When Sachin Tendulkar walks out to the middle

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
Sachin Tendulkar walking out to bat . (Express archive)

First you must close your eyes.

Then you must exercise your memory and, from among the whirlgig of blurry thoughts, images and sequences, you must pick a day of a Test match that Sachin Tendulkar was part of. Maybe it was a game in Melbourne. Or Port of Spain. Or Harare. Maybe it was a sweltering morning in Chennai. Or, maybe, the evening clouds threatened to vanquish the ground at Headingley.

Once you have zeroed in on the Test and the venue, you must call to mind a passage of play after India lost their first wicket, a phase when an opener and a No. 3 were battling the new ball, leaving some outside off, searching for gaps, fishing, nicking, ducking, bobbing, sometimes playing out dots, sometimes ticking the score along.

Now gradually focus your thoughts, sharpen your memory. And recall those fleeting few seconds when the television camera panned to the Indian dressing room and captured the helmeted No. 4 as he watched the match through the grille of his visor, flitting his eyeballs from side to side, twisting his mouth, and fidgeting with his bat.

Freeze that frame. The image must linger.

Recall how, in that teensy-weensy interlude, the on-air commentator halted his train of thought, and turned his attention to Tendulkar’s current form, or his recent injury, or his importance to the side, or his effect on the opposition, or his stats at the venue, or his significance to the batting line-up, or his place in the pantheon. Try and remember if that Tendulkar image made it to the stadium’s giant screen and listen to that ear-splitting din when the crowd went bananas.

Now gently forward the match to the fall of the second wicket. India were possibly in a precarious state, or maybe the boat had been steadied. But forget that for the time being because you can’t afford to miss that walk down the pavilion stairs.

There he is, his bat tucked under his armpit, his gloves about to be strapped on. And look at the reaction manic fans rattling metallic cages, octogenarians standing in reverence, fathers holding children aloft, ladies shrieking, wizened men in Rastafarian braids surveying his every move, presidents and prime ministers applauding, legendary cricketers awaiting a feast.

Focus on his walk to the centre, the glance at the skies, those swirling arms, the shadow straight drive, legs flapping in an urgent stand-and-run, shoulders puffed. Watch him adjust his gloves, then have a word with his batting partner. Consider him as he jerks his head this way and that, ensuring his helmet is exactly in place. And don’t forget the late Tony Greig who, in all likelihood, was going ballistic on air.

As he gardens the pitch a tap here, a knock there cast your eyes on the reporters in the press box, settling into their seats after a hurried smoke break, peeking through their binoculars, and logging on to ESPNcricinfo to estimate the records that could fall that day.

Turn to the gaggle of cameramen crouching near the boundary ropes, zooming in on Tendulkar, clicking frame after frame, hoping that one out of the several hundred images turns into a jackpot. Understand the strain they’re under. Even a veteran photographer like Patrick Eagar, after covering more than 300 Tests, said he found it "very difficult to take a picture of Tendulkar that has people saying, ‘What a good batsman!'"

Now watch him take his stance, kicking away dust, scanning the field, marking his guard, practising his straight drive, gauging the position of the sightscreen, nodding his head to no one in particular, squatting, hopping, nudging his trousers, rejigging his crotch-guard, patting his bat once, then twice, and waiting. Watch how still his head is. "You can hear the noise at a ground coming down from all directions," he once told India Today, "but while playing the ball you have to block it out when the bowler is running up at you, that’s the time your concentration levels should peak."

Stay attentive. Don’t take your eyes off the ball. Watch as it hurtles through 22 yards and arrives at his doorstep. What happened? Did the delivery, like the thunderbolt from Shoaib Akhtar in 1999, shatter your heart? Or did he simply leave it alone outside off, ordering you to calm the heck down? Did he tuck it behind square leg and run the first run so hard screeching "two two two" that you wondered if this was some sugar rush? Or did he simply stand erect and crack the ball past the bowler with such grandeur that you were at once forced to take your eyes off the screen with a stunned "oofff".

Study him as he constructs his innings, thwarting best-laid plans, bisecting fielders, dabbing, punching. But also look around. Watch how two ball-boys, patrolling the midwicket boundary, rush to gather the ball once it crosses the ropes, desperate to get a piece of the action. Spot Sudhir Gautam, one of Tendulkar’s biggest fans, awash in saffron, white, and green paint, waving the flag in the stands. And pick out the spectators sitting above the sightscreen, forever nervous, hoping their movements are not a distraction.

Spare a thought for the hundreds of marketing executives, brand managers, and advertising bigwigs, watching him bat, willing him to post a big score, sometimes treating him like a blue chip whose stock price is intricately linked to their wellbeing. And contemplate the life of some bookies across the globe, tracking the score every ball, but unable to start work until Tendulkar was out.

Now hear the crowd gasp. Was it a soft dismissal? Did he squat when he lost his stumps? Or was it a dubious lbw? Was the bowler, like Monty Panesar, an ecstatic debutant? Or was he a relative unknown, like Zimbabwean Ujesh Ranchod, celebrating his first (and only) Test wicket? Spare a thought for the umpire who made the call. And notice how the scorers and stats freaks go into overdrive.

Recall how he trudged back to the pavilion, the bat under his armpit, his face tinged with regret. Don’t miss that crestfallen spectator in the bleachers with his hands on his head. Think of the pains he might have endured to get there. Maybe, he had to run from pillar to post to procure his ticket. Maybe, he maintained the posture for a whole session, controlling his pulsing bladder, enduring the blazing sun, convinced he had a role to play in Tendulkar’s innings.

Listen to the applause die down. And amid the glum murmurs, feel the prominent emptiness. This is not the story of one Tendulkar innings. Over 24 years, his every walk to the middle, a mini Ganeshotsav, was imbued with a sense of occasion, teeming with expectation and possibility. Hardened fans went weak in the knees. Many prayed. Some broke coconuts.

To begin to understand why Tendulkar meant so much to so many, one must go back to CLR James writing about WG Grace in his seminal Beyond the Boundary:

"W.G.’s batting figures, remarkable as they are, lose all their true significance unless they are seen in close relation with the history of cricket itself and the social history of England. Unless you do this you fall head foremost into the trap of making comparisons with Bradman. Bradman piled up centuries. W.G. built a social organisation."

It remains a wonder how one little Indian achieved both.

Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA. This article was originally published in 2013.