December 22, 2005

Why a 'coup' when a ceremonious farewell could have done it?

H Natarajan

Sourav Ganguly received instant martyrdom by a graceless decision. The selectors may have their reasons to replace him, but the timing and the manner in which it was executed saw a quantum shift in the groundswell against the man.

Fingers pointed even at Rahul Dravid in the emotional upheaval. Arjuna Ranatunga wrote in his syndicated column that his (Dravid’s) “silence borders on complicity.” Dravid, wrote Ranatunga, had the right to seek the team he wanted, but he “also owed it to his men to be seen standing right next to them.”

I have known Dravid for years and I can stick my neck out and say that his morals rank among the best I have encountered in any sport in anywhere in the world. He is still in his early days as India captain and he probably does not find it easy to be openly critical about the shortcomings of a man who gave up the captaincy in unpleasant circumstances. But as a leader he is expected to take tough decisions. And that is probably where Dravid’s inherent goodness is proving to be a hurdle. His syndicated column had nothing to say about the man and the topic that has polarised a nation like never before. One can understand being guarded in saying things in the press conference where one question can lead to another, but he should have used the medium of column to make his position unambiguously clear.

Clearly, justice was not seen to be done in dropping Ganguly. Was there some serious disconnect between the decision makers? Or should it be interpreted as something else? Dravid had words of praise for his predecessor’s efforts at the post-match media conference. And a day before he was dropped, coach Greg Chappell called the beleaguered Kolkatan a “mentor” - a status he had earlier accorded to Sachin Tendulkar.

So what changed so dramatically at the selection committee meeting to get rid of Ganguly? It’s all the more intriguing because Kiran More swore on his daughter that all of them were party to it. So who is telling the truth and who is not? We may never know the truth and yet again Indian cricket is seen in poor light.

The genesis of the present problem is not in dropping Ganguly for the Ahmedabad Test, nor in picking him for the first Test, but in selecting him under the pretext of an all-rounder!

Irfan Pathan has been scoring consistently and almost got a hundred as an opener at Delhi, yet both he Dravid have gone at length to say that he is not an all-rounder, yet. If that is a fair comment, how on earth can the selectors justify Ganguly an all-rounder when in 86 Tests he had taken just 25 wickets at 53-plus with a best of three wickets in an innings twice? The last of the three-wicket haul came over seven years ago when India went into a Test with just one specialist new ball bowler. Yes, he had the potential to be a decent all-rounder, but then he chose to remain a specialist batsman, and a relief bowler at best for emergency needs. There is subtle but important distinction between potential and performance. And what was Ganguly’s role as a bowler? Two overs in two Tests! This is what happens when inclusions and exclusions are justified with illogical explanations. The half-truths and lies convince nobody and lead to embarrassing situations as it has in Ganguly’s ouster.

It does make sense to have youngsters on the bench, but to say that it’s humiliation to ask a senior player to carry the drinks is a load of garbage. What are we talking about? That it’s job of a waiter (and they, too, have dignity) best done by some insignificant junior? Is that the way one fosters team spirit and oneness? Does it not then make Ganguly right when he was alleged to have refused to carrying drinks on his first tour 1991-92 because such jobs were done by servants in his aristocratic household? Didn’t the greatest of them all, Sir Don Bradman, carry drinks? Was not Venkataraghavan captain for one Test and 12th man in the next?

History bears testimony of batsmen sidelined after scoring heavily. Geoff Boycott was dropped after he got 246 not out in a Test because it served his personal than the team’s interests. Geoff Miller was dropped after getting 98 in a Test because he failed in his primary role as an off-spinner. If batsman is what the team wanted there were more meritorious claimants ahead of him. One thus needs to look beyond cold figures.

More recently, Ganguly convinced few while scratching around to a hundred in Zimbabwe. While one cannot go into lyrical ecstasies with his scores of 40 and 39 at Delhi, it had greater conviction and value than his last hundred and thus merited his retention for the 3rd Test.

But if the selectors are looking into the future and selections and omissions would have to be dictated by the long-term interests of Indian cricket, then they are fully justified. Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and VVS Laxman are in the 31-33 age group. There is a potential situation of the four men exiting around the same time and leaving a huge hole in the middle-order. The selectors need to avert such a situation by inducting youngsters, which necessarily means Ganguly and Laxman are the prime candidates to bid goodbyes.

But these are men who have served Indian cricket for long and made our chests puff with pride. They deserve to be taken into confidence and make the difficult task of saying adieu as less painful as possible. The country needs to give these heroes the kind of farewell that they thoroughly deserve. There was no way any self-respecting Indian could have agreed to the manner in which Ganguly was booted out. Australia has phased out many of their top-notch performers while they were still in good nick. And that includes Steve Waugh, whose scores in his last fourteen innings read 115, 41, 45*, 100*, 156*, 78, 61, 0, 56*, 30, 42, 19, 40 and 80. The nation accorded him an emotional farewell, but one did not read reports of conspiracy theories against NSW simply because of the system’s transparency.

