It is not often that you see “God” cry. That is why we were in for a shock when it happened. Perhaps, it is not so shocking, after all, as he was crying for another God. When last April, Sai Baba, the “God on Earth” passed away, Sachin Tendulkar, the “God of Cricket” shed tears. An unprecedented moment missed by the otherwise carnivorous media. The master of all that he surveyed in the cricket field, whose longevity in the game is acquiring divine proportions, showed his mortal side when he broke down like a child. The God, after all, was human, and needed as much divine intervention as possible, like other lesser mortals. Maybe, it was an intimation of the long, one-year mortal struggle for the hundredth hundred.
But after the milestone, for which the nation waited, first with excitement and later with frustration, Tendulkar has duly reassumed his godly status and a grateful nation, beginning with its richest citizen, started paying its obeisance. While a celebration is justified, there is something deeply troubling about a culture which makes humans into gods, and which puts people on pedestals to be worshipped. For, it glosses over all blemishes in its quest for the godly.
Blind to blemishes
Thus, while there were glowing tributes to Tendulkar reaching the century milestone — with comparisons to the great sporting achievements of Roger Bannister, Bob Beamon, Lance Armstrong, and so on — there was a deathly silence about the inexplicably slow innings that brought the hundred (100 of 138 balls, his second slowest One-Day century), which eventually played a part in India's defeat and eventual exit from the tournament. The milestone, which had become a millstone around the neck, could be achieved only by sacrificing the interests of the team. For once, Tendulkar's oft-emphasised “serving the country” line clearly did not hold good.
A more serious outcome of the culture of humans as gods is the intolerant attitude towards criticism that it fosters. Thus, Tendulkar, who usually lets his bat do the talking, combatively declared after the milestone, “I will decide when I need to retire.” As if selectors, who can drop a player before he chooses to retire, do not matter at all! A growing cacophony of voices, including many respected former players, and Tendulkar himself, seem to believe that the decision about his future in the game has to be left to him alone.
What could be more dangerous for the game than to put an individual above it?
More bizarrely, and worryingly, Tendulkar argues: “When you are at the top, you should keep serving the country instead of retiring.” This is unprecedented, for, again, it is he who will decide whether he is “at the top”, not the selectors, or experts. (In remarkable contrast, Rahul Dravid points out: “Maybe sometimes these things are better judged from outside. As a player you will never admit to weakness, to a slowing down of skills. You're not trained to admit these things.”). Tendulkar, in a strange twist, calls the critics, who call for his retirement, selfish.
What kind of a sporting culture, religious community and ultimately, democracy can we build if we ban rational debate, criticism and dissent? Sai Baba, reacting to the increasing number of revelations against him (on the Internet), had once said: “Internet is like a waste paper basket. Follow the ‘innernet', not the Internet.” While Sai Baba's involvement in social causes was commendable, the (unproven) allegations of financial fraud and sexual abuse of followers, including children, are far too serious and numerous to not to have been investigated by the authorities.
But ours is a culture in which the mighty and the powerful supplicate, literally, in front of godmen, and no less an authority than the Prime Minister of the country issues letters in support of beleaguered godmen!
Religiosity amongst the urban upper and middle classes, as surveys indicate, and contrary to received wisdom, has been increasing in recent years. But this religiosity, as scholars have shown, is different from that of the past, for, it is one which has become a part of individual choice rather than a forced requirement. The focus is more on gods who are more individually accessible and catering to personal needs. More importantly, this new religiosity is perfectly in sync with material wealth and consumer culture. Thus we have a proliferation of godmen and spiritual gurus specifically popular among the affluent classes in the time since India has arrived on the stage of global capitalism.
It is in this culture that Tendulkar becomes another god to be worshipped, a consumer brand that sells hundreds of things and, ironically, a follower of godmen himself. Tendulkar's canonisation as a deity in the Indian public consciousness thus has been made possible by a combination of factors like rapid commodification and mediatisation of society, religious ethos, nationalism and sporting culture (or the lack of it!). Therefore, to reduce, as some have, Tendulkar's recent aggressive pronouncements on retirement to compulsions of the brand that he has become, is too simplistic.
Tendulkar's phenomenal achievement should be an occasion for a balanced and critical reflection of his contribution to cricket and the nation, and more importantly, the state of sports as a whole in India. It should not become just another exercise in worship of the cricketing god which will push the contributions of other cricketers (like Rahul Dravid whose part in landmark test match victories has been undeniably far superior to that of Tendulkar) and other sportspeople, or the structural rot that characterises Indian cricket and the pitiable state of sports under the carpet.
The mightiest of achievements is ephemeral and written in the sands of time. Let us not, in celebrating Tendulkar's extraordinary skills and dedication, continue to worship him like God.
Dr Nissim Mannathukkaren teaches culture and politics at Dalhousie University, Canada and writes for the popular press. This piece was first published in The Hindu.
Mukul Kesavan, How Not To Close A Great Career, April 8, 2012
As Tendulkar’s career faltered over the last year, the prospect of the hundredth hundred became for Coke and Adidas and his other sponsors a heaven-sent way of disguising the new low at which his career had plateaued out. They didn’t invent the idea but once they found it in the zeitgeist, they ran with it. The hundredth hundred became an imminent peak, always just one innings away, and since this mountain top was one that only Tendulkar could climb, it helped elevate him at precisely the point where his form dipped.
Jaideep Varma and Jatin Thakkar, The Price of Creating History, March 17, 2012
It is hard for any team to set a target on pitches like these – where bowlers get nothing to play with and batsmen get the benefit of every doubt. But, surely by the time the first dozen overs were complete, it was obvious that this was that kind of a pitch. The most experienced one-day player in cricket history, however, apparently didn’t realise that. Or chose to ignore that fact, and proceeded to very obviously focus on the milestone that had paralysed him from producing his best for a year.
Neo Sports ensured Sunil Gavaskar was on-air to sing the hosannas – when actually it is Kapil Dev who should have been invoked…for what was going on was very similar to how Kapil Dev ended his Test career. But at least, the indulgence of allowing him to become the world’s highest wicket-taker had not cost India the game.
Mukul Kesavan, Trivial Pursuit, December 1, 2011
Cricket does have one true god who lives alone in his own private heaven; unluckily for desis he isn’t Tendulkar, he is the aforementioned Bradman. Everyone else from Hobbs to Lara is part of a supporting pantheon of demi-gods. Tendulkar is amongst the most distinguished of these but he isn’t pre-eminent, not even in this second-echelon host.
He isn’t even the greatest cricketer of his generation. Muttiah Muralitharan’s career figures as a bowler are more extraordinary than Tendulkar’s career figures as a batsman and if you think his action disqualifies him, Shane Warne makes for a pretty good substitute. And yet, I don’t remember (and neither do you) anyone even noticing their thousandth international wickets. That’s because they didn’t (notionally at least) have a billion consuming customers at their backs who shared a nation with them.