Sachin Tendulkar was naughty, just like any other kid his age, when he was in school. Vinod Kambli and he would constantly be at each other’s throats – playfully though, and when they were not talking or thinking cricket, they would spend their time playing pranks on their teammates. Even today, when the two of them meet in the dressing room or elsewhere, there is constant banter between the two. They behave like two teenagers and keep pulling each other’s legs, oblivious of the attention they get from the others around them.
For his fans the world over, Sachin is ‘God’. Like Lord Krishna, who in his childhood was notorious for ‘stealing’ buttermilk from pots in the neighbourhood, the young Sachin loved food and made sure he had a stomach full at lunch time. Cute, with a curly mop of hair, he would come to the RCF Sports Club in Chembur with the Shardashram School squad to play practice matches very often. The club attendant in those days was one Anil Rakshit, who fondly remembers the pranks played by Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. “Both of them were very mischievous,” he avers in his Bengali accent. “At lunch, ‘Sochin’ and ‘Binod’ would be first in line and made sure they had a plateful. They would be back in five minutes for a second helping and then come back again to ask if any food was left.” He says he would smack their bottoms very often, but since they were such good players and very, very loveable kids, he would prepare extra food for them.
Today, twenty one years after he made his test debut, Sachin has achieved everything that a cricketer could possibly achieve in one lifetime and still seems to have appetite for more. On the wrong side of thirty, an age when sportspersons think about making a graceful exit, the cricketing ‘God’ seems to be in sublime form and looks good for a few more hundreds. In recent times, he has been piling up tons with the ease of a gourmand picking food from a table laden with exotic food.
The l’il genius, I believe, is still a foodie and voracious eater. Playing at the RCF Sports Club in 1995, he was on his way to a brilliant hundred against Baroda in a Ranji league game, when lunch was served. Not wanting to stuff himself while batting, he nibbled on a few chicken pieces and salad, and then took a trip to the pantry to request that a plateful of leg pieces be kept aside for him. After he got out, tearing the Baroda bowlers to shreds, he came in and cleaned off the chicken stew. Till a few years after that match, whenever he was in town, he would request the caterer at the RCF club to send him a ‘dabba’ful of chicken stew and prawn ‘masala’.
I had heard about Sachin’s ‘class’ from bowlers who had bowled to him in local tournaments. Pradeep Kasliwal, a Mumbai Ranji seamer, once told me, “This little chap has three shots for every ball. You can’t keep him quiet.” I got to see him only a few months later when an Achrekar XI played a friendly game against the senior RCF side. Sachin was class personified in the short innings that he played, but the more flamboyant Vinod Kambli was the one who really impressed me that day. Both of them, just into their teens, had no qualms about facing up to an attack of almost first-class standard and treated us as if we were school level bowlers. For his little frame, Sachin packed a lot of power in his shots and wasn’t afraid to play on the up while Vinod Kambli had the usual left-hander’s grace.
Off the field, I observed that Sachin was quite conservative and spoke little, while his mate, Vinod Kambli was more outgoing, fidgety and dressed the Caribbean way. Both of them, though, had the ‘India’ class written all over them. What really impressed me about the duo that day was the confidence with which they carried themselves. It was as if they knew they were born to play at the highest level!
Sachin grew up in a family that loved and cared for his every need. Doting parents and a brother, Ajit, who sacrificed his blossoming cricket career to guide and protect his younger sibling. Staying at his uncle’s home in Shivaji Park, Sachin attended the Shardashram School and came under the tutelage of their cricket coach, Ramakant Achrekar. His coach, realising his potential very early, would cart him around on his decrepit scooter from ground to ground, allowing him to bat against different bowling attacks. On occasions, Sachin would bat in three different matches on grounds as far flung as Azad Maidan, Shivaji Park and RCF Sports Club, one, ten to twelve kilometres away from the other.
