The 1992—93 season was an exciting one for Indian Test cricket fans. A lot was happening on the pitch. After a rousing 3–0 series win over England, the Indians were on a high. Up next were Zimbabwe, then the youngest Test-playing nation, on their first overseas tour at this level. An Indian win in the one-off Test at the Kotla in New Delhi seemed a foregone conclusion. That was 19 years ago, almost to the day. Mohammad Azharuddin was captaining the squad, Manoj Prabhakar opened the batting with Navjot Sidhu and the bowling with Kapil Dev. Wicketkeeper Vijay Yadav played his only Test. Vinod Kambli, the lesser-known half of the famous unbroken schoolboy record partnership of 664 with Sachin Tendulkar, became the third batsman after Donald Bradman and Walter Hammond to score back-to-back Test double centuries as he hit a masterful 227. The Flower brothers—Andy and Grant—announced their arrival, putting up a brave fight against the much-favoured home side. It seems like a lifetime ago. In cricketing terms it was more than that. If you look at the team sheet, you will find that all the Indian players have long since quit the game, all that is, except one. The legends of Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman were not even born. But that one man—transcending three generations of cricketers—is still very much in the game. That is the legend of Sachin Tendulkar.
I talk of the Zimbabwe tour in the context of Tendulkar not because it was a particularly special one for him. By then he already had five Test centuries and a regular place in the squad. His first hundred in ODIs would only come a year and a half later, against Australia at Colombo in September 1994. He was young and he was talented, of that there was no doubt. He was special. But no one then would have dared to imagine that one day he would reach the ridiculous figure of 100 international hundreds. No one. I am talking about the Zimbabwe tour because I cannot add anything knowledgeable or insightful to what has been written about Tendulkar in the past two decades—whether the writers be us laymen, great cricketers or verbose journalists. All I can talk about is my personal piece of the Tendulkar pie—a piece that I will naturally embellish without guilt and blow magnificently out of proportion—and how the greatest cricketer in the history of the sport touched my otherwise unremarkable boyhood.
Being an Army child, I was essentially a small-town boy. At home in the cantonments of Patiala, Nabha, Sangrur, Secunderabad and other such nondescript dots on the Indian map. But my father had been posted to Moscow and before we departed for the land of the Bolshoi and Borscht we had to spend a few months in Delhi, finishing the school year as my parents took language classes and were prepped for their diplomatic debuts. I was lost in the big city. From a sprawling bungalow, we moved into an apartment in Nehru Place where the only place to run off the excess energy that boys have was on the roof. But though we didn’t think very much of the new digs, we did have at least one famous neighbour. Prabhakar, it turned out, had also recently moved into the building. Over the weeks, my brother and I got to know his son and now ex-wife. It is strange the things you remember from your childhood, but I have vivid memories of watching India on tour, sitting on a leopard print couch in Manoj uncle’s sitting room. It was 1992–93 and they were happy times. The scandals had not become public and the Prabhakar family’s much written about personal problems hadn’t then reared their ugly heads.
And so it transpired that my family was invited to the biggest party us small-town boys had ever seen. It was his son’s birthday, the Zimbabweans were in town and Manoj uncle wanted to celebrate.
The one-off Test was at the Kotla and as a consequence the entire Indian team was present at the big bash at Pragati Maidan, along with several former cricketers and the entire Zimbabwean touring party. It wasn’t autograph-hunting, because every time you turned around, there was someone obliging enough to sign whatever you offered. My brother and I had recently convinced our parents that we were seriously going to play for India one day and so we had been gifted a Gunn & Moore cricket bat that we shamelessly carried to the party. By the end of the evening the surface was covered with signatures. It is another matter that we subsequently couldn’t convince the parents to invest in another bat and so were forced to play with what would have made a lovely piece of memorabilia. But for that night it was a young cricket fan’s dream.
There was a separate section for the kids at the party but though it was a tough decision, we decided to hang around with the older people. Watching our heroes talk, eat, and drink the free-flowing Black Label whisky that only the most privileged in India had access to back in the day.
Tendulkar was at the party for quite a while that day, if memory serves me. I remember looking out for him—he was by far the closest to me in size—and watching as he went about his business. He was a junior in the team then—mild-mannered, perhaps shy. He wasn’t imposing like Kapil Dev, Sidhu, Azhar, or the visitors like Eddo Brandes and Alastair Campbell who were nothing less than giants. He wasn’t friendly or jovial like Ajay Jadeja or Kambli. Yet there was something about him that made him stand out. If someone had told me then that this diminutive young man would go on to transform the global cricketing landscape more than entire generations of cricketers and administrators, I would have laughed. If someone had said that he would directly or otherwise drive thousands of crores of business and have every major brand begging, pleading and paying for his endorsement, I would have thought him worthy of institutionalisation.
But even though he was the closest to me in size, it was in walking up to Tendulkar that I had the greatest difficulty that evening. When I did, he didn’t want to chat. But he did sign my bat. I came away disappointed and hurt. I thought then that he was humourless—bordering on stand-offishness even. When all the seniors had been so nice, why was this kid being rude, was my reaction.
It was many years later that I realised I was wrong. Like my brother and me, Tendulkar was also a small-town boy thrown into a world of big-city men. There may not have been IPL parties back then, but there were still enough excesses to be had. He was just a kid, trying to keep his head down and find a way to navigate this daunting new world. But if someone had told him that day that his exploits on the field would one day start not just a cult but a full-fledged religion, he might have been the only man at the party who would have agreed. Thinking back to that day, I cannot imagine that Tendulkar has ever thought he was destined for anything but greatness. Many of us feel the same, but are unable to surmount our biggest obstacle—the fears within. As a boy of 19, I don’t think Tendulkar had any of those fears, only a fierce determination to do what no one has done before. To be the best. And in over 20 years, he has proved it time and again. I only wish that when I made the jump from small-town boy to man of the world, I would have understood what he was trying—that a little bit of the greatness had rubbed off.