Thursday 14 December 2017

Hold The Back Page: Master truly one in a billion

Eamonn Sweeney

On Friday morning the world's most popular sportsman took the field for the last time. Not just the most popular sportsman of our era but perhaps the most popular there's ever been.

If this sounds like a large claim to make for Sachin Tendulkar, it's worth remembering that more people, 1.23 billion, live in India than live in Europe and North America put together. It has a greater population than the entire continent of Africa and three times that of South America.

One in every six human beings lives in India and a great many of those human beings idolise Tendulkar in a way few sportsmen are idolised. One Indian writer has described him as being regarded as "a cross between Babe Ruth and Martin Luther King". There may be slightly more people in China than in India but they have no dominant sporting figure in the Tendulkar mould.

In India, not just Tendulkar but the game he plays is unrivalled. The country has won just 26 Olympic medals, two fewer than Ireland. Cricket rules in India the same way hurling rules in Kilkenny. Its stature in Pakistan and Bangladesh makes it the undisputed number one sport in three of the world's most populous countries.

Perhaps only soccer trumps cricket in terms of numerical popularity but soccer doesn't have any equivalent to Tendulkar not just for the number of partisan supporters but for the intensity of their support.

In the words of the Indian cricket historian Boria Majumdar, "He's one of those people who have achieved excellence and pushed the pedestal of sport to another level. But he did it with 1.2 billion people breathing down his neck 24-7, 365 days a year." His fans like to wear T-shirts which read 'Cricket is my religion and Sachin is my God'. And when they heard that this unparalleled career was going to end last week in the second Test against the West Indies in Mumbai, over 20 million fans applied for tickets though the Wankhede Stadium holds just 32,000.

Fifty-one banners hung in the ground, detailing the 51 Test centuries Tendulkar has amassed and for a while it looked like he might provide the fans with a fairytale finish as he moved past the half-century mark for the 68th time in his career. But on 74 he edged a delivery from Narsingh Deonarine and was caught at slip by Darren Sammy. With India comfortably ahead of the opposition, the crowd knew there would be no Indian second innings and no more Tendulkar.

He departs with all the sport's significant batting records in his grasp, his 15,921 Test runs, 51 Test centuries, 18,226 one-day international runs and 49 one-day international centuries are unlikely to be bettered in the near future. Perhaps his combined international centuries total of 100 is his most impressive achievement of all; his nearest rival is Australia's Ricky Pointing with 71.

Yet the sheer weight of his achievement and the longevity of his career doesn't distract from the individual highlights contained within, right back to the time when as a 16-year-old in his first ever Test series he shrugged off a bloody nose inflicted by a fearsome Pakistan pace attack to make his first half-century.

A year later, in 1990, he announced his arrival as a fully-fledged star when saving India from defeat against England in the second Test at Old Trafford. India slumped to 127 for 5 on the final day but their 17-year-old five foot five inch opener made an unbeaten 117. The following winter he defied Glenn McGrath and Merv Hughes on a perilously fast track at Perth in the fourth Test where he made 114 to go with the unbeaten 148 he'd posted in the previous Test. He'd made six Test centuries before his 20th birthday.

The Little Master was probably at his peak between 1997 and 1999 with a total of 12 Test centuries in those years. He suffered a bit of a slump between 2003 and 2006 when he made four centuries yet that period also contained what he, and most commentators, regard as his finest innings in both Test and one-day international cricket. In the 2003 World Cup, he struck a ferocious 98 off 75 balls as India, chasing 275 against rivals Pakistan, got home with four overs to spare. And in January 2004 he made 241 not out at Sydney against Australia having been out for a duck in two of his three previous innings.

That Tendulkar hit more centuries against Australia than anyone else in a period when the Aussies generally topped the world rankings spoke volumes about him as a competitor.

And so did his ability to find a remarkable second wind. In January 2008, his revival began with two Test centuries against Australia. In 2009, he enjoyed his best ever year by scoring seven Test centuries. In 2010, he became the first man to ever score a double century in a one-day international, against South Africa. And the following year came what he regarded as the sweetest victory of his career as India won the World Cup for the first time in 28 years in his home city of Mumbai. Tendulkar, who finished the tournament as second highest scorer, did more than anyone else to secure that victory. How much it meant to the fans can be seen by the fact that the crowd noise was so great the match officials couldn't even hear the call of the Sri Lankan captain at the coin toss.

Over a decade ago Wisden named Tendulkar as the second greatest cricketer of all-time after the legendary Australian batsman Donald Bradman. Given what he's done since 2002, there's an argument for moving Tendulkar up one. Bradman may have averaged 99 runs an innings to Tendulkar's 53 but he did perform in a more circumscribed world where England and Australia were the only serious cricketing nations and the Ashes a de facto world championship.

Tendulkar has come a long way from the time when his coach at schools level Ramakant Achrekar would place a rupee on top of the bails and tell the youngster if he could bat all the way through practice without it being knocked off the coin would be his. Achrekar is 82 now, partially paralysed and unable to speak, but last week Tendulkar went to his house and told him Anjali, the cricketer's wife, would come round and bring him to the

game. The cricketer's mother Rajni was there too, seeing her son play a big match for the first time ever. In the past the lack of wheelchair access had kept her away but Tendulkar had a ramp built specially for the occasion.

His father Ramesh was not there. He died in 1999 during the Cricket World Cup in England. Tendulkar flew home for the funeral, came back to England wearing dark glasses to hide his tears and struck 140 against Kenya. It was just one more remarkable innings in a career full of them.

