Category Archives: Sachin Tendulkar

It’s OK Maria Sharapova Doesn’t Know Sachin Tendulkar

It’s summertime in Boston, which means (a) I don’t any classes or homework and (b) I want to return to some blogging. Before we get to the serious stuff (i.e., India v. England), I wanted to say: It’s totally O.K. that Maria Sharapova doesn’t know who Sachin Tendulkar is. (In case you didn’t hear, someone at a press conference told Sharapova that David Beckham and Sachin Tendulkar had walked in during one of her matches. This person then asked, You know Sachin? And Sharapova said, basically, Nope.)

Apparently, the Internet–or at least, the part of it that Indians read and use–experienced a minor explosion, featuring not-so-funny, anti-Russian, vaguely misogynistic, and often childish memes about how, no no no, you got it all wrong Maria, Sachin doesn’t know who you are. Sure, some of the stuff is innocent enough, but this little e-fracas gets to a larger problem for Indian cricket fans: Basically, India isn’t very good at any international sport other than cricket. We used to be really good at field hockey, and we’re sort of getting better at badminton, but other than that, we’re a blip. Now, we are reasonably good at cricket, but unfortunately, Indians account for maybe 95% of global cricket fans. Which means that something that many (male) Indians care about–often very deeply and passionately and unreasonably–is just another thing that the rest of the world doesn’t. And a lot of these folks, fed almost daily on headlines proclaiming India’s growing global importance, can’t handle being insignificant.

There are two immature ways that Indian cricket fans come to terms with their (and their sport’s) relative irrelevance. One is to suggest, as some BCCI officials apparently did at the ICC, that India doesn’t need the world and can simply do what the Americans have done with their sports — draw tons of foreign stars to domestic cricket leagues and just call these events “world series.” (The same emotional impulse occasionally leads Indian fans to defend the BCCI for sticking up to those dastardly white cricket nations that, many years ago, treated us like shit.)

The other way is to elevate their favorite cricket stars, like Sachin, to some mythical god-like status and exaggerate their importance so we feel better. Don’t get me wrong: Sachin was a great player (scroll down and you’ll see I believe it!). But we Indian cricket fans will be on a sounder psychological footing if we accept that we’re big fish in a relatively small pond, and that’s totally OK. We like this crazy game that seemingly no one else seems to get (other than, ironically, rich old members of the All England Tennis Club, who applauded Tendulkar’s entrance). And years from now, we’ll be telling our kids how, once upon a time, a 16-year-old Bombay middle-class guy with untamed hair became the greatest batsman in the world, and he’s our little secret.


What Set Sachin Apart

I wanted to return from my blog sabbatical to comment, briefly, on Sachin’s retirement. Much has already been said, and much of it has been quite moving and well-written, but I want to ask: Compared to Ponting or Dravid–No. 2 and No. 3 in the all-time batting runs category–why did Tendulkar enjoy such a visceral connection with cricketing fans? Hypotheses:

1) Sheer longevity: I forget the statistic, but a huge percentage of India’s population is under the age of 30. For them, Tendulkar has been around since childhood, an impressionable period. The other members of the Fab Four did not emerge until the mid-1990s, and even then, they were not fully established as legends until the early 2000s.

2) Better than the rest: This is a less obvious point than it seems. For a long time, Sachin was by far the best player in the Indian team. That was not the case for Ponting, who was indeed excellent, but also surrounded by Australian riches. I would not say Sachin ended his career as the best player; indeed, I think for a portion of time, Dravid really deserved more respect than he got–but compared to the general mediocrity of the 1990s, “Tendu and Ten Don’t” spoke to the gap between India’s potential and its (rather depressing) reality.

3) The Kallis Factor: Jacques Kallis should be regarded by all as the foremost cricketer of his generation. There’s no arguing with the statistics, and there’s no doubt that the South African team would be much, much weaker without him. The reason no one talks about Kallis, however, is that he is South African, an excellent cricketing nation, but also, in the grand scheme of things, a backwater. (Don’t misunderstand me — I love South African cricket, and I’d rather watch its variety, but cricket is not the No. 1 sport in South Africa.) To be on top in India guarantees at least 500 million people care about you; to be on top in South Africa means…what?

4) Believing in Magic: Tendulkar was fortunate to play for India because in the rest of the cricketing world, God is dead. Other preeminent cricketers, many equally capable as Tendulkar, will never capture his scale of public adulation because irony and cynicism are much more potent factors in other countries. I wonder, however, if in the age of mass advertising and the IPL whether Indian fans will not also grow more curmudgeonly. Is part of our sadness about Tendulkar’s retirement an acknowledgement that we generally believe less in magic now? That we have lost a sense of the transcendent and mystical?

