bowler runs up, bristling with something deeper than mere cockiness. And the lateness with which he plays his shots often frightens bowlers out of their line. When Ambrose got bored of being drilled to the leg side and pitched outside off stump, the ball hit the sightscreen behind the bowler almost before anyone moved.

With his strong bottom hand (you can see the top of his bat handle above his gloves) he looks as though he will hit everything through midwicket, and he does. He waits for good-length balls and wrists them off the top of the bounce with crushing timing. But he can also keep the bat Meccano- straight when he wants to. Not for him the dabs and slices favoured by English players: he meets the ball emphatically, with a bat that looks wider than other people's. He does not just use the pace of the ball, he returns it with interest.

Today, he finds himself involved in another duel: Tendulkar versus Warne. It ought to be a good one. Only one thing is certain. If - Shiva forbid - Sachin is out, the silence will be stunning. With Indian crowds, his exalted status is not merely a matter of opinion. It is an article of faith. Smashin' Sachin, they call him. It is quite a burden to carry. He is only 22, after all.

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