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  • Nishant Joshi
  • Nishant Joshi

  • Nishant Joshi is editor of AlternativeCricket.com, and hosts a weekly cricket podcast
Inside a nation's psyche: Why does India worship Sachin?

Inside a nation's psyche: Why does India worship Sachin?

It's not just the final chapter of a career, it's the end of an institution, and one that affords a chance to delve into a national fascination of hero-worship and schadenfreude respectively.

Immediately before his Test debut, Subramaniam Badrinath was suffering from nerves. A self-critical player, who had paid his dues on the domestic circuit but seen others jump the queue, Badrinath was approached by Tendulkar, who told him: "The trees with the most fruit get hit by the most stones." It's easy to balk at the faux Zen quality of such a statement, but anyone who has studied Sachin for the last quarter of a century knows that it's this sort of detached, karmic sensibility that has allowed him to flourish amid the chaos of status.

In an era of social media and 24-hour breaking news, our ADHD-addled brains need off-field drama to complement on-field action. We need scandals. We need heroes, and we need villains. Sachin has provided us with little so simplistic yet is still worshipped for sheer performance. 

As one of the more cerebral sports out there - apologies to fans of sports where the aim is to place a ball into a net - cricket lends itself to all sorts of narratives being thrown our way, and Sachin Tendulkar's career is a case study in the psyche of the modern fan.

As fans, we suffer from a collective affliction. Like narcissistic toddlers, we are permanently on the cusp of tantrum, keyboards at the ready to outrage as soon as a person - yes, they are people too - nicks behind, or heaven forbid, bowls a wide down the leg-side. A fan's rage and his sport have always coexisted in a perverse love-hate symbiosis, but social media and rolling news have provided willing hosts to incubate this pub-talk into full-blown outrage.

Take one look at any 'sports debate'  on an Indian news channel, and you realize that the ever-increasing eagerness to provide content with a focus on mind-jarring quantity and uppercase headlines has facilitated a mass bypass in empathy when it comes to the people involved. We don't treat sportsmen as people any more, because they're not presented as 'one of us'; they're presented on a pedestal, operating in a world where money is equated with happiness and stardom.

According to our media, this substrata not only represents the best eleven cricket players in a nation of over a billion, but despite an overwhelmingly middle-class background, it also represents an accurate cross-sections of her people. Team India is not just viewed as a team of sportsmen, but also as a group of de facto political representatives. It's a well-worn cliché to speak of a man carrying a billion on his shoulders, but the greater sin is to not acknowledge the integrity of that reality. 

Fans have a tendency to project their own voice and add their own narrative to what is essentially a man with a hunk of wood trying to hit a cork ball as far as he can. This often manifests itself in odd ways, none better than when Sachin Tendulkar was accused of 'adjusting' the ball by Mike Denness in 2001 (in fact, Tendulkar was accused of failing to inform the umpires that he was cleaning the ball, but the fiasco is still referred to as The Ball-Tampering Incident). To say that outrage ensued would be to sell it short: outrage was cultivated and then sold by the media to a bloodthirsty Indian public. 

Accusations of racism were bandied about without basis or repercussion, with the stand-out cover story coming from The Week magazine, who posted on their front page an image of Tendulkar with the line: "VICTIMS OF RACISM: Faced with a totally unfair LAGAAN from an English match referee, Indian cricketers and board ponder the best way to counter this discriminatory raj." An absurd choice of words, but the ferocity of the blinkers that Tendulkar induces was apparent when Denness died. A former England captain and cricketer of some distinction, no obituary was seemingly complete without a reference to this purported scandal. Tendulkar, unwittingly, couldn't help but impose. 


With the quality of discourse so hyperbolic, is it any wonder that so many fans have become polarized?

Tendulkar has had his detractors, whose ability to be loud and contrarian has meant that it has often distorted the issue to an extent where it's unclear whether they're a vocal minority, or a sizable percentage. 

No drugs, no sex, no alcohol: remarkably, Tendulkar's 24-year international career has been relatively scandal-free, and so people overreach for marginal criticisms at the expense of a broader context. We are all perhaps attuned to expecting the most aesthetic splendour from those with glorious weakness - the Cantonas, Maradonas and, as tennis fanatic  Tendulkar would cite, the McEnroes - but conveniently forget that the most peerless, the most special, are those who have combined both art and success without recourse to scandal such as Federer, Schumacher and Sachin himself. Even if Sachin headbutts a West Indian in his final game á la Zidane, he can be assured exiting the sport with a squeaky clean reputation.

His critics talk of Tendulkar's 'selfishness', and that his occasional slowdowns when nearing a century underline this. They'll talk about a tax-free Ferrari, about how he's only played on so long for money, and they'll tell you that MonkeyGate was a sham where Tendulkar used his name to cover for Harbhajan Singh. While there may be some truth in some of the criticisms, it's an absurd extrapolation to relate Sachin's batting to an innate selfishness. 

There are myriad reasons as to why Sachin Tendulkar holds a unique place in the hearts of a billion, but his public persona is manicured around a clenched, dignified silence that comes as naturally as his batting.  No sports star in history has been able to appear so open and forthcoming in interviews yet simultaneously retain such as veil of distance.  

In a country where millions follow cult leaders, fame can intoxicate. Its very perfume is a scent that teases out vanity even in previously grounded individuals, and particularly in the realm of sports, those who sought to reach the summit, but never craved the media glare. What truly makes Tendulkar's feats unique is not his sheer weight of numbers, because eventually, another Indian will come along and smash us over the head with a statistical sledgehammer.

In his autobiography Under The Southern Cross, Mike Hussey writes: "Perhaps Sachin wasn't a God, just another human like the rest of us." It's only ever been Tendulkar's followers who needed reminding of his mortality. The boy from Mumbai was always just too busy to think about it. Too busy batting for himself, his nation, his team mates and his sport.