Commentary

Waiting for Sachin

India cricket fans follow Sachin Tendulkar's chase for 100th century

Updated: March 13, 2012, 2:35 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Sachin Tendulkar Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesWill Sachin Tendulkar of India finally walk off the pitch with his 100th century? The world waits.

EDISON, N.J. -- Not long ago, a group of Indian expats gathered in a restaurant to discuss the continuing struggles of cricket star Sachin Tendulkar. The men could have been in India, so closely does Edison resemble a subcontinent city, or at least the upscale suburb of one. Strip malls line the main artery of Oak Tree Road, block after block of sweet shops and takeaway storefronts, family-owned businesses selling saris and butter chicken. (The word for butter in Hindi is "makhani," and makhani is deliciously all over the menus.)

The four friends sat at a back table. Between bites, wiping up curry gravy with rough torn edges of naan, they tried to make sense of the unfamiliar desert of failure in which Tendulkar finds himself stranded. He's been trying for his 100th international century, a quixotic journey that has taken him to three continents and consumed exactly a year and a day. He's got three, possibly four, chances at the Asia Cup, the biennial tournament between six Asian nations currently under way at a sturdy and simple stadium in Dhaka, Bangladesh. After that, he's unlikely to play international cricket again until September.

At the end of the table, with his back to the cavernous room, Atul Huckoo talks less and more softly than his three friends, but his words carry heft. He's a pot-bellied man with bright rings on his fingers, president of the local cricket club. He compared seeing the 39-year-old Tendulkar struggle with the hollowness of recently seeing a Bob Dylan concert and realizing the man on stage looked like Dylan but wasn't. Not any more, just as the man struggling to do things that once seemed effortless cannot be Tendulkar. But something about that logic seems unfair to Huckoo. The reaction of so many Indian fans and reporters to the missing century has disturbed him.

[+] EnlargeAtul Huckoo
Courtesy Atul HuckooAtul Huckoo is president of the Edison Cricket Club in Edison, N.J.

"They have considered him a god," he said. "They're not ready to accept that he's a human being."

Huckoo is close to several Indian cricket legends -- when Sunil Gavaskar, a retired star whose place in India's history is comparable to Joe DiMaggio's place in America, visits the States, he hangs out with Huckoo -- and he's brought Gavaskar into this very restaurant, seen the way people react to him. They genuflect. And that is what has been nagging him. He'd read about Gavaskar for his entire life. Seen him give interviews, soaked up biographies, talking with assumed knowledge about his career and speculated about his motivations. Then Huckoo got to know the man. They became friends. And the person standing in his kitchen, or riding in his car through rush-hour traffic, was nothing like the celebrity he thought he knew. In a perfect bit of assimilation, Huckoo quoted Billy Joel to explain Sachin Tendulkar by way of Sunil Gavaskar. People, he said, have a face they hide from everyone but themselves.

"We perceive them as superhuman beings," he said. "They are human beings who are better than the rest in their craft."

"People forget this," one of his dinner companions said.

The myth overtaking the man

The struggle between Tendulkar's humanity and the natural desire of fans to strip him of it has always elevated his fame and subtly cheapened his achievements. He is so large on so many billboards, and has played with such automaton consistency, that it is easy to forget the man who carries his fears out onto the pitch. These two conflicting forces have pushed against each other in his life since reporters gathered with outstretched arms outside his high school exams.

"He lived up to the expectations," said Sambasivan Amarnath, sitting at the other end of Huckoo's back table. "From the age of 13, there were great expectations. India loves to make gods of people. He is cricket's equivalent of Gandhi."

Tendulkar was a boy wonder decades ago, and he became the country's first modern sporting celebrity. He has endorsed Pepsi and Coke. He's worn a fake beard as a disguise. He's driven his Ferrari in the middle of the night for a brief taste of freedom. His national importance is so great that he is protected by the Indian equivalent of the Secret Service. Election planners take into account his schedule; politicians know people are unlikely to vote when Sachin is batting. Once, when he failed to reach a century during the past year, a distraught fan killed himself (there were rumors of a huge gambling loss). And all these years, he's never been ensnared by scandal, or boasted about his wealth and power.

These layers of meaning are of utmost importance to the billion fans who follow Indian cricket. No figure in the game shoulders more symbolic power than Tendulkar, whose ascent to global stardom has mirrored India's own economic rise. Both Sachin and the concept of media-fueled narrative are children of that rise; heroes and impossible expectations are the Cain and Abel of any society that bruises its way out of the premodern.

