Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar survived pressure of expectation to unite a nation
Posted Saturday, October 12 2013 at 01:00
Batting can be a tricky business, as every amateur knows. At the elite level, it is almost impossible. At 90mph it takes a cricket ball around 500 milliseconds to travel from one end of the wicket to the other. That, the physiologist Benjamin Libet proved, is almost exactly as long as it takes the human mind to complete all the processes needed to produce what he called “a settled field of awareness”.
To put it another way, a cricket ball moves as quickly as human consciousness. Which doesn’t give you much time to think about a cover drive, much less play it.
In 2002 two scientists at the University of Sussex broke it down even further, and found that at 90mph a batsman takes 200 milliseconds to judge the ball, 200 milliseconds to decide on the right shot, and then 100 milliseconds to play it. It takes, they say, 150 milliseconds to blink. Those numbers reveal just as much about Sachin Tendulkar’s preternatural ability as the more familiar statistics, such as his 100 international hundreds, his 198 Test caps, and his quarter-century career.
When you’ve grown so accustomed to watching him bat, it is easy to be blithe about the sheer skill it takes to be so good at such an ostensibly simple act.
Almost every modern player – he has played with or against 982 men in international cricket, 20 of them born after he made his debut – has a Tendulkar story. This one is Allan Donald’s.
“He hit me for two fours in a row, one through point, one past gully. That was the end of the over, and then I told Jonty Rhodes, who was at point, to be alert because I knew a way to get Sachin out. So I delivered the first ball of my next over, outside off stump just like the other two, only a little fuller. As he hit it I shouted: ‘Catch!’ and, to my astonishment, it went to the cover boundary.” Three balls, almost identical, each played in three subtly different but equally effective ways. Tendulkar mastered an art that defies easy understanding.
The cognition, the selection, the execution. It is all done in the time it takes to tap your finger twice on a table.
Afterwards, Donald said he gave up devising strategies as to how to get Tendulkar out, simply to spare himself the frustration of seeing his best-laid plans put to ruin. Brett Lee, one of the few bowlers as quick as Donald, said: “You might pitch a ball on the off stump and think you have bowled a good ball.
And then he walks across and hits it for two behind midwicket.” Tendulkar is one of the few batsmen in the history who has honed his craft to the point where he had a choice of at least two shots to play to every conceivable delivery.
That’s a trait that puts Tendulkar in elite company, alongside Garry Sobers, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Jack Hobbs and the others who line up behind daylight and Don Bradman in discussions about the greatest batsmen to play the game. Each has their own fans. Tendulkar, of course, has around a billion of them.
And if those minuscule numbers illustrate his rare skill, this hefty one shows the size of the burden he has laboured under. No one, in any sport, has performed so consistently, under such pressure, over such a long period of time. By that measure, the margin between Tendulkar and the rest is as wide as the gap between Bradman’s batting average and the next best.
The clichés about cricket in India are so old and familiar that they are often followed by apologies for their use. Cricket is a religion, and Sachin is God. Anyone who has been lucky enough to see Tendulkar play an innings in his own country knows those are apt, almost inadequate, descriptions of the devotion he inspires.
Even the most famous of his contemporaries are awe-struck by the weight of expectation he carries.
“You have to watch India in India truly to appreciate the pressure that Sachin Tendulkar is under every time he bats,” Shane Warne said. “Outside grounds, people wait until he goes in before paying to enter. They seem to want a wicket to fall even though it is their own side that will suffer. This is cricket as Sachin has known it since the age of 16. He grew up under an incredible weight of expectation and never buckled once.” “Irrespective of the score, whenever Sachin Tendulkar comes to bat he is under pressure” was Mark Waugh’s take. “The pressure comes from all those people who look up to him, who pray that he gets a century, who cheer like India has already won when he comes in to bat, and who silently troop out of the stands once he gets out.”
Matthew Hayden said it was “beyond chaos” when Tendulkar came out to the crease, calling it “a frantic appeal by a nation to one man”. The late Peter Roebuck told a story of being on a train between Shimla and Delhi which stopped at a station simply because Tendulkar was on 98. “Everyone on the train waited for Sachin to complete the century. This genius can stop time in India!”
While covering the World Cup in 2011 I watched, rapt, as he scored 120 against England in Bengaluru. It is just another among the many great centuries he made, but for me it stands out as one of the precious occasions when I got to sit in court with a king, a moment akin to watching Roger Federer on Centre Court, Usain Bolt at the Olympic Stadium, or Michael Phelps in the Olympic pool. There was a banner in the ground, a copy of one which had been seen at the SCG years earlier. “Commit your crimes when Sachin is batting,” it said. “They will go unnoticed, because even the Lord is watching.”
There had been baton charges by the police before the match to control the crowds who were clamouring around the ticket booths. They say there were 38,000 in the Chinnaswamy Stadium, but that cannot possibly have been right. The noise they made was enough for a hundred times that number.
Their cries seemed to carry up into the night sky and echo across the subcontinent, as an entire nation joined in supplication and celebration of one man.