Learning Atheism from Sachin Tendulkar

Irony,  they say, brings a deeper and less friendly understanding.

Here’s an example : For all the years of living the cult by watching, listening to, reading about Sachin Tendulkar,  my biggest memory of him – the one which won’t leave me – is based on pure hearsay.

We all know the story.

Chennai, 1999.
Pakistan set India 271.
Walks in, joining Dravid.
Not for long.
Mongia arrives to join him.
Saqlain, Waqar, Akram; Snarling, Wily, Angry.
A partnership moves tentatively forward.
Arresting the slide? 

Time passes, India inches on.
The Chennai heat becoming an added oppressor.
They survive, refusing to give in.
A quiet second session.
Then, the third over after tea, a Sachin gear change.
Four boundaries off a Saqlain over. Then an attempt at a 5th. He misses. Moin fluffs the stumping. Phew!
Akram takes the new ball for himself and Waqar. A gamble.
It doesn’t pay off. 33 runs off 5 new ball overs.
Time for Plan B V2.0.
Saqlain with a harder ball on an increasingly crumbling pitch.
Crowd getting noisier.
Heat getting help from humidity. As if it needed any help.
But Mongia’s tasted new ball blood. Six!
Wresting the initiative?

Just 53 required now.
Then Mongia loses his cool. That’s the logical version. The emotional truth is that Mongia loses his sanity. Oh Nayan!
Anyway, still have Sunil Joshi. Six!
It’s around this time that the heat starts doing things that Sachin’s mind cannot control.
It starts to cramp the body.
How often does that happen in sport?
An athlete’s doing fine, his body resilient, his mind willing it on.
Then a break. Then the break. The body begins to crumble.
Just like that.
Sachin knows.
He wants to finish it.
Two 4s off Saqlain.
Then that third –  which never was. Never will be.
India wilt. Lose by 12. Chennai give the victory-lap-Pakistanis a standing ovation.

This part we know. 

We also “know” that Sachin cried then in the dressing room. 

But it’s hearsay.

In the cult, all truth begins as hearsay.


Because we knew him from the start, we felt entitled to Sachin. That’s the way it is when someone grows in front of our eyes. We felt a sense of interest which quickly moved to entitlement, ownership and … investment. At some stage, fuelled by the emotion that it generated, that matrix moved to the edge of religion. That’s just the way we are.

Because we knew him till the end, Sachin owed us. That’s just the way it is with the wish-fulfilling illusions that religion generates. Through incessant deed, the expectations of the cult had been recalibrated to unfamiliarly dizzy levels.  Yes, we expected him to march to the beat of a different drum, but that was only because he did. And sure, we might have expected him to keep improving, evolving even when he was 39, but hadn’t he constantly reinvented himself, just a couple of years ago? Hadn’t he taught us that “Impossible is Nothing?”


He always set himself targets, he said. He must have.  But what were they? We never got to know, though once he’d finished 200 Tests and 463 ODIs, and notched up centuries with their distribution delightfully and decisively skewed to reflect which format he favoured, we believed we knew.

He had exploded on to the scene, discovering himself, expressing himself, dazzling at first, mastering opposition, taming weather, shouldering grief, elbowing away pain and ultimately, constantly reinventing himself.  Along the way, he must have reworked his targets. But by the end, the numbers were many and the achievements staggering. We were left with a body of work the magnitude and aesthetic of which left us with incapable adjectives and impotent grammar.


Chennai, 11 December 2008.
Two weeks after the Mumbai terrorist attacks.
The one day series has been curtailed, the Tests rescheduled.
England have gone home and come back to a grateful India.
Life must go on, a statement must be made.
If emotion had a role in sport, this was it.

India trail by 75 in the first innings.
England declare on the 4th afternoon, setting India 387 to win.
The highest score successfully chased in the fourth innings in India is 276.
In Chennai, it’s 155.
Harmison, Anderson, Flintoff, Panesar, Swann. They can’t lose.
India is expected to defend on the 4th afternoon. They must defend.
Sehwag’s mindset isn’t built around stereotypes. Less than two hours later he’s gone for a 68 ball 83.
End of day 4, India are 131-1. In 29 overs.