Vinod Kambli, who made a greater initial impact at the international level, could have become an all time great, given better emotional support at home and a circle of friends and advisors who would keep him grounded. Sachin was luckier in this aspect. He could fall back on people he trusted for advice, and the values he had been imbued with while growing up in a stable family stood him in good stead when fighting the battle for survival at the test level. A professor for a father; a mother who quite simply doted on him and siblings who loved and cared for him. A coach who believed in his ability and friends who were friends rather than sycophants; what was more important was his ability, from a very young age, to differentiate between what was right for him and what wasn’t. The coming of Anjali into Sachin’s life further strengthened him. A doctor of medicine, she has willingly remained backstage and looked after the family affairs portfolio so that her husband could single-mindedly destroy bowling attacks the world over.
If Sachin hadn’t decided to take up cricket as a career, I am sure he would have excelled in whatever vocation he took up. I was amazed at his work ethic even when he was just 16, an age when most of us spent our time reading novels, throwing glances at the sweet girl next door and cooking up excuses to bunk classes. Making his international debut on the difficult tour of Pakistan in 1989-90, he came back unscathed and with added determination to be more successful on the tour of Ol’ Blighty the coming summer.
About a fortnight before the England tour of 1990, he rang me up to request for practice sessions at the RCF Sports Club ground. “The RCF wicket helps seam and swing bowlers and will provide me with useful practice for English pitches,” he would assert. He would be at the nets at the dot of 3 pm and face 8-10 pace and swing bowlers for more than a couple of hours. He would inform the bowlers what line and length he wanted them to bowl and play the cover drive, the straight drive and the on drive by turns. He would also play the straight lofted drive, easily clearing the sightscreen. After an intense session of batting, we would walk down to a tea stall called ‘Hariyali’ in the RCF Colony to relax and discuss his batting. He was all ears to the suggestions given by me and other bowlers and would work on those points the next day. When he scored a hundred in Ol’ Blighty, all of us who had bowled to him at the RCF nets were delighted to have contributed to his success.
Sachin may have missed out on formal education, having turned a pro at 16, but makes up for it through a mind that is hyperactive and gives a lot of thought to his actions. His planning is meticulous and his fantastic visualisation skills are advantageously used to demolish the opposition bowlers. He is a keen observer and despite breaking every record in the book, still tries to learn new things about the game.
His quest for knowledge is almost childlike. In 1997, as Coach of Mumbai team, a week practice was organised at RCF ground due to unavailability of Wankhede stadium. I was behind the net, observing him bat, when Sandeep Dahad, a left arm seamer who later played for Mumbai, was about to start his run up, Sachin said, without taking his eyes off the bowler, “Balluji, he is bowling the out-swinger.” After the ball swung away and the li’l champion shouldered arms, I asked him how he knew. “The rough of the ball was on the outside when he gripped it,” he replied. I was amazed at his eyesight and intense concentration, for it wasn’t easy differentiating the rough side from the shiny side from a distance of around 50 yards. Studying him that day, I noticed that he was making mental notes of every bowler in the nets and learning from every delivery.
A couple of week later, I was bowling to Sachin before a Ranji match against Gujarat in Valsad. Knowing that he observes the bowler’s grip, I took extra care to shine the ball and hold the rough side out as I started my run up. In my gather, with the flick of fingers changed the grip on the ball and bowled an in-swinger. The batting genius was foxed initially but had enough time to change his shot and place the ball past midwicket. Raising his eyebrows, he asked me, “When did you change your grip on the ball? I thought you were bowling an out-swinger!” After his batting session, Sachin made it a point to ask me how I had managed to change my grip without him noticing it. Learning how it was done, he was happy only after trying it out in the nets a few times.