Vintage Ganguly was known for his imperious cover drives, for stepping out and hoicking sixes. That arrogance and authority is missing. Remember his dash in unbridled excitement and leaping into the arms of Mohammad Kaif after India’s sensational NatWest final win at Lord’s? Juxtapose that moment with his lukewarm embrace after a defining moment in Indian cricket history when Tendulkar got his 35th hundred to send the entire nation into orgasmic ecstasy? It may be a reflection of his present state of mind.

He looks a completely beaten man, unsure of his abilities and his allies as looks forlorn and isolated. The shirt-waving, obscenities shouting man on the Lord’s balcony, the mind games he played against Steve Waugh, the confidence with which he took on selectors, the manner in which he demanded and got what he wanted are all things of the past. He has made his share of mistakes and is probably paying for it now. But he has also done enough that India cricket should ever be grateful for. The man deserves to go like a hero and not like a man condemned to the gallows.

December 20, 2005

Sachin Tendulkar - The God Of Big Things

The personal and private side of Sachin Tendulkar is as fascinating and inspiring as his very high profile public life. H Natarajan dwells deep to present the human side of India’s national treasure. It’s a story based on the writer’s interactions with Tendulkar and with those associated with the player over the years.

Sahitya Sahawas, a co-operative housing society of writers in the western suburbs of Bandra, about six kms from Mumbai's famed Shivaji Park, boasts of respected names in Marathi literature like Gangadhar Gadgil, Arvind Gokhale, VP Kale, KJ Purohit, Shrinivas Bhange, Vrinda Karandikar, MV Rajadakshya and Vijaya Rajadakshya.

A stone's throw from Sahitya Sahawas is Patrakar Nagar, residence to some household names in Indian journalism. And not very far away from the two societies, is a modern fortress housing firebrand politician Bal Thackeray.

Amid these celebrated names was a cultured, middle-class household. The head of this family, Prof Ramesh, was a gold-medal winning Marathi literature professor and poet. His eldest son, Nitin, also became a poet and won the state government’s literary award for his first book. But it was the youngest of the professor’s four children who, says Nitin, “needed constant attention from elders in the family.”

``As a child, my kid brother would spend the entire day on the play ground and would hate coming home for his noon meals and nap. He was very difficult to handle at times. Sometimes my grandmother or mother would tie one of his legs to a wooden bench and attend to their house work, like of Bal Krishna!''

Even before he dropped out of college in pursuit of non-academic excellence, the boy had raised visions of becoming an icon and in the years to come attained Demi-God status. Amitabh Bachchan joined in the hosannas to say: “Sachin (Tendulkar) is the heartbeat of our nation. The country breathes every time he goes out to play and when he is out, the country stops breathing.”

Humility and credibility have remained Tendulkar’s strongest allies from his days as a non-entity to a super celebrity. I have watched him from close quarter right from his school days and never once I have seen him behave in an insensitive or arrogant manner. Now that is something not easy when you are a megastar.

A noted cricket columnist compared Tendulkar with Brian Lara: “One has his head high in the clouds, the other has his feet firmly planted on ground. While Lara has acquired for himself a swanky nine-bedroom luxury abode in Trinidad, adorned with marble staircase and a bat-shaped swimming pool, Tendulkar, international cricket's biggest money-spinner, lives in a modest two-bedroom house.”

Of course, this was written before Tendulkar moved into a swank, spacious house quite late in his career. It’s perfectly alright for anybody to enjoy luxuries in life from legitimate labour, but what the writer was trying to convey was that despite earning enormous wealth Tendulkar continued to stay for years in the same middle-class environment.

Nitin, the eldest of the Tendulkar brothers, gave me an insight into Sachin the person during a visit to his place a few years back: “He seeks blessings at the feet of all the family elders and Achrekar Sir before embarking on a tour. And he never forgets to buy things for every single family members when he returns back from the tour. Another endearing quality about him is that he never gets angry.”

One can vouch for that. Even when he is cocooned in the privacy of his hotel room with a `Do Not Disturb' board on his door, he has shown compassion than anger towards deadline-pressured journalists knocking at his door. He would be much happier if he were left alone by the media, yet few Indian superstars have been as helpful as him.

He has no known enemies in the media, but then he has not cultivated favourites either. To those who have offended him by their writings, his philosophy is simple: ``Pressmen too are entitled to having their bad days.''

