Right at the start of this emotional monologue, I would like you to sit back and reflect. Is 100 merely another number? What does this figure of 100 signify? Why is this entire nation gripped with the 100th 100 fever so much that it tends to overshadow the poor performances of the team of late? What is it all about?
Come to think of it, outside the cricketing world, the number “100″ relates to perfection. It is what we especially, as Indian students at some point in our lives, strove to achieve in those 100s of exams we took. It was something we dreamed of scoring come the board exams or the percentile we aimed at during other tests. Even today, 100 stands as the barometer for performance; think of the number of times you convert any outcome into a percentage and think “yeah, well, 87%, good enough” or “67%!!! Shocking!! Need to do more”. For the plain mind like ours, it helps, since we just look at getting as close to the magical number as possible. On a lot of occasions, its all about minimizing the gap to the 100, since getting to the mark is deemed impossible. If you work with monthly targets, you will know exactly what I mean. A 99.5 percentile or 96% target achievement is deemed great.
In sports, 100 is again a magical number, signifying excellence. In tennis matches, a lot can be said about the match looking at the percentage of first serves. Chances are, that if you manage 80% in this category, you will generally do well in the match. In Basketball, if the team does score a 100 points in a game(in normal time), its a sign that the offence is doing really well, and that the team stands a good chance in scoring just that bit more than the opposition to win. In cricket, more closely, a 100 is the ultimate achievement for a batsman(in women’s cricket are they called batswomen???). More often than not, the batsman will have helped his team post a fighting total which could ultimately help in setting up the win. Seldom do centuries come with ease, and some are more precious than others, but every 100 is special for a batsman. Even when they come in a losing cause. For a lot of athletes, getting to the 80s and 90s is deemed acceptable, just like the case of the percentiles and the targets we all strive to achieve.
Except, that when a certain Sachin Tendulkar comes into the picture, the rules change. Every time he walks out on the field, we expect that he enthrall us all with his magic wand. We expect that he dispatch bowlers with his straight bat to the fence, and sometimes over it. We expect that he set the field ablaze with his brilliant strokeplay. We expect that at the end of a couple of hours, he breach that 100 barrier and take off his helmet to acknowledge the achievement. We expect. He does it more often than not, and even if he were to perish after a well compiled innings short of a century, we would view it as a failure.
Perhaps he is selfish, for I assume one would need to be selfish in order to attain such individual superiority over his contemporaries. But for all his selfishness in the world, I remember that innings in Sharjah, the first of 2 back to back hundreds. The second won us the final and went down into folklore. The first one though, was as unselfish an innings as one can ever get to watch. When still alive at the crease, his mission was to dent Mt. Australia with a barrage of missiles. He cared only for the win, not for the path to the finals, not for his century. I wish the same could be said of the rest of the team that night.
Perhaps he isn’t a great captain, a great leader of men, for I know that his record as a captain is dismal. Yet, I also know that he was the leader of men at a point of time when Indian cricket was fraught with nightmares. And I remember that all he asked of the team was to play to their potential. More often than not he played his part. I wish the same could be said about the rest of the team.
Perhaps he is not the best finisher, for I have seen many matches when he seems to needlessly not carry us across the finish line. The 91 against England(when he yorked himself off Hollioke), the 90 against Australia(at the Wills world cup 96), that 100 against Pakistan at Chennai, that failure at the world cup final against the Aussies, spring into memory in a flash. Yet, I also remember that against England, he battled on losing partners every over and yet never managed to lose sight of the stiff target. Against Australia, he launched a counterattack so brutal that McGrath was reduced to shambles. Against Pakistan, he coaxed Nayan Mongia to play second fiddle and scolded him on his extravagant hoikes, which ultimately led to his demise. Against Australia in 2003, he took the onus of throwing McGrath off his comfort zone and perished. I remember that across all these near-but-not-there-yet moments, he played the role of a champion. Sadly, others around him did not.
Perhaps he is bigger than the game as some experts now complain. At least I know for sure that he is. On my first experience of a cricket match, the rain gods made it impossible for around 30,000 expectant people to catch a glimpse of the genius in action. I had bunked school; in fact, my father had written a letter to the principal informing them that his child was sick and unable to attend. And it the end, it came to nothing. Any child would be shattered, but things considerably turned for the better(or so I thought) when I learned we would be sharing the same lunch room with the teams. All the while, I looked around to catch a glimpse of that curly hair, but it was nowhere to be seen. I returned home shattered and dejected, not least bothered about the rained off match, but because I was unable to see Sachin play.
Perhaps he takes the focus away from the team performance. On such accusations, I remember that it is we who steal the focus from Team India and direct it towards this shy superstar. I remember, that years later, when I got my first opportunity to see him play, he scored a 100 against Australia in Gwalior. I was in dreamland, and viewed the India victory as an added bonus. Yes, that’s the way a lot of us grew up thinking about cricket, and it will be difficult to change it soon.
Perhaps he should retire, leaving some things unfinished, much as Bradman’s average will tell you. Yet, during these times I remember his poor run of form pre 2007 and the explosion of runs post the same. I remember that quite some few in the Indian cricket team today were not even born when he started playing against Wasim and Waqar and Walsh and Ambrose. I remember that he has adapted himself to the demands of the game, and that he can easily patent the sweep behind the keeper and the upper cut.
Perhaps this 100th 100 is not a motivation any more, but maybe just an obsession. But then I remember that a year ago we said the same thing after he won he world cup. I remember that no matter what, his child like enthusiasm for the game will soldier on. I remember that once during an interview on the master, Dravid said that there could be no one as dedicated as Sachin. That the sounds coming from the adjoining room were that of Tendulkar practicing at 11pm in the night. When a student of the game like Dravid says this, I remember.
I’m not saying that Sachin Tendulkar hasn’t made mistakes. His decision to prioritize the IPL over country, his decision to not play the West Indies tour and hence, not get the 100th 100 drama done with, his fondness to disappear inside a shell and come out only when dismissed, his nervous 90s, his insistence on playing both formats of the game even now..the list can go on and on. Yet, his mistakes dwarf when compared to his achievements. He has a section of people who don’t like him, but even they will stand up and applaud the day the master hangs his boots.
All I know is that Sachin Tendulkar is a genius. And that we mere mortals cannot comprehend the mind of a genius. He is his best teacher, he is his best student. The genius that is Sachin Tendulkar will surely find a way, and if it means leaving the game at 99, or 100, or 120 centuries, then so be it.