I thought there was talent in Sachin. —Ajit Tendulkar
He scored his maiden first-class century on debut at 15; his first Test ton came when he was just 17. But the first person to ‘bowl’ to Sachin was his nanny. Laxmibai Ghije used to throw a plastic ball at the toddler, all of two and a half years, who would hit it back with a dhoka (washing stick). ‘We used to go to the terrace and play. I was the first bowler he faced in his life,’ the 68-year-old recalled in an interview to the Week (29 November 1998).
For 11 years Sachin was under the care of Laxmibai at the writers’ cooperative housing society of Sahitya Sahawas (roughly translated, the ‘community of litterateurs’) in the middle-class suburb of Bandra (East). His father, Professor Ramesh Tendulkar, taught Marathi at Mumbai’s Kirti College, and mother Rajini worked with the Life Insurance Corporation of India ( LIC ). Sachin was born on 24 April 1973, 11 years after brother Ajit; sister Savita and brother Nitin were the older siblings. His grandfather named him after the famous Hindi music composer, Sachin Dev Burman.
Coincidentally, music would be one of the adult Sachin’s three passions, the other two being cricket and his family.
Nitin, Savita and Ajit were children from their father’s first marriage. When their mother passed away, Ramesh was left with three young children to bring up, and as is the custom in several parts of India, he married the sister of his late wife.
The family was not particularly sports oriented, with poetry and literature being the abiding passions of father Ramesh, a gold medallist of Bombay University in both the BA and MA examinations. Nitin took after his father and his initial interest in cricket was soon diverted to poetry. Ajit was the first in the family to seriously take to cricket; he captained his school team and also played in college and for various club sides. Both today work for Air India, Nitin as a flight purser and Ajit in reservations.
In the 1970s and 80s, the live telecast of cricket and other sports, notably the finals of Wimbledon, brought the superstars of the sporting world into the homes of Indians who were starved of top quality international sports. The very year Sachin was born, the cricket-mad city of Mumbai for the first time had the privilege of watching a Test match live on TV . It was the fifth and final Test against the MCC (England) side led by Tony Lewis and would be the final Test match to be played at the Brabourne Stadium. Ten years later India won the Prudential World Cup in England—shown live in the country—beating twice-champions West Indies in the final against all odds. Sachin had reached ‘double figures’ just two months before that epochal victory and was part of the new
generation of youngsters fired by one of India’s greatest sporting achievements.
Sachin, judging from the memories of his childhood friends, was a hyperactive child. An unusual mix of school-yard bully and sensitive soul, he stood out among his friends even at a young age. Laxmibai recalls his compassion as a little boy and his loyalty to his friends, which has stayed with him all his life. ‘After coming home from school, he used to have his milk very reluctantly on the staircase. At times he would give the milk to Ramesh, his childhood friend. I used to feed him while he played,’ Laxmibai said in the 1998 interview. And he always insisted on two plates while eating—one for himself and another for Ramesh, the son of the local watchman and his fast friend. Today Ramesh is personal assistant to Ajit and Sachin.
The 11 buildings in the Sahitya Sahawas housing complex (the Tendulkars’ wing, where Ajit still lives with his mother, is called ‘ Ushakkal ’) had by the standards of the crowded metropolis, a large playground, all of 30 yards by 30 yards. This for Sachin and his close companions constituted the great outdoors. His brother Ajit recalls Sachin as a restless child who could never stay in one spot for long and was always running around. He had also an early interest in outdoor games.
Childhood photos of Sachin show him with a mass of curly long hair, exuberant and playful. The early neighbourhood gang consisted of Avinash Gowariker (now a photographer) and Sunil Harshe (a contractor) while Atul Ranade (Mumbai Ranji Trophy player) was a friend from kindergarten. The most abiding memory rarely came out on the losing side.
Ranade’s first glimpse of Sachin was in junior kindergarten. His long hair had him initially mistaken for a girl. ‘But it turned out to be a boy and that too a very strong boy,’ said Ranade in Outlook (4 January 1999).
By the time he reached the second grade, Sachin had achieved the not inconsiderable feat for a six-year-old of beating up another boy all of two years older than him. ‘Bashing them up for no reason’ was his own unique way of getting his message across to his peer group, according to Ranade. But he showed compassion too, though this trait was reserved for animals. Gowariker summed up the paradox: ‘He was a very tender person. But he was always fascinated with power, speed and things like that.’
Sachin’s first sporting hero, though, was not a cricketer; it was tennis superstar John McEnroe. The 1981 Wimbledon final between the brash American and the cool Swede, Bjorn Borg, was the first to be shown live in India. It was the match that saw Borg’s five-year reign brought to an end in an epic final. Borg was the sentimental favourite all over the world, India included. But Sachin was rooting for the younger man. McEnroe’s victory in 1981 spawned a mini ‘Mac’ in faraway Bandra. Briefly, the child’s fascination was for tennis. With racket in hand and the trademarks of the new Wimbledon champion—headband and two wristbands, not to mention the curly hair—the makeover was complete. It was not long before his friends dubbed him ‘Mac’. Fortunately for Indian cricket, the fling with tennis did not last, and before long Sachin had made it to the Sahitya Sahawas ‘big boys’ cricket team.