Tendulkar Wants You To Feed Him

Dhoni, on his first encounter with Sachin Tendulkar:

“I think that was in a Duleep Trophy match in Pune in 2000-01 or 2001-02 season. I was in East Zone squad and was carrying drinks. Tendulkar made 199 in that match and he was batting when I went onto the field to serve drinks to my team-mates in the drinks break.

“Suddenly, he asked me, ‘Can I have a drink also?’ That was my first meeting with Tendulkar, my idol. I did not speak a word to him and ended up serving a drink to him.”

Yuvraj, on his first tryst:

“My first conversation was when I was looking at him in awe at the dressing room, suddenly he said, ‘please pass on the biscuits.'” To this Tendulkar replied [at the launch for Yuvraj’s autobiography], “I have not got those biscuits till now.”

Stop Blaming Tendulkar’s Non-Retirement On Indians’ Silly Minds

Mohinder Amarnath, now on a revenge comeback tour, says:

“Indians are very emotional and we hang on to our past,” he said. “Sachin is a great player, but one can’t play for forever. He’s not the same anymore.”

I’ve heard this argument fairly often in the past decade, and it usually comes from Indians in powerful positions. They say things like, “Indians have a hero worship problem,” or “Indians can’t think strategically about X issue because they just can’t calm down.” The subtext is the same one peddled by British colonialists: The natives aren’t really rational.

Now, yes, it’s true many Indian cricket fans are, er, passionate about the game. Western commentators often seem bemused at the open expression of ecstasy in Indian crowds when the national team does well, and the sharp silences that follow when the  team does badly.  I think the outpouring has more to do with the different social conventions of showing joy — or, really, any emotion in a public space — in India and the West, and shouldn’t be used as evidence for the statement, “Cricket is religion in India,” often trotted out lazily by Indian and white man alike.

At any rate, there are both good and bad reasons to keep Tendulkar. Even if you approached the problem sans emotion, it’s not clear you’ll get to the conclusion that I reached last week (i.e., sack Tendulkar). But the larger question is, Why shouldn’t we think emotionally about Tendulkar — or Dravid or Laxman? In the last fifteen years, we have seen the development of two — possibly three — of the greatest batsmen ever produced by India, and possibly the world. Isn’t it entirely natural and human — not specifically “Indian” — to have some difficulty contemplating the end of such careers? Imagine Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Michael Schumacher all contemplating retirement from the same team in the same year — what, are you really not going to be “emotional” about it? These are special people, and these are special times.

Keep in mind that Ricky Ponting, clearly past his prime for about a year, wasn’t shoved; before he announced his retirement, the selectors of a supposedly ruthless and hyper-rational cricket board publicly sounded their confidence in him. And when he did retire,  Michael Clarke started to tear up next to him. My point is that a) It’s not necessarily emotion that’s clouding the Tendulkar retirement issue; and b) Even if emotion were involved, there’s nothing deviant about the “Indian mind” complicating the matter.

That’s what I meant when I said we can’t get over Tendulkar. To contemplate his retirement is, really, to contemplate mortality — it’s a terror for the human mind.

Tendulkar’s Politics

I don’t really care all that much that Sachin Tendulkar is now a Rajya Sabha M.P. India’s upper house is, like most, fairly inconsequential, and one member is likely to be even more so. And given India’s tradition of including “persons of interest” — like actress Rekha — it’s hard to get too worked up. (I would, however, become more than a little worried if he decided to run for office; as a former Bombay resident, I don’t hold that particular electorate in high esteem.)

But the more interesting question is about politics and cricket. Is there any other team sports that more involves the perils of faction? Forget about the ‘outside’ constituencies — i.e., the board, the media, the selectors, the sponsors, the family (quite a significant list in its own right) — think also about the different camps that emerge from within. Your team is automatically divided into bowlers and batsmen (and if your country is diverse, there are regional squabbles to contend with). Even the batsmen have different roles — the openers can claim to sit at a different table; the No. 3 or No. 4 could be a diva set in his ways; and the lower-order may feel perpetually ignored. Each has specific needs.

A good captain has to manage all this, and that too, often while traveling in a strange land of buses and hotels. It’s an environment that can only breed resentment and suspicion. Which is why, I suspect, certain captains — like Sammy, or even maybe Ganguly — earn more plaudits than their individual performances may merit. This is a tough job — much tougher than occupying a seat in the Rajya Sabha.

Dealing With Ian Chappell’s Culture Argument

From one brother to the next. Following his younger sibling, Ian Chappell offers a more nuanced diagnosis of India’s recent failings:

There’s also the suspicion that honest appraisal is an accepted part of life in the Sri Lankan team, while the senior Indian players are untouchable and some of the younger brigade have succumbed to sloppy habits. There could be another underlying cause: the Sri Lankans are still owed some back pay, while in many cases the Indian players have become extraordinarily rich overnight via hefty IPL contracts. There has long been a theory that hungry sportsmen are the most competitive.