Through more than 20 years, his only real failure was the inability to lead India to a World Cup title. Then, 11 months ago, he achieved that, another storybook ending. It seems important to note here that, while this is slowly changing, a hallmark of Bollywood movies are white-hat saviors and black-hat villains, and crowds have actually set theaters on fire upon the introduction of gray. So the famous T-shirts that say "If cricket is religion, then Sachin is God" are more significant than if they were worn here in New Jersey.

After the World Cup was won, India stopped. Crowds of euphoric fans shut down the streets of Mumbai and other cities and towns. Pizza places stopped delivering. They couldn't get through the throngs. The most common spontaneous chant in Mumbai, echoing down the beautiful Marine Drive, was "Sachin! Sachin!"

There was nothing more to accomplish.

But there was. He finished the World Cup with 99 international centuries. For cricket neophytes, a century is when a player scores 100 runs in one at-bat. It is like a basketball player dropping 50 points in a game, but more prestigious. The drumbeat began in the press. Indians love statistics and symbolic displays of success. This was a perfect storm, managing to touch the soft underbelly of both national arrogance and insecurity: Wouldn't it be perfect if Sachin could get 100 hundreds? That's a number fitting for a god.

Thus began a media-driven quest. The 100 comes from adding test centuries and one-day centuries, which no one had ever thought to do before. It's not a real statistic, emerging organically like 56 or 61, but born full-grown by the narrative machine. Reaching this record, which wasn't really a record at all, could deliver the complete victory of the myth. An easy and fitting coronation, it seemed. The defining century shouldn't take long. He averaged one for every seven or eight times he went to bat.

He's tried 32 times since then. His last century happened 366 days ago.

Never-ending symbolism

The longer Tendulkar stays marooned on 99, the more anxiety spreads through the global Indian cricket community. This includes expat neighborhoods and colleges in the U.S., where this story has been hiding in plain sight from the rest of us, dominating conversation at tables and in dorm rooms while never raising a peep in the papers. Atul Huckoo's three dinner companions host a local call-in radio show, and they've heard the anxiety creeping into the voices of their listeners, which grows with each failed attempt.

[+] EnlargeSachin Tendulkar
Getty ImagesIndian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar celebrates a double century during the fourth day of the second test between India and Australia at M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, India, on Oct. 12, 2010.

"They want to know why," co-host Amit Godbole said.

A year ago from this chilly Monday, Tendulkar scored a century, his 98th, in a dramatic World Cup tie versus England. He got his 99th on March 12, against South Africa. The closest he's come to 100 since was in November, against the West Indies, playing in Mumbai.

The at-bat lasted two days. He inched closer, crossing 75 runs, then 80. The crowd chanted his name. At Rutgers University, around 1 a.m., new graduate student Bhavya Sharma's phone rang. Campuses, especially those with strong connections to India, are where the Tendulkar watch has been kept most closely in the U.S., as students explain to classmates why so many Indians look like zombies in the morning. For reasons such as, say, a phone call from Sharma's dad in India.

"Are you watching?" he called into the phone.

She found the match on the Internet. Tendulkar was on 90. He scored four more runs. Six to go. The bowler landed it short, the ball bouncing halfway up Tendulkar's chest. At the last split-second, Sachin opened the face of his bat just a little, and the ball sliced into the hands of a defender. Out on 94. He sighed, and as he reached the edge of the pitch, he looked around at the silent fans.

Sharma turned off the game. Across town, a group of her friends did the same, heading for late-night food. It was Thanksgiving break, and the campus was empty and dark. It fit the mood. For these students' entire lives, everything stopped when Sachin came to bat. One student's grandmother won't let anyone in the house move positions. Another's mom refuses to cook as long until Tendulkar leaves the pitch. Everything stops until Sachin finishes. The past year has awakened people to the reality of Tendulkar finishing for good.

In the same way the 1950s symbolically died with Elvis, the first rush of hope created by the new Indian economy will end when Sachin retires. The next generation will be successful but lack some hard-to-define simplicity and earnestness. So many things are happening at once, and they have nothing to do with each other, except in the way that all things are connected. The growth rate is down. Inflation is up. The Indian cricket team is struggling. Its stars are fading. And not only is Tendulkar coming to the last act of his career, he is doing it in failure.