Ajit Tendulkar (the brother who shaped Sachin’s cricketing fortunes) said in one of his meetings with me: ``I have never heard Sachin complain about anything written against him. He takes everything written about him in his stride – be it good or bad. He allows nothing to affect him.

If there is one thing he could buy with all his money, then it’s privacy. Taking the family out for a movie or for a dinner would mean running the risk of being mobbed. For a religious man like him, even going to the temples mean the focus shifting from the stone idols to the living idol! So visit to temples are at unearthly hours. He just cannot do simple things that most people take it for granted.

When he was still in the prime of his youth, he understood his social responsibility and said no to endorsing cigarettes, alcohol and pan masala when others of his age were making ‘style statements’ doing exactly the opposite. But then, while boys of his age were playing gully cricket, he was already rubbing shoulders with cricketing greats like Kapil Dev and Mohammad Azharuddin. It would be fair to say, Tendulkar missed a lot of things that boys do in their teenage years. As a result, the mental transition to manhood came about while physically he still looked an adolescent.

A common praise I heard from all those who have known him is that he has always showed concern for those not as fortunate as him. The Mumbai team got Reebok as their sponsors a few years back only because Tendulkar agreed, though the money offered for the entire team was one fourths of the price Tendulkar single-handedly commanded at that time. He agreed only because it would help the rest of his team-mates. And it’s not just fellow players. He paid his entire Ranji Trophy season's earnings to the Mumbai Cricket Association ground staff after Mumbai beat Punjab in the 1994-95 final.

There is unanimity that fame and success have not changed him one bit. This despite the fact that his single month's earnings - even very early in his career - far exceeded the amount most people get after slogging a lifetime. Even today, except for his passion for luxury cars and fast driving, his interests are like any other middle class person – music, family, friends and good food.

Though he is a very private person by nature, he is not a recluse. He is fun-loving when and where he wants to be. “In the dressing room, at times he is like a schoolboy when he is with Vinod (Kambli). They keep pulling each other's legs,” says Balwinder Sandhu.

Of course, Kambli has remained one of his soul mates since his Sharadashram school days. “He is the first guy I talk to anything important about my cricketing, personal or private life,” Kambli had told me once about his closest buddy. “I will never forget the happiness on his face when I and Ajay (Jadeja) join the team in Australia for the 1992 World Cup. (The team that had stayed back after the Test series against Australia). It was around 12.30 at night when we arrived in the team hotel. And there was Sachin waiting for me, greeting me with a warm hug. He knew I would make it for the World Cup.”

The concern and love that Kambli talks kept ringing in my ears everytime I spoke to somebody known to Tendulkar. Coach Ramakant Achrekar said: “It was Sachin who was instrumental in the success of my two benefits. He is very big-hearted and distributes among his team-mates gifts showered on him. He has never forgotten the values and upbringing inculcated in him by his parents.”

As Ajit Tendulkar explained: ``Our parents gave us the liberty to do what we want. But we ensured that we did not breach the trust reposed on us. Even when the decision was made to change Sachin's school from New English (Bandra) to Shardasharam, my dad spoke to Sachin to know his feelings even at that young age.''

Tendulkar’s decision to be largely private, soft-spoken and non-demonstrative has meant many of his inspiring qualities do not get the attention that it deserves. Prof Ratnakar Shetty told me how upset Tendulkar was to see the Indian flag hung upside down during India’s 1997 tour of Sri Lanka. Tendulkar, Shetty added, not only called the liaison officer and saw to it the mistake was quickly rectified but also asked him how he would have felt to see the Sri Lankan national flag in such a position.

Photographer Pradeep Mandhani reiterates Tendulkar’s patriotism: “Barely two hours after landing in Johannesburg on the 1992-93 tour to South Africa, the team was to visit Tolstoy Farm, Mahatma Gandhi’s first Satyagrahi Commune founded in 1910. It was situated 35 kms from Jo’burg and most of the Indian players showed little interest, longing to rest in the hotel after the long flight. But Tendulkar, still a teenager, looked keen and hungry to learn more about Gandhi. His volley of questions to the guide reflected his national pride.”

Another journalist friend, Joseph Hoover, recalls a casual conversation he had with Tendulkar on the 1997 tour of Pakistan led. “I suggested to Sachin to do something for the less fortunate of the society. He instantly agreed and asked me my plans; I had none as it was a casual remark. But within minutes he phoned Meerut and arranged for bats to be sent to Bangalore which were to be signed by players and later auctioned. Thanks to his initiative and the enthusiasm of the Indian team, an auction of cricketing equipment donated by players was held the following year and the proceeds went to street children in Mumbai (Apnalaya) and a home for the blind and another the leprosy afflicted in Bangalore. All this from a casual talk.”