By the time he was 11, Sachin’s obsession with cricket had begun. Every morning at 6 a.m., he would be at the nets in Shivaji Park. Sachin’s uncle and aunt, Suresh and Mangala Tendulkar, lived just across the road from the park. Sachin would finish school (Sharadashram English, very close to Shivaji Park) in the morning and then go to his uncle’s for lunch and a rest before crossing to Shivaji Park for afternoon practice from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The kit would be left at his uncle’s house, and with his school bag he would get home by 8 p.m. Studies and dinner followed and then a tired Sachin would be in bed. But the commute from Bandra (East) to Dadar (West) became too strenuous after a while and it was decided that it would be better if he stayed on at his uncle’s place. The arrangement continued till he made his first-class debut in 1988. It was his brother Ajit who first spotted Sachin’s natural talent. While Sachin imitated his heroes in other sports (notably, McEnroe), where cricket was concerned, he had a style of his own. Ajit noticed his feel for the game and his ability to read the length of the ball. The talent was most definitely there. And it struck Ajit before anyone else. Indian cricket—indeed, the world of sports—owes a huge debt to Ajit Tendulkar, for it was he who set the first small steps in motion.
To understand the rapid rise of Tendulkar from schoolboy cricketer to international star, you first have to understand the ethos and history of Mumbai cricket. Mumbai has produced more Bombay,’ it is no exaggeration. According to him, the most intense clashes he ever took part in were India v Pakistan, Mumbai v Delhi and Dadar Union v Shivaji Park Gymkhana.
Mumbai’s proud record in the Ranji Trophy has faded from the glory days that lasted till the mid-70s. Nor do its players these days dominate the ranks of the national team, as had traditionally been the case since India made its international debut in 1932. Indeed, there have been occasions when Sachin Tendulkar was the sole representative in the Test side from the city that boasts the proudest cricket tradition in the land. The North (particularly Delhi) and the South (particularly Karnataka) caught up with their western rival in the mid-70s. Before that Mumbai remained unbeaten from 1958-59 to 1972-73, a golden streak of 15 years unprecedented in the history of first-class cricket.
To understand the passion that is cricket, take a train to Mumbai. Look out of the window as you approach the city and you will see the evidence all around. On tiny strips of land next to the tracks, on streets and in fields, wherever a little space can be squeezed out, boys of all ages, often with the most rudimentary equipment, can be seen playing their hearts out from dawn to dusk. Veteran cricket journalist Pradeep Vijayakar told me that this passion for cricket in his beloved city was ‘unquenchable’: ‘If I could afford to, I would be at the nets early in the morning, play a match during the day and then coach in the evening.’
The ‘Bombay school of batsmanship’ is a tradition that has served Indian cricket well. It is founded on technical certitude and a ruthless streak where the bowler is the enemy and occupation of the crease a kind of tunnel vision—a take-no-prisoners style of cricket. And the names of Mumbai’s great batsmen read like an honour scroll of Indian cricket—Vijay Merchant, Rusi Modi, Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor, Vijay Manjrekar, Dilip Sardesai, Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Sandeep Patil, Sanjay Manjrekar, down to the present generation of Pravin Amre, Vinod Kambli and quite possibly the finest of them all, Sachin Tendulkar.
It was on a beach not far from Mumbai, in the Gulf of Cambay, that the very first game of cricket in India was played. Here, in 1721, British sailors and traders whiling away their time during a fortnight’s docking played the occasional game which attracted a smattering of local interest. In 1792, the Calcutta Cricket Club (now the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club) was established, the second oldest cricket club in the world after the MCC . Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) was then the headquarters of the British East India Company. But the action soon switched to Mumbai which witnessed its first match in 1797, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the city’s tiny Parsi community, also known as India’s Hambledon (the birthplace of cricket) men. The first club, the Oriental Cricket Club, was formed in 1848 by which time the Parsis, who had fled Persia in the sixth century, had made a reputation for themselves in virtually every field from business to sporting. They also followed several British customs and traditions, including the game of cricket.
The first team from India to tour England were the Parsis in 1886. Though they could register just one win from 28 matches, the pioneering steps had been taken and two years later, there was a marked improvement in their record when they toured again. Early enthusiasm among Mumbai’s population for cricket was obvious in 1890 when the Parsis beat G.F. Vernon’s team from England by four wickets, watched by 12,000 spectators. After they had beaten two more sides from England, a biannual match between the Parsis and the Europeans was instituted in 1895. The Governor of Bombay Presidency, Lord Harris, a former MCC president and England Test captain, was one of the early patrons of Indian cricket, and his name lives on in the Harris Shield inter-school tournament in Mumbai in which Sachin first made a name for himself.
