It was the sort of summer’s day that makes you glad to be alive; but we were watching the telly. We would not normally do this. If the weather was fine, we would play games of catch on the lawn: my 4-year-old self hurling any object that came to hand at my 78-year-old grandfather. The old man would leap about for my amusement, often careering into my parents’ sacred flower beds. He would pooh-pooh my father’s concerns about the wisdom of these exertions, and ignore my grandmother’s distress over the ruin of ‘yet another pair of trousers’. My delight would urge him to even greater theatrics when their backs were turned.
But that afternoon, Saturday 11th August 1990, was different because a teenager called Sachin Tendulkar was making England’s finest cricketers toil in Manchester. Tendulkar’s innings of 68 that day is overshadowed by the match-saving century he scored two days later. Nevertheless, it is my earliest sporting memory.
It was heavy going at first. Tendulkar took an hour to score one run as England’s bowlers examined him. This was no spectacle for a toddler; but my grandfather, who knew a thing or two about cricket, gave me a running commentary that made me appreciate the engrossing contest. He explained that Tendulkar’s precise footwork allowed him to play or leave the ball on his terms. He made me see that Tendulkar guided the ball rather than hit it, thereby limiting its danger. He mentioned the stillness of Tendulkar’s head most of all: Tendulkar was in control because his head was still. This core principle of batting has not changed from my grandfather’s day to this; and, on the rare occasions when I bat, a paternal voice in my mind commands: ‘Keep your head still!’ and Tendulkar’s example comes to mind.
The Little Master, who has bowed out today aged 40, was among the first rank of my childhood sporting heroes. I venerated his serenity next to Michael Atherton’s cussedness, Brian Lara’s savagery and Ayton Senna’s madness. His retirement has made me revisit that afternoon in 1990. I can recall it in Technicolor thanks to various aides-memoir on the internet; nostalgia is only a click away for my generation — my father, on the other hand, has to dig into the recesses of time to recall a glimpse of Jim Laker bowling on that historic afternoon at Old Trafford in 1956, when Laker took all but one of Australia’s twenty wickets in a match. Dad’s version may be more romantic; but mine is more accurate, more accessible and permanent.
Even without YouTube, childhood doesn’t recede like it used to. Plenty of my heroes are still being heroic. Ryan Giggs (40 this month) is being wheeled out yet again for Manchester United. Brian O’Driscoll, who’s nearly 35, will play international rugby (rugby, for God’s sake!) for one more season. Jacques Kallis, the supreme South African cricketer, is ploughing on aged 38 and in a toupee. Michael Schumacher (a villain of mine rather than a hero) was trying to keep up in Formula One last year aged almost 44; it’s the only time I’ve ever warmed to him.
Twentieth century sporting greats like Stan Matthews and Colin Cowdrey played at the top deep into their 40s; but they were exceptions in an era that is, in any event, incomparable with our own. Modern sportsmen can play better for longer, if given enough luck and judgment.
Yet this does not mean that we have reached ‘the end of sport’. Gushing journalists have been saying that Sachin Tendulkar’s feats will not be repeated; but wiser counsel reckons that the Little Master may well be overhauled, just as he surpassed his illustrious compatriot and idol Sunil Gavaskar. Such eclipses are not extraordinary: improvement is the natural order of things in sport. The most ambitious players are not content to conquer their peers; they compete against the past. The game develops by their doing so.
My grandfather grew up in an age when Indian princelings played cricket for England, and fans went to cricket grounds to watch the match or read about it in a newspaper; meanwhile, the rest of India played its cricket in the impoverished shadow of the Raj. My father has seen Indian cricket mature since independence. I’ve watched Sachin Tendulkar, first on television and now on the internet, lead thriving India’s cricket to greater heights. But there is distance yet to travel. Maybe the man who usurps Tendulkar will be among my children’s heroes; his success witnessed via some as yet unimagined media. He might be an Indian. Rapacious cricket administrators dream that he’ll be Chinese. Perhaps the usurper won’t be a man at all. Who knows? The only thing that matters is that this superstar keeps their head still while playing the ball.
Sachin Tendulkar played 463 one day internationals and 200 five day Test matches. He scored 34,347 runs at international level (7,264 more than the next man).