We have all grown ‘old’ watching Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar bat but the memories remain as fresh as ever. Let me turn the clock back to December 1988. I had joined The Times of India just a month before and was still finding my feet in the Old Lady of Boribunder. As assistant editor, my job was initially to write ‘current topics’ for the editorial page on subjects as diverse as the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation to a famine in Burundi! Till Sachin came into my professional life.
December 11, 1988: the date is still ingrained in the mind. Morning editorial meeting over, it wasn’t a particularly exciting news day. Newspapers, unlike television, aren’t 24 x 7 (or certainly weren’t in the late 80s), and allowed you the luxury of a long lunch. Only this time, I decided to have lunch at the Wankhede Stadium where Tendulkar was making his first-class debut against Gujarat.
He was already seen as a child prodigy; anyone who had seen him bat knew he was special. The only question was not if, but when the boy would grow into a man. Would he be able to make a mark in his very first game, or had he been pushed too early was the only question that remained to be answered.
That tingling excitement with an edge of anxiety drew cricket lovers to the ground. We need not have worried. In those two hours between lunch and tea, Tendulkar batted with the freedom that is the prerogative of the young and restless to score what appeared like a pre-ordained century. It was almost as if he had made the transition from Shardashram to the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team without any glitch: the cover drives played with the same imperiousness as he had in schools cricket. It was almost as if a 15-year-old ‘kid’ had been given the prize of a ticket to an adults movie, and just relished the idea of being on a bigger stage. It was to become the signature theme for his entire career: no cricketer, before or since, has quite absorbed the expectations of an adoring public as easily as Tendulkar. Wankhede, Perth, Trent Bridge, Wanderers: for Tendulkar every cricket ground was an extension of batting at Cross Maidan or Shivaji Park. So, the bowlers were faster, the competition more intense, but when you are born to play cricket, then you take every moment in your stride.
But let me return to Wankhede and the game against Gujarat. Delighted with the Tendulkar ton, I returned to office. My editor, the genial Darryl D’Monte asked me where I had been all afternoon. I told him that I’d gone to watch what I thought was a special moment in Indian cricket. Darryl was a wonderful editor and human being, but not quite a cricket fan. As I attempted to create an imagery of a 15-year-old becoming the youngest Indian to score a century on first-class debut, even Darryl was taken in by the idea of Sachin being at the cusp of history. “Why don’t you write about it?” he said. My smile widened. Just the thought of being able to write on Tendulkar instead of a long edit page article on a ‘grave’ issue of the day was enough to lift the spirits.
The next morning – 12th December 1988 – my first front page byline piece appeared: ‘A new dawn in Indian cricket’ was the rather clichéd headline, but I do remember predicting how this would be the first of many centuries. I don’t think any of us imagined that those centuries would number more than a hundred and counting. Statistically, Tendulkar is out on his own: a mountaineer who has climbed a summit from which he can look down at the rest of the world. Now, 25 years later, as I prepare to revisit the Wankhede, the mind keeps going back to that first first-class innings. We have much to be grateful for to the champion batsman: he has been India’s greatest anti-depressant, someone who has brought more smiles to more Indians than anyone else in the last two decades. And yes, he also gave me my first break in journalism! All one can say is: Thank you, Sachin!
The writer is editor-in-chief, IBN 18