When Sachin first burst onto the cricket scene, pundits severely criticised his grip on the bat. Most experts felt he would be sorted out at the international level very soon. Holding the bat low down, with both hands together was unusual, but he seemed to be comfortable with it. Besides, he was scoring heavily on all types of surfaces and against all types of bowling. He had come to use that grip after much practice and introspection; his excellent hand-eye coordination, superb coordination between the top and bottom hands and outstanding body balance helped him succeed with that grip. Also, being of less than average height, the low grip allowed him to use a heavier bat and pack more punch into his shots. Almost twenty years after doubts were raised, the l’il champion is still using that grip and has scored more than 32,000 runs and nearly a hundred tons at the international level.
I was fortunate to have worked with the l’il genius during my tenure as the Mumbai coach. Every interaction with him was not only a learning experience, but also a lesson in humility. He is like the sculptor who keeps chipping till the time he feels that the work of art will satisfy the critics. Having done that, he then sits and introspects and starts working on the sculpture to iron out the faults that he, and only he, observes. Sachin is always open to suggestions to improve any aspect of his game.
I had noticed a chink in his armour after he got out bowled on a few occasions. Believing that he was falling over to the off side as the ball was released and in the process, losing his balance, I suggested that he should raise his bat back a bit earlier, flex his knees and keep his head steady – as Sunil Gavaskar did – so that he could get a clearer view of the ball and more time to decide on the appropriate shot. On another occasion, I observed that he was not happy with his off drive and had asked one of the bowlers to help him practice the shot with throw downs. Watching his front foot closely, I noticed that it was leading with the toes instead of with the heel-toe action. This was upsetting his balance, with his head moving too far forward. As soon as I passed on this information to him, he practiced the shot for over a hundred throw downs and stopped only when he was satisfied.
The batting legend, in fact, started off as a pace bowler in local cricket. Despite his short stature, he would take the new ball and bowl bouncers at the opposing batsmen. He still loves bowling pace and doesn’t miss the opportunity to bowl bouncers whenever his mate Vinod Kambli is batting. Always aggressive, he loves hitting batsmen – especially pace bowlers – in the nets and derives great pleasure out of it.
Sachin used to send his bat to me for ‘stroking’ with his childhood friend, Atul Ranade, who was playing for RCF then. I noticed that somewhere down the line, he started using a heavier bat and this was hurting my wrist. While discussing the change of bats with him once, I suggested that he might be getting tired after facing 120-150 deliveries. “Your bat speed must be slowing down. It could help to change to a lighter bat after the first 120 deliveries to get to a double hundred,” I had suggested. Sachin tried this with success on quite a few occasions. However, he found a better solution: that of building a stronger upper body, and then did not find the need to change bats.
Over the years, I have observed one human frailty in the l’il genius; if it could be called a fault at all. He does not like to be dominated and provoked. In the ’95 Ranji match that was played at the RCF ground, Mukesh Narula, the Delhi based medium pacer angered the great man by bowling a bouncer and mouthing some expletives. Provoked, Sachin not only tore him to shreds but went after the other Baroda bowlers too, scoring a hundred in no time at all. The Baroda players must have cursed Narula for his imprudence that evening.
On another occasion, I saw him puncture a bowler’s confidence with the nonchalance of a champion. Sandeep Dahad, a tall and strong left arm pacer, had bowled to Sachin at the Mumbai nets and had troubled him with his outgoing ball. A nod of the head from the genius every time he was beaten had sent Dahad’s confidence soaring. That evening as the young bowler returned home in my car, he seemed chirpy and on top of the world. He spoke endlessly of how he had troubled Sachin with his bounce and swing. The next day, Dahad was keen to bowl to the great man and I acceded to his request by handing him a brand new ball. The first ball from the bowler was a bouncer which was hooked over the Wankhede Stadium roof. The ball probably landed 150 yards away, close to Marine Drive, and was never retrieved. Sachin gave Dahad ‘special’ treatment that day, and on our way back, I hardly heard the normally talkative Dahad speak! To be fair, however, Sachin was highly impressed with Dahad’s abilities and would often inquire about his progress.
One of my favourite gazal singers, Jagjit Singh once said that there were three stages of learning; the first stage, where one learns from the guru; the second, when one learns from one’s mistakes and the third where one learns from himself and creates something new.