Listen to former Indian captain Dilip Vengsarkar. He told the Times of India on Jan. 7: "We might have left the best behind. We've been spoilt by success in the past 10-12 years. The big batting guns have long covered up other shortcomings but they are nearing the end. The increased dependence on Tendulkar after more than two decades is a sign of poverty."

What an odd choice of words to describe sporting failure.

Poverty.

Blaspheming his own legacy?

The critics have drawn their long swords.

Atul Huckoo and Sachin Tendulkar
Courtesy Atul HuckooAtul Huckoo, right, with India cricket star Sachin Tendulkar.

Tendulkar has committed the great sin of being fallible. That's not good enough. Everyone has an opinion about not only his life but about the inner workings of his mind. Fans and former players are calling for him to retire from one-day cricket, saying his play and his cherry-picking events are damaging both the present and future of the Indian team. One paper called the past year a "terminal decline." The minority view that Tendulkar chases personal records instead of team wins, and that he crumbles under pressure, no matter how disproved by statistics, has gained tenuous traction.

"Maybe his time has come," a former Indian captain said.

"He has to go," said another.

"It's a monkey on his back, which is now a gorilla," said a former Indian star.

"After 50 runs," tweeted another, "Tendulkar battles the demons in his head."

Those demons, if they exist, are his alone. Teammates say he hasn't mentioned the century, even in the safety of the dressing room. Sachin has said little to nothing publically about the close calls, offering a brief and contradictory interview to an Australian television station.

"It is easier said than done," he said. "It is just a number."

People can only wonder. They watch him eat lamb cutlets at his favorite curry house on Beaufort Street in Perth. They see him at a steakhouse in Adelaide called the Stag Hotel, where a DJ spins records on both levels. They follow him in the Sydney airport, Sachin smiling at the firing line of microphones and cameras, barrels bunched together, each attached to the outstretched arm of a reporter desperate for comment. They get none.

The rest of the Indian team walks through baggage claim with little fuss. They climb onto an idling bus. This year has been bad for all of them. The entire team was slumping, swept in a test series by England, then by Australia. Back home, India was boiling, calling for heads, focusing frustration onto Sachin's personal quest, perhaps hoping this milestone, if achieved, would disinfect the rot of the past year. Or even offer a symbolic fresh start.

The beauty of failure

The ghost of an Australian named Don Bradman looms over all of this. Bradman was the greatest cricketer who ever lived. Millions watched his funeral on television. Even in life people deified him, just as they're doing to Sachin. His son, John Bradman, has spoken out against that worship. My father wasn't perfect, he likes to remind people. John struggled with his dad's legacy; for a period in the 1970s, he changed his last name, before accepting his fate and changing it back.

Bradman entered his last at-bat in 1948 needing just four runs to retire with a career average of 100. The crowd at a stadium in London stood to cheer its dangerous opponent, the rumble and roar raising goose flesh around the stadium. The legend -- however much part of a creation myth -- says that the reaction brought tears to the stern eyes of Bradman, and, his vision blurry, he was bowled out on the second ball. That last part isn't myth. The failure is real. He got out on the second ball and disappeared into the pavilion, his average forever 99.94 runs per game. Over the years, this number has turned into a sort of poem about the inevitability of human frailty, and the nature of the game itself.

Cricket is defined by failure. In one-day cricket, a batter gets a single at-bat (an innings). In test cricket, he gets two. A great innings takes hours, even days, and one slip of concentration, one misread of spin or bad angle with the wrists or conspiring crack in the ground -- anything -- results in an out. With a game so dominated by failure, it's seen as appropriate that the greatest career ended with it, as a warning against the hubris of future generations. Men come and go. The game always wins.

The last days of an epoch

[+] EnlargeSachin Tendulkar
Naveen Jora/Getty ImagesSachin Tendulkar waves the flag of India celebrating the team's win during the ICC Cricket World Cup final against Sri Lanka last April in Mumbai.

The streets lay cold and empty at half past 2 in the morning. Suhrith Parthasarathy walked up Broadway, crossed 115th Street, arriving at the stone gates of Columbia University. As a child in India, he and his grandfather woke up at 5:30 in the morning to see matches from Australia, catching a few hours before school. Now a graduate student, he swiped his card and headed to Room 504C of the journalism school, where the window looks out at a bare tree in a tight quad, backed by the soaring glass walls of the library. Tendulkar was about to bat on this Monday night two weeks ago. Suhrith found the feed on the Internet and logged into Twitter, joining in a global community.