Another all-time great Shane Warne put it well when he said, "Sachin Tendulkar is, in my time, the best player without a doubt. Daylight is second, Brian Lara third."

As Tendulkar walked from the crease for the last time, Sunil Gavaskar quipped, "A billion hearts are beating at the moment". Gavaskar was his predecessor as the greatest Indian batsman and in 1987 he gave the 14-year-old his Test cricket pads to console him for missing out on an award. The little guy was still wearing them when his Test career began 24 years ago.

It fell to Virat Kohli to face the first ball of the post-Tendulkar era. He hit it for four as befits the World One-Day International Cricketer of the Year. Kohli is only 25. Later in the day, 26-year-old Rohit Sharma became just the fifth player in history to hit two centuries in his first two Test innings. So it goes with sport. There will always be new stars in the firmament.

Yet it's unlikely India will ever see another Tendulkar. Like Ali or Pele or Bolt, he is sui generis in his chosen sport. And when it comes to being loved for so long by so many, he may be out on his own altogether.

As the banners throughout India said last week, 'Salaam Sachin'.

Anonymous path often the best one

Christmas is coming. And so are the ghost-written sports autobiographies. And, increasingly, the confessional chapters which are the numero uno choice as extracts for newspapers. Because, when it comes to serialisation, nothing piques the interest like a bit of personal dysfunction.

The simple fact is that stories of addiction, depression and bad behaviour are big sellers these days. You could argue that this is because we're a more compassionate society. But you could also argue that society has grown more atomised and less neighbourly and that people salve their consciences by weeping over someone else's, thankfully distant, misfortunes. 'Cheap holidays in other people's misery,' as Johnny Rotten once sang.

It's a very good thing for people to talk about their problems instead of bottling them up. But confiding in your loved ones, your family, your friends or a medical professional is one thing. Telling all to a national audience is another. When it comes to the latter instance, a bit of restraint might be no harm.

Public revelation of private problems is not always a wise thing, particularly when your misbehaviour has damaged, hurt or caused embarrassment to people who are a lot closer to you than the general public. There is a danger that in spilling the beans you may be merely displaying the kind of narcissism which got you into trouble in the first place.

You could argue that going public with problems can't do any harm. But this isn't true. It seems to have done nothing but harm to the likes of Paul McGrath and Paul Gascoigne who'd surely have been better able to solve their problems had every crisis in their lives not been treated as a drama by the media. What they need is less rather than more notice.

The problem is that journalists, by and large, aren't interested in someone's recovery or even their problems, they're interested in their story. And all those people who're tweeting how 'moved' they are? Well, they're kind of interested but they'll be just as 'moved' tomorrow by something else, a tasty cake, a video of a cute animal that looks like it's breakdancing, the arrival of the John Lewis Christmas ad. You can't blame them. It's not their problem.

It may give us all a warm glow to pretend that every disclosure of personal trauma deserves the same huge respect. But it's not strictly true. There is a difference between, say, Tony Adams revealing the hell he went through with alcoholism and Ivan Yates whingeing about his lonely year in Wales.

The argument that every new revelation 'increases awareness' of problems is a bit of a cop-out too. We've had many a celebrity confessional and they don't seem to be doing anything to staunch the tide of human misery. Friends can do that, so can therapy and counselling and doctors and even the painful exercise of your own will. Not some footballer confessing all in a book written by someone else.

I have the height of respect for anyone who's come back from or is trying to come back from an addiction or from ill health, whether mental or physical. But when that person is in the public eye, they've got to ask themselves a question. Are you cheapening your recovery by using it to sell copies of a book? And might that not make you part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

Because if Compassion Fatigue sets in among the public, it's not the famous who'll suffer. The public never get tired of the famous. But how will the depressed or addicted Joe Soap fare when his problem comes to be seen as just another publishing USP?

If someone genuinely does have a message of hope to impart it will have more impact on a one-to-one or small group basis rather than when it's broadcast over the airwaves in between the chat with the soap star and the draw for the big prize.

You see, most of the main recovery groups insist on the importance of anonymity, not just at a personal but at a media level. They've always held that people in recovery shouldn't be putting themselves under extra pressure by talking about their problems in the papers and on TV. Those groups have been healing people long before the current vogue for public confession began and they'll be doing it a long time after the media have moved on.

I'd be inclined to think they know what they're talking about.

All Stars defy logic

While I appreciate that it's traditional for the All Stars to include at least one insane choice to provoke public debate, this year's went beyond the call of duty.

There was the omission of Diarmuid Connolly, Dublin's best forward. The wing-forward slots were instead filled by his team-mate Paul Flynn, who didn't have a great year, and Seán Cavanagh, who played almost the entire championship at midfield. Perhaps the All Stars don't matter, but this was an unnecessary insult to an excellent player.

And what's this Cian O'Sullivan at number six nonsense? O'Sullivan's time there consisted of a half in the semi-final against Kerry. He spent the rest of the championship at midfield where he would have been an excellent choice. Instead the panel went for Aidan O'Shea whose anonymity in the semi-final and the final makes him a ludicrous choice. Not least because the effort to shoehorn O'Sullivan into the team results in the exclusion of Donal Vaughan, by some distance the outstanding centre half-back this year.

For this dereliction of duty the selectors should have been made stand up for the duration of the ceremony and deprived of food.

They can count themselves lucky the GAA are too civilised to treat anyone like that at the All Stars. Well, apart from the players.

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