Sunday, 18 March 2012

Tendulkar holds his head high and his country low

This weekend saw Sachin Tendulkar - India's "little master" - finally register his hundredth international century. Thank fuck for that.

Sometimes, sporting events happen which you just know will not happen again in our lifetime, and in reaching this milestone, Sachin has achieved greatness. The last twelve months have been a ridiculous circus as Tendulkar became the centre of the quest for one of sports "impossibles". Tendulkar is often flocked by hundreds of Indian fans wherever he goes, his demi-God status preventing him from having any semblance of a normal life. Tendulkar's quest has seen his entourage grow to huge levels, as innings by innings, Indian loss by Indian loss, anticipation grew and grew.

After scoring a majestic century against South Africa in a group match at the World Cup, opportunity after opportunity to reach the landmark passed him by, first in the World Cup semi-final against Pakistan, then the final - in his home town of Mumbai - against Sri Lanka. Next was the disastrous tour of England. In his last appearance at Lord's, the (self-proclaimed) home of cricket, he failed again. Despite coming close in his last match in England, the country where he scored his first test century, he ended the tour still on 99 hundreds. Which was really annoying.

Then India came to Australia and, contrary to the insistence of their long brainwashed and deluded supporters, India and Tendulkar failed as, match after match, they were well beaten. In his last tour down under, in the country he has always thrived in, he was still left looking for this bloody hundred.

And then he got it in Dhaka against Bangladesh. What the hell? In the most unglamorous of venues against the least attractive of opposition bowlers, Tendulkar made history. Plaudits came in from around the globe, Sachin fans wept with joy and India as a nation celebrated. And then India lost the match. To Bangladesh. This has all been swept under the rug, and that is the problem with India cricket.

The next few years should see the end of India's era of run-hungry batsmen as, following the retirement of fellow legend Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar also approaches the end of his career. The moving on of the two highest run-scorers in Test Match history should be cause for serious consternation and worry for India, but it needn't be. The fact is, Tendulkar and co have been holding India back for ages.

The India media, in "control" of over a billion people, boosted by a booming economy and a need to sensationalise events to create drama to the millions of Indian fans who treat their cricketing heroes like deities, feel the need to stir up passion and emotion for these players, which often gets out of hand. As India grows bigger and richer, the need to revere these cricketers should decrease, meaning Tendulkar may be the last of a dying breed. As a result, cricket in the sub-continent is often about records, statistics and milestone, often at the expense of the team. Yes, Tendulkar has scored more runs than anyone else in the history of the game, but that does not make him the best player. To be controversial, Sachin's runs are at a slightly more attractive exchange rate than others, e.g. Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Brian Lara.

Sachin's century of centuries have seen India win just 54 of the hundred games he has reached three figures in. In test matches, India have won just twenty of the fifty-one games in which he scored a hundred. Added to that, his century against Bangladesh came at a strike-rate of just 77, a figure which would make Jonathan Trott look like Virender Sehwag. On top of that, in reaching the last thirteen runs required for his most recent milestone, he took twenty-two balls, which, in the latter overs of a One Day International, against very spread fields, is very pedestrian. If ever proof was needed that sub-continent teams place a higher bounty on individual records over team performance, it is Tendulkar.

A few months ago, Sri Lankan Mahela Jayawardene was run out attempting his ten thousandth run in test cricket, a run he was never likely to complete. A coincidence? Maybe, but the suggestion is that the Indian fascination with records has spread further afield. On India's disastrous tour of England last summer, as soon as Tendulkar got out, India went limper than a Samir Nasri slide tackle. Without their spearhead and inspiration, the whole team lost heart and incentive. That can change now if his team take off the shackles of the media-imposed weight of expectation.

I do like Sachin, he remains a very humble, generous and focussed man, with an incredible talent. But his exploits, although brilliant, have often been to the detriment of his country. With every hundred, each loss becomes diluted. There is rarely anything beautiful or celebratory in defeat and yet, Sachin's silver linings seem to be worth their weight in gold for his adoring fans. Congratulations to Sachin Tendulkar, but rather than signalling the end, his retirement could signal the beginning of a new age for India. That's if they get over the day of mourning that will be called when the Little Master finally hangs up his bat.

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