The most talked about story in November was not the RBI governor’s decision to raise the repo rate again, Narendra Modi’s latest speech, or even Prince Charles’ visit to India. The story that eclipsed them all was not about the biggest newsmakers of the day, but about the Little Master: Sachin Tendulkar.
You’re probably wondering why an American would write about cricket. After all, when Americans hear the word cricket, we think of this guy:
Not this guy:
But, since coming to India, I can’t help but be enthralled by the way Tendulkar has gripped the nation’s attention, especially in the months since announcing his retirement.
In November, Sachin Tendulkar played his 200th and final test match for the India cricket team and officially retired from the sport. Watching the frenzy surrounding this final match was fascinating. Imagine the Super Bowl, World Series, and NBA finals all wrapped up in a single match. Then, double the excitement and the traffic congestion. The closest American equivalent to Tendulkar’s influence on the game of cricket is Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls basketball team. Tendulkar is considered by most Indians to be the greatest cricket player of this or any other century, largely owing to his 100 international centuries, a feat no other cricketer can claim. For the Americans reading, a century is when a player scores 100 runs in a single innings (and, yes, the singular has an “s” at the end). The closest American sport equivalent is a grand slam in baseball.
Baseball represents perhaps the most analogous American sport to cricket. When American expats first watch cricket in India, the game is often explained in baseball terms. Like baseball, cricket has batters and runs. But, cricket has bowlers instead of pitchers and overs instead of outs. Technically, an over and an out aren’t exactly equivalent, however. An over is a series of six balls bowled from one end of a pitch. An out occurs only after a batter has three strikes at bat. Unlike baseball, cricket has multiple formats. In India, three types of matches are played:
- Test cricket is played at the international level with a national team. These matches typically run five days, and the overs are unlimited. This format is what most Americans think of when they think of cricket: white uniforms, hats, and sweater vests. Test cricket includes lunch and tea breaks. Tendulkar’s final match was a test match.
- One-day internationals (ODIs) are also played with a national team, but unlike test cricket, the overs are limited to 50 overs for each team.
- T20 matches are played between teams in different Indian cities and are limited to 20 overs. The T20 version of the sport lasts about three hours and is the most analogous to American baseball in speed and duration of play. Unlike baseball, however, T20 is the noisiest format of cricket. The sound of a match at Wankhede in Mumbai is deafening.
Tendulkar has played in all these match types and dominated every one.
Beyond the similarity in rules, cricket’s cultural influence on the Indian psyche closely resembles baseball’s influence on the American psyche. Even though field hockey is India’s national sport, cricket is its national pastime. The game cuts across caste, regional, and religious lines. The poorest children living in the slums of Dharavi play cricket. Their playing pitches might often be rough, dirty lanes or streets, and their cricket bats might be simple sticks, but their pride and joy in their game is no less intense than their wealthier counterparts on Altamount Road. In the weeks leading up to Tendulkar’s retirement, the press highlighted the unifying influence that Tendulkar has had on Indians. As Ramachandra Guha writes, Tendulkar appeared on the cricketing scene in the 1990s when India was shrouded in an “atmosphere of hate, suspicion, fear, and violence…The skill and versatility of [Tendulkar’s] batsmanship made millions of Indians temporarily forget their everyday insecurities and come together to cheer their new hero.”
Cricket fans also share baseball fans’ love of statistics. Thus, much ink was spilled to celebrate statistics about Tendulkar’s achievements. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) published its list of 200 facts about Tendulkar to commemorate his 200th test match. The statistics included that Tendulkar has never batted third (fourth is his most popular position). He also holds the world record for most consecutive test matches: 185. As I read the stats, the frequency of “holds the record for…” impressed me, but the statistic that I found most fascinating is that Sachin Tendulkar has never been fined by the India team for lateness. That’s right. In his 24-year career, Tendulkar has been on time, every time. Anyone who has lived in India for any time at all knows that feat is just as amazing than his 100 centuries. In a country fraught with traffic delays, arriving on time for any match, let alone every match, is nothing short of a small miracle. Such attention to promptness demonstrates a dedication to his craft and an abiding personal integrity.
Lately, integrity seems to be a word missing from the cricketing vocabulary. For, much like American baseball, Indian cricket has had its fair share of scandals. This past May, the Indian cricketing world was rocked by a spot-fixing scandal in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The scandal was reminiscent of the Pete Rose betting scandal in baseball, which resulted in his lifetime ban from the sport and denial of a place in the Hall of Fame. The IPL scandal has tarnished the reputations of at least five players across multiple teams and even the BCCI itself. Thankfully, Tendulkar has remained untouched by the scandal. A few weeks after the story broke, Tendulkar commented that he was shocked and disappointed by the scandal, saying, “…we owe it to [fans] to ensure that Indian cricket is all about pride and joy.” That statement is why so many Indians see Tendulkar as more than a cricket player. To fans, Tendulkar is a cricket God (with a capital G). He wields his bat as Shiva wields his trident; he loves the game like Ganesh loves his sweets.
As the frenzy about the final match reached a fever pitch, one commentator (in the New York Times, no less) compared Tendulkar to Gandhi (yes, that Gandhi) arguing that no Indian since Gandhi has appealed so universally across the entire country. On Twitter, the Wall Street Journal’s India feed posed the question: Is he the greatest Indian since Gandhi? The reaction to this statement was a mixture of amusement, outrage, and exasperation. Others have observed that Tendulkar’s rise paralleled the rise of the Indian economy. Although said in jest, the statement has set tongues wagging about Tendulkar’s influence on the Indian economy. Will his retirement bring about a slowing in the Indian economy as well? Could the Indian economy’s poor performance over the last two years be blamed on Tendulkar’s poor showing in international play? After all, Tendulkar’s final match has resulted in an unofficial Bharat Bandh (nationwide strike), as most people watched cricket rather than work on the Friday that was anticipated to be his last day of play. Even I stopped writing this article for a bit to watch the match.