The making of a Saint

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Sep 23 2012, 07:35am hrs
Reading a biography of Sachin Tendulkar is a bitter-sweet experience for any cricket fan. On the one hand, it brings forth a great, warm feeling of shared experienceeven if we ourselves did not personally reach the milestones Tendulkar did, we were there with him when he did. It is hard to describe the love Tendulkar inspires among Indians, strong enough to bring about a smile on the weariest of faces. Hence, almost any book on Tendulkar , almost by definition, is received as a work of art because of its subject matter. But, on the other hand, given that the man is now 39, seeing a biography written about him also reminds one that it will soon be time to say goodbye; the dreaded day when Tendulkar retires from playing cricket is close and getting inexorably closer. It is equally hard to describe the deep sense of loss even contemplating that future evokes. This factor becomes all the more poignant in the face of the recent calls for his retirement following his eminently forgettable performance in the recently-concluded Test series against New Zealand.

Gulu Ezekiel, thus, had a relatively easy job in writing Sachin: The story of the worlds greatest batsman. Describing Tendulkar s life, especially when the aim seems to be to withhold criticism, is simply about touching on the main topics of his life story, most of which have already been documented so extensively in almost every formatbooks, newspaper articles, magazines and TV shows. Tendulkar has been described as a god, a master, a prodigy, a beacon... the list goes on. In context, each of these epithets is befitting, but perhaps the one that describes his spotless character and reputation best is saintly. The adjective seems incongruous for someone who will always be (fondly) referred to as a boy, but in a career spanning more than 20 years, it is nothing short of saintly to have kept away from controversy while his team-mates have fallen to match-fixing scandals, widely-publicised debauchery and, more recently, purported racist attacks on fellow players.

Ezekiel, fully embracing the sports journalist within himself, and firmly grasping the hand of his inner fan, has done a fine job of documenting Tendulkar s life. In true journalistic style, none of the chapters, starting from the first, dealing with Tendulkar s childhood, to the last, touching briefly upon the long-awaited hundredth 100, are more than a few pages long. Nonetheless, they are packed with anecdotes, references and quotes that make the reading experience a rich one, even if most of the information revealed wont be news to a Tendulkar bhakt. It can be argued that the journalistic style isnt the best when it comes to biographies, since it lacks the colourful use of adjectives and clichs that are so appealing. But I would say that, when it comes to Tendulkar, a book that doesnt overflow with praise carries more legitimacy than one that does. Everybody knows Tendulkar is great, indeed, as the title says, the greatest. But there is more to say about the man.

Given that Tendulkar s life is so well-documented, and given his normal reluctance about talking about the few controversial aspects of his life, Ezekiels journalistic style proves its worth when the author comes to topics where the reader, ever curious, doesnt know enough. The chapters dealing with Tendulkar s friendship with Vinod Kambli, the match-fixing scandal that threatened to destroy Indian cricket and ended Mohammad Azharuddins career, and the controversy surrounding Tendulkar s hundredth 100 make for especially good reading.

From the start, Kamblis batting skill had been compared to Tendulkar s, starting with their record-setting high-school 664-run partnership, and going on to Kamblis prolific early years in first-class cricket. The legend, for that is what it has become now, is that had Kambli had a similar temperament and attitude to Tendulkars, then India would have boasted two Tendulkar Tendulkars. The chapter on their relationship, titled The Great Friendship, begins with an apt quote by Kambli about Tendulkar : He took the elevator to the top and I took the stairs. How is it that two boys from the same school, with apparently comparable skill, had such divergent careers Citing quotes by Ramakant Achrekar, coach to both of them, and from interviews both cricketers gave during their careers, Ezekiel paints a compelling picture of why Tendulkar rose through the ranks to become the best, and has a career spanning more than two decades, while Kambli played his last match for India in 2000, and is remembered now only as the great that never was. The crux of the narrative is in how Tendulkar s dedication and discipline saw him through, while Kamblis new-found fame and affluence led him astray, into self-destructive habits that ruined his career. Many attempts have been made to fully document the relationship and career paths of the two cricketers, but as far as a fact-by-fact account of the narrative goes, leaving opinions to the readers, Ezekiel does a commendable job.

In much the same way, Ezekiel makes a good attempt at clearing the air about the blurry accounts of the match-fixing scandal that Pradeep Magazine first broke in 1997. Some accounts accuse the BCCI of trying to cover it up at the time, while others disagree over which cricketers were involved. Kapil Devs name, for example, has been in and out of the controversy almost since the very beginning. Though he was exonerated, match-fixing will unfortunately continue to be linked with him. Mohammad Azharuddin, on the other hand, was banned for life in 2001, while Ajay Jadeja and a few others received five-year bans. None of the accounts mention Tendulkar. Indeed, as English journalist Scyld Berry points out in his profile of Tendulkar for Wisden.com, the only reference bookies made to Tendulkar was to make sure that all their machinations came into effect only once Tendulkar got outsuch was his ability to single-handedly win a match and ruin all their calculations! Once again, the presence of numerous quotes and the absence of the authors own opinion make the chapter on that dark episode in Indian cricket a lucid read, one worth perusing for an overall picture of what was happening then, and what the prevailing mood was.

The chapter on the hundredth 100 is only two pages long, and deals more with the run-up to it and the aftermath than the actual match itself. Perhaps, from an unbiased point of view, mention should have been made about how Tendulkar laboured to get his century against Bangladesh, taking 147 balls to score his 114. India went on to lose the match, spurring those (wrong) critics who hold that India loses whenever Tendulkar scores a century. It must be said that it was an especially slow century, and did cause even die-hard fans to pause and consider whether Tendulkar was aiming at his century or at his teams victory. But, at the same time, those same critics forget the other 99 centuries, many of which have won India the respective matches.

It is ungrateful to accuse Tendulkar of being selfish, especially since the criticism he received for not scoring that 100th century during the many opportunities he had in the prior year was so overwhelming. Maybe that is the thinking that drove Ezekiel to drop that section from this book. In any case, that omission, for whatever reason it was made, cannot be used as a criticism against what is undoubtedly an excellent biography.