Day 5. 90 overs to go. 256 to get. That’s still 110 more than anyone’s got here.
Early wicket.
Sachin Tendulkar walks in. He’s the Mumbai guy.
Gambhir goes too before lunch. Laxman just after.
224-4. Still 163 to get.

It’s mid afternoon at the Chepauk now. Pressure stirring the heat cauldron.
Yuvraj comes in. He’s aggressive, volatile, capable.
Sachin has long conversations with him.
“We can do this”?
“We must do this”?
“Lets see if we can do it”?
“Keep Calm and …”?
Yuvraj settles down.
Sachin continues. A single here, a tuck there.
He seems in control. Just like 1999.

At tea, India are 304-4.
83 to get.
But the emotional intensity of the last session of a Test match in the balance can test the best. Ask Sachin.
It’s been 9 years since that match. It’s been 19 years into this career.
Sure, he’s shouldered us many times. But can he shepherd us this once?

He can. He does.
At 383-4, he hits a 4 to move from 99 to 103.
The winning runs and a century.
Who writes this man’s scripts?

Maybe he does.

At the match ceremony, he calls it the proudest moment of his career.  He laughs. He dedicates it to those affected by the attacks.

India sheds a tear. He probably does too.
But it’s hearsay.


Stripped of statistical staccato,  Sachin Tendulkar’s career inspired a divided divinity.

At the end, they said he had overstayed.

In a fine piece of writing called Fade to Grey, the late Peter Roebuck captured the essence of the ageing athlete.

Age creeps up on sportsmen. It is not that a curtain comes down upon a career. Sport is not as sudden or as gentle as that. Rather it is a slow process, a gradual fading. Nor can the player tell that the slide has begun. After all, he has known bad patches before, heard a thousand concerned whispers, and has learned not to panic but instead to withdraw into himself in search of the old powers. Great sportsmen listen to themselves.

Age brings understanding to the thinker, the craftsman, the artist. To most sportsmen, it brings defeat. To them, time is not a friend bestowing gifts, bringing wisdom and providing an opportunity to hone skills, but a reminder that the eternal present of athletic life is the merest illusion. Almost from the start, their clock is ticking. Children may deem themselves immortal. Once whiskers start to grow, the sportsman knows that already time is running out.

Nor is Tendulkar a machine or still the tousled boy who used to arrive at Shivaji Park every dawn. He is a fully grown man with much on his mind. To expect him to bat the same way, the fearless way, as he did in Perth all those years ago, is to undertake an exercise in futility. In between, he has discovered the perils of life and the pressures of expectation. His body is heavier, his eyes are not as sharp, his nerve is less reliable. He is human, a fact that ought to provoke not regret but a greater appreciation of his feats and carriage.”

This was May 2006. 8 years, 26 revamped international hundreds and a World Cup later, Sachin is Fading away.


We knew him from before he was 16, when our extraordinary expectations were built on hope. At the end, we had come full circle. Now, our hopes were based on expectations built over 24 extraordinary  years. At each stage we had been spoilt by our own perceptions of an unknown reality.

Ultimately then, he wasn’t quite God. But if there is one, then imperfections and all, the Sachin Tendulkar career was a wonderful human prayer.


8 thoughts on “Learning Atheism from Sachin Tendulkar

  1. This is my favourite tribute piece. And God knows I’ve read a few recently (not to mention writing one).

    Great Roebuck extract, also a lovely conjuring of the Chennai chase. My favourite lasting image of that was the way, with typical balance and dignity, he shook hands with the groundstaff at the end.

    • That’s a massive compliment, Brian. And a huge encouragement. If this doesn’t make me summon the guts to write again…

      Fade to Grey is just such an epic piece, with everlasting relevance. ..

  2. Pingback: First blog post | cricket6064

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