By 1907, the Hindus had joined the fray and the tournament grew to a triangular. By 1912, it was termed as the Quadrangular with the inclusion of the Muslims, and then came the Pentangular with players from other communities (including Christians, Jains, Buddhists and Jews) playing for The Rest. All these matches were played in Mumbai, but eventually the league gave way to the Ranji Trophy after it received the stamp of disapproval from none other than Mahatma Gandhi, who considered anything practised along communal lines anathema.
The bedrock of Mumbai cricket in the twentieth century was the Kanga League which was established in 1948 and which journalist Rajdeep Sardesai (son of Dilip Sardesai) described as the ‘heart and soul of Bombay cricket’ ( An Indian Cricket Omnibus , ed. Guha and Vaidyanathan). Rajdeep himself once carried his bat for 19 in a total of 40 for Jolly Cricketers (for whom Ajit Tendulkar also turned out) in a Kanga League match in 1990. Every Mumbai cricketer from Merchant to Tendulkar has cut his teeth in the league which started with eight teams and today has 98 from division ‘A’ to ‘G’, attracting over 3000 players, umpires and scorers. The uniqueness of this tournament is that it is played in Mumbai’s monsoon season when the rain comes down in unending torrents. ‘Play forward on a wet pitch and you will end up with mud splattered on your face,’ said Vijayakar who proudly boasts of having claimed Tendulkar’s wicket first ball in a club match when Sachin was 12 years old.
Many veterans ascribe the decline of Mumbai’s cricketing fortunes to the reluctance of today’s players to participate on pitches which are so unpredictable in bounce. ‘The top players fear playing on wet tracks…that is why Mumbai’s batting standards have dropped. The standards were high because the Kanga League helped them tighten their techniques,’ former India opener and Mumbai captain Sudhir Naik told Clayton Murzello in an interview in Sunday Mid Day (29 July 2001).
The league attracts intense team loyalty. Former Test batsman Madhav Apte (Jolly Cricketers) is still active at 69, having played every year since the team’s inception. Another player, wicketkeeper Mehli Dinshaw Irani who played in the Ranji Trophy, also turned out for his side (Parsi Cyclists) for more than 50 years. In his essay ‘Come Rain or Shine’ ( An Indian Cricket Omnibus ), Rajdeep Sardesai reports his 1989 conversation with Irani: ‘If you can play one hour on a rain-affected wicket, then you can play anywhere. Yet, I find that today’s youngsters prefer going to England during the summer. Compared to the Kanga League, English cricket is like a friendly village green.’ A major incentive for young cricketers in the league is the hope of seeing their names in the next morning’s papers. This is their reward for scores of 30 and above, and bowling figures of three or more wickets.
Former Test umpire Piloo Reporter has been standing in local matches for 40 years. In the same article in Sunday Mid Day , he recollects, ‘Several years ago, I was standing at square leg, umpiring a game at Azad Maidan. The batsman struck the ball to midwicket and the batsmen ran a couple. I was watching the batsman make his ground. As the wicketkeeper collected the ball, the batsman complained, “Umpire, yeh apna ball nahin hai ” (Umpire, this is not our ball). He was right, a fielder from an adjoining match had thrown the ball which the wicketkeeper gobbled up!’
Nothing can prepare a first-time visitor for the shock of seeing a dozen games being played simultaneously on the chock-a-bloc Azad and Cross Maidans. Nowhere in the world will you see organized cricket in which a fielder seemingly at mid-wicket is actually positioned at fine leg for his own team.
In Sandeep Bamzai’s book Gavaskar and Tendulkar: Shaping Indian Cricket’s Destiny , the flamboyant former Test batsman Sandeep Patil propounded the theory of two schools of batsmanship within the ‘Bombay school of batsmanship’: Dadar Union and Shivaji Park. Patil, whose father Madhu also played in the Ranji Trophy for Mumbai (and who agreed with his son’s theory), reckoned that Dadar Union batsmen exhibited technical exactitude, while the more devastating version incorporating elan, panache and flamboyance was on show at Shivaji Park Gymkhana. Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Sanjay Manjrekar played for Dadar Union, while Vijay Manjrekar, Ajit Wadekar and Sandeep Patil represented Shivaji Park Gymkhana.
While the Kanga League is played every Sunday during the monsoon season, the Times Shield (founded by the Times of India ) is the inter-office league played during the winter, which attracts an equal number of international and first-class players. The city’s cricketing structure is completed by the Harris Shield for boys under 15 and the Giles Shield (under 17) inter-school tournaments, ensuring that cricket is played almost all the year round. And competition is fierce at every level.
Mumbai has often been described as Indian cricket’s Yorkshire. But just as West Indian cricket fans preferred to refer to Sir Don Bradman as the ‘White Headley’ (as against George Headley’s popular sobriquet, ‘The Black Bradman’), diehard Mumbaikars would no doubt consider Yorkshire English cricket’s Mumbai.