By Sourav Ganguly
It was around ’86-’87 that I first met this boy from Mumbai. He was bright, chubby and had such a thick mop of curly hair on his head that the first thought that came to mind was the image of Sai Baba! That very boy has grown, grown and grown and suddenly you realise that he is 40 years old. That volume of hair might have faded, but the same brightness remains intrisic. That is the only thing he has lost of himself over the years. The stature of the man and his every attribute has only grown massively. What an amazing 40 it has been! When I think about the honour it has been to know his all these years, I can only feel proud.
That boy, of course, is our own Sachin Tendulkar. I can vouch that it will be hard to witness one more such genius on the cricket field and my quiet word to everyone would be, till the time he is on the cricket field, enjoy him as much as you can. What he has done till now is known to everyone and I need not repeat it because there is hardly any Indian who is not proud of his achievements and will continue to be so for years to come. If Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev put Indian cricket on the world map, it is Sachin Tendulkar who has been hugely responsible for taking Indian cricket to the level where it has reached now.
All good things come to an end and so will Sachin’s cricket career. We have seen the likes of Pele, Maradona, Pete Sampras, Don Bradman, Shane Warne, and many others who were leading exponents of their sports go away with time, so it’s quite natural that even Sachin will bid adieu. I cannot stress how important it is for cricket-loving people across all barriers and boundaries to give him a fitting farewell, whenever the time comes. Nobody in world cricket deserves it more than this living legend.
My friendship with Sachin dates back to our days playing school cricket. I am sure that even Sachin will also never be able to forget those early days of our careers. We both were around 13-14 then, when we travelled by Air India for Kailash Ghatani’s team, the Star Cricket Club of India, on what was our first trip abroad. It used to be summer holidays in schools around the time we travelled to England and so we stayed on various school campuses. Be it the Westminster School in Central London or the Hurtspier Point College in Sussex or Ardingley College in Brighton. Westminster School was a 1,000-year-old prison, before the monks converted it to a school building. It used to be so dark once the lights went off that one couldn’t even see the guy next to him. Believe me, staying in those schools at that point of our life was so pleasing that it couldn’t be compared to staying in the 5-star facilities in the next part of our life. It remains the experience of a lifetime.
All these institutions had Tuck shops, where you would get a variety of goodies. I still remember that Sachin, myself and most of us would get a Mars bar for 10 pence and a coke for 15. That was our staple diet during most of the tour. Calling home and keeping in touch with the parents was through the British Telecom pay phone system, something which has become obsolete now. Our tour map started from South London, onto Scotland and back to South London, from there on to India. We went to Scotland and thought that the sun never set there! We had to draw the curtains before retiring to bed at 11.30pm because it was still light outside and, by the time we woke up for the next day, the sun was shining bright again.
I scored the first ever hundred of my life on the Westminster school ground and so it has remained special even today. Sachin also got few on that tour and believe me he used to use a heavy bat even then! Also one thing which stands out even today with him is he loved to bat the whole day. He could go on and on and on. He had minimal interest in fielding, fitness training but never got tired or bored of batting. He would drag us out to either throw or bowl a few more deliveries to him, long after practice had ended. It would be the same in the Under-17 national camp. He would really have to be pulled out of the nets, else the others would not get a chance to bat! We first faced each other in a competitive match in Kanpur at the Under-17 zonal level. It was East versus West and a 14-year-old Sachin scored 175 in that match with a very heavy ‘Insaan’ bat. The biggest thing was, that when we went to the ground next morning I found Sachin all padded up and batting in the nets! Such has been his hunger for batting.
From the Under-17 we graduated to the Under-19 level and we were to play few ‘test’ matches against the Pakistan Under-19 squad. But the selectors already had bigger plans in mind for Sachin and decided to keep the 16-year-old for the senior Pakistan tour. The Under-19 Pakistan team had Waqar Younis, Aaqib Javed, Zahid Fazal, Moin Khan, Mushtaq Ahmed and few others. While me, Anil Kumble, Jatin Paranjape and others took on the Pakistan challenge at home,
Sachin travelled across the border to stand up to Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Abdul Qadir.
Since then and till now, what a journey it has been! Sachin got his first Test hundred in England, so did I, in my debut Test in 1996. I still remember, at Lord’s, I had got my hundred by then. When I came back for tea, my bat-handle had become loose. Sachin personally taped it tight so that I could go on batting with the same bat. It was my first Test and he had already played 38 by then. Now he is on 198 and I am absolutely sure he will reach the 200 Test match milestone. 200 Test matches! Phew! It was my first hundred at Lords, but the Master had nine by then. He has 51 now and I personally believe there are a few more in the bag.
I have seen Sachin Tendulkar the player from very close. When he equalled the great Gavaskar, I was with him at the other end, and when he scored his 35th Test ton to go past Gavaskar’s record, then too I was at the non-striker’s end. He has had god-gifted ability, both physically and mentally. The insatiable hunger he has had for the game can’t be matched by any ordinary person. Let me share a personal experience here. A lot of players are amazed at his adaptability at the crease. His knock at Cape Town in 1997 is a prime example of this. I had asked him after his knock, that his feet was moving in certain manner before the ball had been bowled, which I had not seen him do before. He admitted that he had done it for the first time in his life, when he took guard at the start. To me that was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. There is a rule in cricket, what you do in the middle you practice it in the nets before. This great man went on to get a big test 100 against a top bowling team with a technique not practiced before!
I also had the opportunity to observe Sachin the captain. When I state that my favourite captain is Sachin Tendulkar people always seem to have a questioning look, because if you look at the numbers, perhaps, his stint as captain was not the most successful. But believe me he was a very good captain indeed. He gave the freedom to newcomers which was required to blossom as a player. He had a young team when he became captain. Rahul Dravid, V.V.S Laxman, myself, Javagal Srinath, Kumble, we were all in the maturing stage and so we couldn’t deliver the way the captain wanted us to. But Sachin as a captain definitely defined my international career. He brought me up the order in the ODI format and gave me the opportunity to open the innings with him. It was the turning point of my life as a cricketer. Together, we still hold the world record for century partnerships and the best average for an opening combination. He still continues to be an inspiration in the dressing room. His message to me in my last season for India, that it was the best he has seen me play, will always remain special. I am sure he still continues to bring the zing and confidence in the dressing room with his firmness. It was an honour and pleasure to have shared the dressing room with a man who was so much more than just that. Having shared the dressing room for well over a decade with him has not only been something that I will remember but also something that has been a huge learning experience in my career. I still remember my first two tests at Lord’s and Trent Bridge where I spent a fair amount of time with him at the crease. He got a hundred at Trent Bridge, the first time I saw him get a big international score from so close and was amazed at his technique and balance.
When he started off, the game didn’t have much to offer commercially. Today when he will leave the game, the amount he has earned will ensure that atleast four generations of Tendulkars need not work at all. But believe me, money has had no link to the intensity which the man had in store for the game. He is an absolute case study. Twenty-four long years at a stretch at the international level is something unfathomable, especially when you need to perform to survive. His humility is unimaginable. He comes from a middle-class family, his father was a teacher and a playwright, and till date he has preserved all those middle-class values. If you speak to him, Sachin will never make you feel how big he is or what he has achieved in life, nor will he make you feel small. He is like an ancient pillar in modern day cricket, yet still full of the spark of youth. Generations to come, from any sphere, should try to learn from this man about how to keep the urge of going on and on, should try to learn about how one can take oneself forward amidst many diversities. It’s easy to say, but a very tough act to follow. I personally feel that whatever this man has achieved is not only hard to get past but simply impossible. So Happy 40th, my friend. May you remain a lesson to us all.