Tendulkar’s concern for terminally-ill children is especially pronounced. He does not like to put off any meetings when they want to meet him, even when doctors assure him that there is no immediate threat to their lives. He even keeps in touch with their families. Of course, he hates talking about it.

He shows similar concern for fellow players. Beneficiaries in India often suffer when players don’t turn up after promising to participate in their benefit games, but Tendulkar has never been accused of letting down any player. He is aware of his magnetic powers, having seen spectators in thousands heading for the exit the moment he is dismissed.

Says TA Sekhar: “There was much hype in the media when Sachin had become the first overseas player to be signed for Yorkshire. He had promised that he would play my benefit, but I feared that his star appeal would be missing. It would have been a huge blow for me. When I rang up Sachin, he replied: ‘Don’t worry, when I give my word I honour it. I have made it clear before signing the contract with Yorkshire that I have a commitment to play a benefit and I cannot let down the beneficiary.’ Sachin kept up his word.”

Tendulkar’s public reputation is such that when he was accused of ball tampering, the entire nation rose in protest. NKP Salve, former Union Minister and a past president of the BCCI, echoed the sentiments of the masses when he said: “Sachin cannot cheat. He is to cricket what (Mahatma) Gandhiji was to politics. It’s clear discrimination.” The ICC were forced to explain that Tendulkar’s only mistake was removing grass from the ball without informing the umpires, “which is very different from ball tampering”.

One of the biggest factors that vouch for his credibility was at the height of the match-fixing scandal it was said that the betting mafia would not fix odds till Tendulkar was dismissed.
Tendulkar is unquestionably one of the all-time greats of the game, but what boggles the mind is the fact that, despite the surrealistic fame and trappings of money, the values and humility inculcated by his parents have remained intact. The middle class roots of the Tendulkars are very strong. Sachin’s mother Rajini continued to be an LIC employee long after her son became cricket’s Bill Gates.

Tendulkar may have made the transition from Bandra East to the upper crust Bandra West in a building that also houses another high-profile celebrity - Aishwarya Rai. But East or West, “the greatest living Indian”, as Bishan Bedi once lauded Sachin, remains still unspoilt, uncorrupted and unassuming as ever.


Cherished Moments

  • I first visited the Tendulkar residence when Sachin was still creating waves as a schoolboy. The visit was to get inputs for what was among the first feature articles written on Sachin. The abiding memory of that visit was the image of the family remaining completely unaffected and showing no visible trace of excitement that parents normally betray when they see a media person wanting to write about their young child.
  • The Tendulkars have remained conscious of their middle class values and their middle class friends who have been friends long before Sachin became “Richie Rich”. Though the family opted for a very private wedding ceremony for Sachin (the reception was a public affair), they ensured that there was an exclusive celebration reserved for the Sahawas inhabitants and close friends. These were the people with whom they bonded emotionally when they fame and fortune was still to knock at their doors and they decided to treat them in a special manner.
  • I cannot recollect a single instance when he hurt a kid by refusing an autograph asked at an appropriate time. In fact, I recall an instance when we were both talking while awaiting a flight when a father butted in with his child and interrupted us. Any other person would have expressed his displeasure at the intruding gentleman, but Tendulkar shook hands with the child, gave his autograph and genuinely made him feel good by telling him to study well and obey his parents. It was a humbling moment. His love for kids has meant they have often left his room with cakes, pastries and fruits.
  • I had once requested Tendulkar for an interview after he had returned from a long tour. The request was made at night while the following morning he was heading for a spending some quiet couple of days with his wife outside the state before heading to play a benefit match. Yet, he was gracious enough to say that he would do a long-distance telephone interview for me. I just did not have the heart to take advantage of his niceness. I told him that he deserved his rest and the little moment of privacy he got with his wife and decided not to trouble him. Was I unprofessional? Maybe. But I felt good that I was able to project a human face to a good gesture.
  • Former ICC panel umpire VK Ramaswamy told me a story which underlines Tendulkar’s commitment. Sometime in the early 90s, the organisers of a tournament in Meerut were worried that Tendulkar may not turn up as he was playing a benefit match the previous day at Silchar. “But he took a flight from Silchar to Delhi, covered the two and half hour distance from Delhi to Agra by road, reached around 3.00 am and was there at the match, looking as fresh and enthusiastic as ever to play for his office (Sun-Grace Mafatlal)!”
  • Hemant Kenkre, a dear friend of mine, recollects the time Tendulkar refused to accept money for an ad he did for Anja San. The exclusive men’s boutique in Mumbai is owned by singer Asha Bhosle' s son, who wanted to pay Tendulkar his price. But Tendulkar would not accept it. Says Kenkre: ``Frankly I would have taken money in Sachin's place. I can understand him refusing the money today, but at that early point of his career he was not making the kind of money he is making today. It truly showed the character in him.”