As coach of the Mumbai team I watched from close how Sachin’s genius troubled the legendary leg spinner, Shane Warne during the 1997-98 India-Australia series. The world’s most aggressive spinner was to come to India and was probably planning to devour the Indians on spinner-friendly tracks. The l’il champion, though, had his plan ready for the legendary leggie. He would practice on worn out tracks against leg spinners and devised the slog-sweep to counter Warne’s huge leg breaks. In the Mumbai-Australia warm up game before the series commenced, Sachin literally smashed the spinner to all parts of the Brabourne Stadium, starting off with a slog-swept six over mid-wicket. Mumbai drubbed the Aussies by an innings in that match and the great little batsman never allowed Warne to get a foothold on that tour. Warne confessed after the series that Sachin gave him sleepless nights. The l’il genius, though, never gloated over his dominance of the bowler, always giving him off the field respect that the legend deserved.
I have hardly ever seen Sachin reacting to media criticism. He was, however, hurt and fuming when Sanjay Manjrekar had a dig at him in one of his articles. Discussing the issue with the l’il genius over the phone, I suggested that Sanjay was doing his ‘job’ as a professional journalist and the only way to react to his criticism was to prove him wrong through your performances. He felt that Sanjay, a good friend, could have discussed the issue with him before going to the press. “Sanjay is somebody who calls a spade a spade,” I replied. “But he is your well wisher. May be he is trying to provoke you to do better. Isn’t that our ‘khadoos’ Mumbai style of playing cricket?” He agreed and thought he had probably over reacted.
A few years ago he seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for the game. Day in and day out of cricket was taking its toll. In a conversation with him, I suggested that he should start thinking like an 18-year-old again; the eagerness would then return. I sent him an ‘sms’ saying, “You batted like an 18-year-old,” after he played a scintillating knock and he was quick to thank me with the message, “Thank you, Balluji”.
I have always believed that Sachin was given the mantle of captaincy at the wrong time. A thinker, much ahead of his time, he loves leading from the front. At the time he became captain though, not all players were contributing a hundred percent to the team effort. I was called to help out with fielding drills, in the India-South Africa test match at Mumbai, when Sachin was captain and Kapil Dev was coach. Both of them had similar styles of working and could not get down to accepting less than hundred percent efforts. As was evident, most players in that team were looking to survive individually and did not care much about the team’s glory. The Indians lost the test match at Mumbai that could have been won with a little effort and Sachin was thoroughly disgusted. Working with players whose integrity was in question took a heavy toll of him and it was only natural that he decided to step down.
The l’il genius has changed his batting style from being a flamboyant stroke maker in his early days to accept the role of a senior statesman in the Indian top order. His reassuring presence at the wicket has given stroke players like Sehwag, Yuvraj, Dhoni and the others the freedom to play their shots. He has had a great part to play in India’s becoming the numero uno test team in the world.
Sachin was nicknamed the ‘Master Blaster’ after an electrifying knock in one of his early test matches. One journalist had asked me to comment on his great knock and I had replied, “He is a combination of Sunil Gavaskar, the ‘L’il Master’ and Viv Richards, the ‘Blaster’. Hence, he should be called the ‘Master Blaster’. That nickname stuck with him for a long time. He is now the master of all he surveys. Having surpassed all records, he now has to set his own benchmarks and keep motivating himself to break his own barriers. It is indeed an unenviable task, but then Sachin is ‘God’, isn’t he?
Sachin Tendulkar is gone on record saying that he was inspired by the 1983 World Cup win to take up the game. Only ten years of age then, he is said to have celebrated the victory with friends from his building till early hours of the morning. I sincerely hope and pray that India wins the World Cup of 2011. That will be a fitting tribute to the genius of Sachin Tendulkar. I also hope that the 2011 triumph will inspire a few more geniuses like him to take up cricket as a profession. Good luck, Sachin and God speed!