Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Sachin I know - Sunandan Lele A veteran journalist who has known Tendulkar for over 25 years


It was January 2010. We were in Pune and I had helped organise an event where about 50 blind kids could meet Sachin Tendulkar. They had no idea he was coming. To introduce him, I asked Sachin to knock a ball on a bat. As the noise resonated around the walls of the school, I asked the students: "Who is the emperor of cricket?" In unison, they screamed "Sachinnn!" As soon as they were told he was standing among them, they went manic.

During the interaction one kid asked Sachin to talk about his assault against Shane Warne in the late 1998s in Sharjah. The kid pointed out that Warne, recollecting the match, had said Tendulkar had become a nightmare and used to haunt his dreams. Drawing the kid closer to him, Sachin said: "After being hit so much, how did Warne sleep in the first place?" All the kids just jumped up laughing.

The first time I met Sachin was in the 1988-89 season, during a Ranji Trophy match in Hyderabad. I was then working for a popular Marathi fortnightly called Shatkar. Despite the difference in our ages, of ten years, we have grown into dear friends. With time, the trust has grown deeper, and I have always spoken my mind to him. In this period I have managed to cross the fence that separates a player and a journalist. So I can say I know a little bit of the other side of Sachin.

One of Sachin's favourite pastimes is to switch on music, put on his earphones, and sit with a bat in his hand, fiddling with its grip or knocking on it with a mallet. He carries his own toolkit and if he is on his own in a room, he is bound to be working on his bat like it is some piece of art.

Interestingly he does not like to keep his match bat in his kit bag (which is usually downstairs, along with the rest of the team's kit). He will always have the match bat in his room, close to him. It is the bat dearest to him and his devotion makes me wonder if he worships it. I have seen him apply glue to various parts of a worn-out bat and hand-press it below the bed or under a table to help the adhesive stick well.

A few years ago he played with a bat with which he had scored more than ten centuries. It was the bat he used when he scored a ton against England during the 2011 World Cup. I could not believe he was able to even play, let alone make runs, with a bat where the wood appeared to have chipped off at various places.

When I asked him about it, he took the bat in both hands, drew it close to his face, and looking at it with admiration said: "I am not sure if the ball will travel the distance but with this bat in my hand, not many have got me out."

That bat usually sits next to an idol of Lord Ganesha in his room, next to a picture of a young Sachin lying in the laps of his parents, with an incense stick lit in front of it. The simplicity and neatness of his room is striking. Tendulkar is a very organised person. I have been the rooms of some of the younger lot and they live like they are in a hostel, with everything scattered and untidy.

Away from cricket, one of Sachin's favourite pastimes is enjoying good food - especially seafood. He can peel a tiger prawn with his tweezer-like fingers even as we mere mortals struggle endlessly at the other end of the table.

As much as he likes eating at his favourite restaurants around the world, Sachin is equally at ease enjoying a simple home-cooked meal. In the best hotels around the cricketing world, I have cooked for him in my own room, where Sachin would come after a gym session.

During the 2008 tour to Sri Lanka I was staying in the same hotel as the Indian team. One night, as I cooked, he happily watched Roger Federer playing in the US Open. Sachin said he enjoyed how Federer went ahead and played a stroke that he thought would put him on top, regardless of the match situation.

That evening I had cooked dal, a chicken dish, salad, and ordered rotis from the hotel's kitchen. The dessert was a fruit platter (without sugar), which got over in minutes as Zaheer Khan too joined us. Sachin wanted more fruit and agreed to make another platter himself. As he was busy doing it, Zak tried to pick a few pieces of fruit, but he was rapped on his knuckles, because Sachin wanted to decorate the platter nicely. He did exactly that, and took a picture as we enjoyed the dessert and Federer.

It is true that Sachin is very private, but if you treat him like a normal person, he will be at ease immediately. Some former greats like people to be in an awe of them; Sachin is the opposite: if he comes to your room and you treat him informally, he will spend more time in your company. If you go to his house that same courtesy will be extended to you. He will treat you as an equal. He will even make you a drink.

Many of you might be curious about whether Sachin the parent is as disciplined as Sachin the player. Just like he never had a liking for books, his son Arjun is equally disinclined. But Sachin has made it clear to his kids that there is no shortcut when it comes doing the basic stuff, like homework. He cares a lot for his two children, but he has made it clear to them there is no excuse for indiscipline.

In the mid-2000s, when a tennis elbow problem threatened to curtail Sachin's career, his entire family were worried. For years Anjali has been visiting a neighbourhood church near their Mumbai residence once a week. As Tendulkar was working hard to recover from his injury, Sarah, his daughter accompanied her mother to the church one day. Unknown to anyone she had made a replica candle shaped like an elbow and lit it, wishing her dad a fast recovery. When Sachin was told about this he was speechless.

Since he is such a popular public figure, requests gather at Sachin's doorstep like devotees at a shrine. So it is embarrassing at times to ask him to lend a hand to a charitable cause.

On the eve of the Mohali Test during England's tour of India in 2008-09, I got a request from Fateh, an 11-year-old handicapped kid from Chandigarh, who wanted to meet Sachin. Fateh had lost his dad, an army major, in an anti-insurgency operation in Jammu & Kashmir. But more painful was the fact that Fateh's spinal cord was affected by a degenerative condition. He could sit straight only while wearing a jacket, made of a special fibrous material, which supported his back.

Sachin agreed to meet the kid. Fateh arrived with his mother, but Sachin was delayed due to a team meeting. He arranged for some tea and biscuits for the visitors, but Fateh just wanted his hero's autograph.

When he finally met Sachin, Fateh told him, "There are two lifelines in my life: one is this jacket I am wearing and the other is Sachin Tendulkar. I want to connect the two. Can you please sign on this jacket?"

Sachin's left hand trembled as he autographed the jacket.


---Sunandan lele