Sachin Tendulkar's story is the story of modern India, the India that 60 years after independence is emerging as a major power and producing iconic figures for whom the tag Indian is no longer a burden but an advertisement.
It is not without significance that, when Tendulkar became the first man to score a double 100 in a 50-over match this week, he dedicated his achievements to India. He did the same when, just over a year ago, his century in the Chennai Test helped to defeat England. The Test had come just weeks after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. For some time it was not certain whether the England team would travel to India.
Tendulkar had not only fashioned an unlikely Indian victory but he also saw his innings as providing some balm to the terrible wounds suffered by his home town. It was the clearest sign of how much he identified with his country and his country with him.
The gesture he makes after achieving a landmark score always sees him raising his face to the skies. He has been doing that ever since the World Cup of 1999 when he lost his father and is meant to acknowledge his homage. This combination of filial piety and patriotism makes him so appealing to the Indians.
A sporting figure has not symbolised a country in this way since Australia before the war with Donald Bradman. Appropriately, shortly before his death, the Don, still considered the greatest batsman in the game, anointed Tendulkar as his successor.
In a country where public figures are held in little regard, and almost always considered venal and corrupt, Tendulkar has a god-like status. Not even the most cynical Indian, a breed of which there are many, questions his integrity and probity.
The most remarkable proof of this came at the height of the cricket corruption crisis at the turn of the century when many leading Indian cricketers were suspected of having been in collusion with bookies to fix matches. I was talking to Raj Singh, then head of Indian cricket, who had given Tendulkar his first break in the international game at the tender age of 16.
His words could not have been more emphatic: "You know why I believe nobody can fix a cricket match? Because there is only one man good enough to influence a match on his own. That man is Sachin and he would never even consider doing it. No other cricketer is quite as good and no other cricketer quite as honest."
Indeed, such is Tendulkar's status in India that, on the two occasions that his probity has been questioned, India has been ready to forfeit a Test series. The first was on a tour of South Africa in the winter of 2001 when he was punished for cleaning the ball without an umpire's supervision. India exploded with such wrath that it became the subject of debate in the Indian parliament, the burden of the MPs' argument being if a man as spotless as Tendulkar could be doubted, then India's honour had been stained. For a time it seemed that India would not only abandon the tour but also sever its ties with world cricket.
Then, early in 2008 on a tour of Australia, the Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh was accused of calling the Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds a "monkey". Tendulkar, who was batting with Singh at the time, testified he had not heard Singh utter such words. For the Indians that was the end of the argument. Tendulkar had spoken, so Singh must be innocent. They were so indignant that the Australians would not take Tendulkar's word that, after Singh was punished, the Indians threatened to pull the plug on the tour.
This identification with the country has been assisted by the fact that Tendulkar's emergence on the world stage has coincided with wider changes in Indian society. In 1991, two years after he made his debut against Pakistan at the age of 16, India, under pressure from the IMF, was forced to open up its economy, providing the launch pad for the country's growth.
If that meant India broke free from its historically sluggish growth rate, then Tendulkar, barely 19 at the time, had also become a mould breaker. 1992 was the year he broke through a historic barrier in English cricket by becoming the first non-white ever to play for Yorkshire.
That season in England he displayed to the full the adult that was emerging. English cricket correspondents were astonished to find how polite and deferential young Tendulkar was, always addressing older cricketers such Geoffrey Boycott as Mr. When Boycott, showing him round his beloved Yorkshire, suggested he chat up the young secretaries by taking them out for curry meals, Tendulkar just smiled. But, later in the season while I was writing a feature on him, I was struck by the fact that he would not let my photographer take pictures of his bat which did not have any endorsements. He was eager to publicise cricket gear which carried sponsor logos, showing that even at 18 he knew the value of sponsorship.
Since then, India has emerged as the economic powerhouse of cricket providing more than 80 per cent of all world cricket's income. Tendulkar has become one of the highest-paid sportsmen in the world, with an income reputed to be $15m a year. In India, a Tendulkar endorsement of a product is almost certain to make it a success, and nobody who visits the country can miss the huge billboards displaying his image.
Yet during all this time Tendulkar, while accumulating runs and riches, has remained a soft-spoken, very correct public man who has never courted scandal. He is happily married with two kids and, unlike many of his contemporaries, has never allowed his public image to distract him from his job of making runs. There could never remotely be a John Terry scandal with Tendulkar.
If this suggests remarkable dedication, then that was instilled very early on in his life. His parents decided to send him to a school in Mumbai some distance from his home. But, given how impossible the traffic congestion is in that city and aware that travel time could eat into his desire to play cricket during the school week, he lived with his uncle near the school, coming home only at weekends.
The dedication soon bore fruit and Tendulkar was only 14 when he made 326 not out, as it happens against my old Mumbai school, in the process setting a then world record of a third-wicket stand of 664. Tendulkar, despite being brought up in the Mumbai school of batting where you defend before you attack, has been more entertaining, his style influenced by Vivian Richards, rather than his fellow Maharashtrian, Sunil Gavaskar.
Cricket-lovers may endlessly debate whether Tendulkar is the greatest of all batsmen, as the Australian leg spinner Shane Warne believes. But what is undoubtedly true is his ability to adapt his batting in a manner which almost none of his contemporaries have displayed.
In 2004, struggling on a tour of Australia and finding his favourite cover drive producing not runs but catches to fielders, he went into the last Test determined not to cover drive and ended up with a very un-Tendulkar double 100. The innings nearly led to an Indian victory and showed his extraordinary will to conquer adversity.
A few years ago it seemed Tendulkar was ready to bow out. He was not part of the victorious Indian World Twenty20 team of 2007. But in the past two years he appears to have rediscovered his appetite for Test and one-day cricket and there are still clearly peaks for him to climb. He could become the first man to score a total of 100 centuries in international cricket; he currently has 93. And he has yet to score a triple-century in a Test innings, Virender Sehwag, his protégé, being the only Indian to break the 300-barrier.
In the process Tendulkar has become the father figure in the Indian dressing room, an ex-captain happily guiding a new and younger generation of leaders. That is rare in Indian life, let alone cricket.
This, combined with his ability to cope with the pressures his countrymen impose and still set records, marks his true greatness.
Mihir Bose's books include 'A History of Indian Cricket'
A life in brief
Born: 24 April 1973, Mumbai, India.
Family: Married Anjali in 1995, paediatrician and daughter of a Gujarati industrialist. They have two children, Sara and Arjun.
Education: Attended Sharadashram Vidyamandir High School in Mumbai. Has been a professional cricketer from the age of 15.
Career: Scored a century on his first-class debut for Bombay – at 15 the youngest Indian ever to do so. At 16, in 1989, he made his Test debut against Pakistan, the third-youngest player to play Test cricket. More than 20 years on the statistics abound. Tendulkar's 166 Test matches put him second on the all-time list, two behind Australia's Steve Waugh. Last month he became the first batsman to pass 13,000 Test runs. His 47 Test centuries are a record. (Australia's Ricky Ponting his next on the list with 39.) In one-day internationals he has scored more runs than anybody – 17,598. At 37, there is no talk of retirement and he plans to play in next year's World Cup.
He says: "I just keep it simple. Watch the ball and play it on merit."
They say: "You know genius when you see it. And let me tell you, Sachin is pure genius." West Indian batting great Brian Lara
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