"Everybody wants him to get it," he sighed, "so they can bloody well go on about their lives."

At Suhrith's home stadium in Chennai, he's seen a few Tendulkar centuries, including a famous 136 in a losing effort against Pakistan. A friend who grew up in Dubai found Suhrith in 504C and pulled up a chair. Hiten Samtani has also seen Sachin centuries in person, including two of the most famous. In April 1998, against Australia, India needed a miracle to stay alive in the Coca-Cola Cup. Before Sachin took the pitch, he told his coach: "Don't worry. I'll be there till the end." Sachin finished with 143 and led India into the finals. Two days later, on his 25th birthday, he took India to a win against Australia, scoring 134. The television announcer said, 14 years ago, "This little man is the nearest thing to Bradman there's ever been."

In the room at Columbia, the monitor glowing green from the pitch, Hiten remembered those long-ago days. "There were no physical constraints on what he could do," he said. "He could do anything."

That night, Sachin reached 39 runs and then got his feet tangled, blocking a ball bound for his wicket with his leg. Out! Hiten sighed. Suhrith rubbed his hands over his face. They switched off the computer and headed back out into the cold. For two days, they thought this would be Sachin's last chance until September. Then news broke about the lineup for the Asia Cup, stunning the experts. The Indian cricket board had chosen Tendulkar. An important detail soon emerged:

Sachin spoke to the selectors himself.

A fleeting triumph over myth

He might never make it to 100.

[+] EnlargeSachin Tendulkar
Indranil Mukherjee/Getty ImagesThe truth is, Sachin Tendulkar might never reach his 100th century.

However unlikely, there exists the possibility that the Asia Cup will come and go, and then the next series, then another, with no century. Tendulkar is expected to play test cricket for a few more years, which means he'll get chance after chance. But what if he fails? A cricket writer in England, Jon Hotten, argued that, as there is beauty in Bradman's 99.94, there would be a similar beauty if Tendulkar retired on 99. "It will contain in it this kernel of romance," Hotten said. "He didn't quite get the hundred hundreds, because no human being should be able to do that."

Like Bradman's 99.94 career average, the 99 would be a poem about humanity, and failure, and about the nature of Tendulkar's career. Because the interesting thing about the past 366 days isn't simply that he's failed over and over again, but that he's kept trying under such global scrutiny. This seems like a final siege of expectation in a career flanked by it, the final struggle between the reality and the myth. What could be a more fitting coda?

When you look back, it is not his unapproachable statistics that draw the most admiration, but that he managed them with a billion people on his shoulders. He's almost at the end, and the final test isn't of his sporting ability, but of something deeper. "Tendulkar's greatest achievement," Hotten said, "is he's resisted the mad circus that's around him. Tiger Woods, for example, it's obviously driven him crazy in some respect. This has happened so many times with people you attach the label of genius to. I don't know how Tendulkar has remained sane. In a way that will end up being the biggest mystery of all: How did he survive it?"

Tendulkar is a closed book. He smiles and walks to the center of the pitch. His play suggests he is bending under the weight, but he'll never admit it. Nobody knows how he feels about the century. Bradman, for instance, never mentioned his career average in a lifetime of correspondence with the dean of English cricket writers, David Frith. There are all sorts of grievances and private insecurities in Bradman's crowded, upright hand. But not a word about the failure that came to define his success.

What does Tendulkar think about the quest? He cares enough to keep chasing it, but maybe the media and the ex-players and the manic fans are missing the point. Scoring the century doesn't define his career, but the chasing of it does, the willingness to risk failing for the chance of success. In the past year, Sachin hasn't blasphemed his career. He has reaffirmed it. The failure to achieve this one thing opens a rare window into the cost of all that's been achieved already, and elevates, for a moment, the attempt above the result.

The sacred journey is a familiar idea in his family. His father, a poet named Ramesh Tendulkar, often explored the theme that life is about the hard work of traveling, not the easy peace of arrival. Once he wrote these words, which now speak for his silent aging son: A road leads to many other roads. But legs do not get extra legs; As a result one has to walk the same road again and again as there is no other solution.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.