Whatever the reasons for the differences between the two sides, there’s no doubt Sri Lanka have an egalitarian team culture, while India’s is more conducive to developing bad habits.

I don’t know about the ‘hungry sportsmen’ hypothesis. On the one hand, if you strike it rich early in your career, you have an easier time disregarding advice and ‘good habits.’ On the other, money is a powerful incentive and draws greater (and more) talent to cricket. [And perhaps this is naive to say, but inclusion in any national cricket squad is about more than money — it’s a stamp that validates hours and days and years of practice, risk-taking and ambition. It’s proof of quality.]

But Chappell’s other argument — about India’s lack of an “egalitarian” culture — is now a firm part of the consensus. The idea is that India’s team doesn’t include 11 members striving towards a unified goal, but a collection of superstars who do what they want and have a supporting crew. To some extent, it’s unfair to say this is an Indian failing — any team with established stars will have a hard time accommodating them. But India is famous for its obsession with rank and status; recall Louis Dumont’s homo hierarchicus hypothesis. And think about the fraught politics: if Sachin Tendulkar isn’t performing or playing according to your strategy, do you want to be the person to tell him to shove off? How much room do you have for ‘honest appraisal’ when the slightest criticism could unleash riots?

Other than an aggressive selection policy that consistently rewards success and punishes failure, I don’t know how to change this. There’s some hope that after such a great generation of batsmen, those to follow will not enjoy as loyal and fervent a following as Tendulkar and Co. But I suppose this is the price we pay for superstars — they are great, awesome and talented, and at the end of the day, they get what they want for their wares.

The Right Time For Tendulkar’s Retirement

Devanshu has an excellent post skewering those who think Tendulkar has the right to choose his point of retirement:

I foresee new rules for the selectors. Select the players. Then replace them only when a player chooses his time of departure.

It’s easy to look at Tendulkar or Ponting and think that these guys just don’t know when to quit the limelight. If I were an athlete, I would hate to contemplate the rest of my life — what, endless commentary with the same group of insufferable people? Coaching a bunch of IPL dimwits?

But at least with Tendulkar, it seems that as much as Tendulkar resists leaving, we can’t handle his departure either. Part of this reluctance stems from what social scientists call status quo bias; as much as we recognize the problems of reality — bad form, delaying youngsters, etc. — we don’t want to deal with the messiness of finding a replacement. But an even bigger problem comes from a particular lack of confidence. Tendulkar represents magic and the divine touch; dropping him not only risks the ire of the gods: it supposes an arrogance — a very modern one — that we now know the secret to creating fire.

It is, in other words, a mutiny. And that freaks people out — so much so that they’d be happy to let Tendulkar play on and on.

A Note On The Indian Batting Legends

The consensus on India’s batting failures runs like this: They are clearly past their prime and need to go, but thanks for the memories. There are vocal minorities that push the harder view — Tendulkar isn’t all that; Laxman needs to be dropped immediately and can’t move his feet; Dravid can’t sight the ball (Ganguly even had the nerve to question his technique, which I found rather surprising). The overall narrative: These are aged players, they are in decline, India needs to be rejuvenated.

Let me propose an alternative story: While some claim these last eight Tests have exposed the Big Three, what if these men — through their sheer talent (and fortuitous grouping) actually masked the structural weaknesses in Indian cricket for the duration of their careers? What if these men, fighting an unresponsive and politician-riddled system, managed to take an always mediocre team and make them — for a brief year or two — unbeatable? What has been exposed isn’t Dravid’s technique or Laxman’s legs, but the fact that other than a few diamonds, there’s a lot of dust in Indian cricket. The dam, in other words, has burst, and our excessive reliance on these men — and our classically Indian tendency to worship — deserves more criticism than anything else.

There are many holes in this narrative, I admit: a) It’s possible these men, thanks to their deservedly thick reputations, managed to delay change and reform (much the way Ganguly resisted changing the ODI team under Chappell); b) Old teams, like old firms, are slow to adapt and move; it was common in Dhoni’s early ODI tenure to shift batsmen around and force everyone to be flexible; by contrast, no one dared suggest switching up the Test side because the “record on paper” seemed too good to mess with; c) The problem with my counter-narrative is that it doesn’t address the main issue — India’s bowling is the problem, not the batting (see Kartikeya Date for more on this); d) Why blame the system at all? Didn’t these guys come from it? Hasn’t it amply rewarded them?

