man for all seasons: Sachin Tendulkar’s passion for the game is undiminished even after two decades.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years! Twenty years ago, global warming was as unheard of as global terrorism, Steffi Graf was still ruling the women’s tennis world, Australia hadn’t taken even tentative steps towards dominating the cricket world. Twenty years ago, Michael Jackson was the universal pop icon, the Berlin Wall had just crumbled as East and West fused, Roger Moore was still James Bond 007, licensed to kill.
Twenty years! A lifetime, and more!

Twenty years to the day, in Karachi on November 15, 1989, a teenaged genius, baby faced but tough as nails, shot on to the international cricketing stage, cuddly and adorable, with a broadsword for a bat and earmarked for greatness, even if his first Test match provided little evidence of what was to come. Twenty years on, in the era of Twenty20 cricket, Sachin Tendulkar continues to stand tall, wowing audiences worldwide even in the supposed autumn of his career with masterpieces that only he can construct.
For 20 years now, Tendulkar has entertained and exhilarated, thrilled and excited and, naturally enough, more than occasionally disappointed and dismayed. For 20 years, he has had a nation eating out of his hands, controlled the mood of a billion people, put a smile on hardened faces, instilled hope and joy and belief in moments of despair and distress. And he has done all that with humility and grace, respectful of the love and expectations of his people but always with his feet on the ground, his head firmly on his shoulders.

Not even Sachin Tendulkar, one suspects, knows how he has managed that. Yes, the strong middle-class values he was exposed to from a very early age, courtesy a grounded professor-father who set the example by deeds rather than words, helped. Yes, the presence of a stabilising influence in a doctor-wife played its part. Even so, how does one explain the remarkable balance, the extraordinary command of situations, the mastery of emotions?

Tendulkar is what Tendulkar is today not merely because he has scored almost 30,000 international runs, is closing in on a hundred international centuries or because he owns almost every batting record conceivable. He isn’t loved and revered and adored and looked up to only because he has passed the longevity test and lasted the rigours of the international game for two decades now. It’s as much for how he has done it, as for what he has done, that the 36-year-old is held in such high esteem – by his peers, by his contemporaries and his predecessors but most of all, by a nation that simply can’t have enough of him.

Nobody else in India – not Shah Rukh Khan, not even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – has had so much riding on his shoulders for such a long period of time. The intense scrutiny, the enormous adulation, the overwhelming pressure of expectations, the complete absence of any privacy – all these and more could so easily have broken even strong-willed men. It’s in the subliminal ease with which Tendulkar has taken everything in his stride that he is in a class of one.

Perhaps, we are going overboard? Is Tendulkar greater than the men who guard our frontiers, who keep their focus and their concentration and discipline through bitterly cold nights so that we can sleep in peace? Is he more special, living as he is in the lap of luxury well earned through his command over his chosen craft, than the common man simply because he has a gift that very few have, but in only a sporting arena which seldom makes the difference between life and death?

Tendulkar will be the first, as he indeed did in the aftermath of 26/11, to say no, emphatically. It is, though, well worth remembering that the first time a collective smile broke out on a billion faces following the Mumbai terror attacks of last year was when Tendulkar scripted an incredible run-chase in the Chennai Test against England. And spontaneously dedicated it to the people of Mumbai as well as the men and women who fought tirelessly to keep the terrorists at bay.

His evolution from an exciting teenager to the bulwark of the Indian batting, from a shy, tongue-tied young man to the senior statesman, has directly reflected in his growth from an intrepid attacker of bowling attacks to a more mature and controlled batsman. Even today, he will occasionally roll the years back, bow to the boy still lurking inside him and tear the best apart; for the most part, he has however swapped the broadsword for a rapier, the bludgeon for a scalpel, making large-scale compromises necessitated by an injury-ravaged body and the inevitable passage of time.

Time. Not even for Sachin Tendulkar will time stand still, much as most of India would wish for it. Not too long into the future, he will hang up his boots and bat, even if he will never ever ride away into the sunset. There is time yet to savour his successes, to commiserate with his failures, to celebrate his commanding presence. Many happy returns, Sachin!

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