All good points. For the sake of generosity, though, I prefer my interpretation of history. We had two of the most prolific batsmen in the history of cricket play at the same time, with a capable back-up squad that included Sehwag, Laxman and Ganguly — and all we got was…what? West Indies? Australia? So, no, I don’t feel all that disturbed by the collective slump — I just think we should be talking more about Indian cricket as a whole now and whether these guys carried its burdens for too long, not “When are these guys going to retire already and let Kohli take their place?”

Have We Hyped India’s Batting Line-Up?

The Reverse Sweep goes over India’s recent overseas batting:

For the record and in reverse order the sorry tale of inepitude against Australia, England, West Indies and South Africa reads: 191, 169, 282, 283, 300, 244, 224, 158, 288, 261, 286, 347, 201, 252, 246, 364, 228 and 205.

During this sorry run these are the averages of India’s top seven: Gambhir 25.00, Sehwag 20.54, Dravid 47.66, Tendulkar 42.71, Laxman 32.15, Dhoni 27.00, Raina 25.92 and Kohli 13.75.

That’s pretty damning, but the post goes a bit too far when it suggests India’s batting is more myth and propaganda than actual merit.* Here are the career overseas averages for the players listed above: Gambhir: 49.75**; Sehwag: 46.21; Dravid: 54.13; Laxman: 46.40; Tendulkar: 55.61;  Dhoni: 35.07. (I’m not going to include Raina or Kohli because they’re too green at this level.) Those averages don’t suggest a line-up inept in the overseas circuit (though, admittedly, their averages in England and Australia specifically are likely to be much less flattering).

So why do these batsmen suddenly look like they’re playing in 1990s highlights? I don’t know and I haven’t seen a good answer from anyone. I wrote in an earlier post that India’s team management seemed to think that the England series was essentially a fluke compounded by bad luck and injuries. You can see why they didn’t seek radical change: Gambhir’s poking around off-stump works well in South Asia, but not so well against the swinging/seaming ball; Dravid and Tendulkar look great; Sehwag is and always has been a lottery and no one — no one — knows what’s going on with Laxman.

Whatever the cause, India’s batting-line up now looks like Sri Lanka’s: it all rests and falls with two men, Mahela and Sangakarra (or Dravid and Tendulkar in this case). Get to them (through a volatile opening pair), work hard to get them out (by restrictive lines and good luck), and you have a suddenly weak Laxman, Dhoni (not the best Test batsman) and a tail that goes from No. 6 down. If India fails to post a reasonable total in Sydney, the counter-narrative will begin to gather some momentum and more folks will be talking about “flat track bullies.” Either way, the series will be lost; Dravid’s (and possibly Laxman’s) retirement will be hastened, and a generation of fans will ponder why a team with such obvious promise and talent failed to rule the world at the start of the 21st century.

* I think it’s also a tiny bit unfair: teams like South Africa, Eng, and Aus will have higher batting averages in South Asia because pitches there are generally more welcoming (at least for the 1st innings). [I’m too lazy to check this hypothesis out — am I right? Are subcontinent averages for batsmen from these countries high?]

** Gambhir’s overseas average is inflated by performances against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. On the other hand, he has done well in New Zealand and South Africa, which aren’t kind to most batsmen (let alone Indian ones).

The Sachin Tendulkar Milestone Obsession

I feel badly about Sachin Tendulkar missing his ton, but not that bad. Cricinfo has a very good story about the reaction in Wankhede when Tendulkar fell six short of his 100th 100, but reading it, I could only feel, “What is the big deal? Why so much emotion over another milestone?”

Here are  my theories for the scale of anticipation: 1) Tendulkar’s amazing career is nearing its end. We may have only a couple of more years with the man, but the 2011 World Cup (and the upcoming series against perennial nemeses Australia) mark a natural end to a long stretch of achievements. So, is this anxiety and pent-up hope all just another way to properly send the man off?

2) When I was younger, I always felt a tinge of disappointment at Don Bradman’s 99.94. If only he had scored those few missing runs! Imagine how complete and perfect his statistic would have been! Much older now, I don’t feel the same way — like all sports, cricket has a way of cutting down its athletes to size, and the drama of the perpetual pursuit for perfection is always better (and more poignant) than its achievement. But do we feel that if Tendulkar ends with only 99 tons (very, very unlikely), that ‘failure’ will be cited as a blemish on an otherwise sterling career? (Sort of like Federer and the French Open?)

3) It’s interesting that ‘milestone fatigue’ hasn’t set in. At a certain point, you have to figure there’s little difference between 12,000 and 14,000, or 50 tons and 55. But perhaps all this collective pining for 100th 100s speaks to the fickleness of the Indian fan. We want more and more and more from Tendulkar, or we’re bored. If you want to hold our attention, you need to keep performing.