Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m the wrong person to review a Sachin Tendulkar biography. I can’t be objective about the guy and when I try I invariably bend over backwards - so that after I’d once written something that was intended to be in his defence, people came up to me and asked why I was being so hard on him. You can’t win, not if you’re the Last Tendulkar Supporter left on the planet.
Still, here’s my review of Vaibhav Purandare’s biography of SRT. I’m not happy with it (the review) - it’s too determinedly, self-consciously BALANCED - but I want to eventually post all my book/film reviews up here under appropriate headings, so here goes:
Watching the mixed reactions to Sachin Tendulkar’s 34th Test century and 10,000th Test run -- and the way he appears to have polarised people around the country in the past couple of years -- it might be surmised that a topical biography of the little big man would have to study him as a sociological phenomenon. It’s a book waiting to be written. The effect Tendulkar has had on people’s minds seems so much more relevant at this stage than the numbers and achievements that have made him a statistician’s wet dream. (Those have been recorded often enough anyway, and in the same mundane language time and again.) The things said about him, both bad (the norm these days) and good, reveal more about the people saying them than they do about Tendulkar. “For many people, his achievements have become a substitute for their own shortcomings,” said Ramachandra Guha once. It follows that when he was perceived as not having measured up, the reactions were vehement beyond reason.
Realistically speaking, the “definitive” SRT biography will only be possible a few years after his retirement, when time and distance have dissipated the intensity of the reactions the man evokes. In the meantime, we have this new book by Vaibhav Purandare, which is undoubtedly an above-average effort and one that starts particularly well but which doesn’t quite clamber out of the snare that entraps most cricketing biographies published in India: the submerging of provocative information in a sea of cliched soundbytes, dull match reporting and compartmentalisation.
Puranadare’s book is most interesting in its first 75 or so pages -- before Tendulkar’s selection for the national team -- partly because these deal with the years of his life that weren’t lived in the public gaze. Though some of the stories have been told elsewhere, the author has a fresh take on them. It’s interesting how he links 10-year-old Sachin’s first meeting with his coach Ramakant Achrekar to an India-West Indies match the youngster had watched a few months earlier: a match where Viv Richards’ carefree batting provided Sachin “an endorsement of his own natural attitude towards cricket”. What’s interesting is that the conflict persists to this day, and remains among the most debated topics in modern Indian cricket: there was a little boy who wanted to bat like Richards but who also had to carry forward the legacy of the conservative Bombay school of batting. So does he trust his instincts, play the master-blaster game indiscriminately -- and risk being criticised for irresponsibility? Or does he put his head down, eliminate some of the most beautiful shots from his game, play long, solid innings - and risk the criticism that he isn’t playing his natural game? It’s a question Tendulkar has lived with for more than half his life, and millions of people ponder the answer as if their own lives depend on it.
In the initial chapters, Purandare places the Tendulkar story in the context of the gradual development of a cricketing tradition among Marathi-speaking people: “Billionaire Sachin Tendulkar has the historical background of a Solkar struggling to get two square meals a day, a Madhav Mantri studying in the light of streetlamps...” He moves on to record the signposts of Tendulkar’s early life: the young John McEnroe fan who managed to assimilate his idol’s competitive aggression while leaving out the undesirable qualities; the unorthodox grip that Achrekar was unable to correct; the huge scores in the Kanga League (the author’s school was at the receiving end when Tendulkar and Kambli put up that record 664-run partnership).
Then, after Tendulkar’s selection for the national team, the book enters the public domain, so to speak, and loses some of its bite. What follows is a series-by-series examination of his career highs and lows, the extremes of adulation and criticism, and it all starts to read like an amalgamation of everything that has ever been said or written about SRT.
But even through this descent into reportage-like writing, one of the better things about Purandare’s book, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, is the author’s boldness in making his own voice heard; he speaks in the first person on many occasions, says things like “as I reread the previous sentence, it is evident to me how a cold, accurate description of cricket can be misleading”. Not only does this lend a personal touch to the writing, it’s also specially relevant to the Tendulkar phenomenon -- for good or for bad, SRT has been appropriated by everyone, and everyone has a passionate opinion to express.
But given all that’s good in Purandare’s book -- especially the way he attempts to bring SRT the mortal into clear focus -- it’s deeply disappointing that he wraps up with a statement to the effect that Tendulkar’s place in cricket history has been “securely established: he is next best to Sir Donald Bradman”. Securely established by who, one wonders. Going by current public opinion, he might not, in the final analysis, even be reckoned as the best Indian batsman of his generation; just the other day the country’s leading newspaper featured a picture of Rahul Dravid on its front page, with the caption “The Best Since Bradman”. This reviewer is a huge Tendulkar fan and has spent countless hours defending him in acrimonious cricket discussions but a true appreciation of the man’s achievements demands that he be freed from convenient labels. There’s much more to Tendulkar than that duststorm innings in Sharjah, or Bradman’s famous remark that their batting styles were alike -- two things that are brought up ad infinitum by his defenders and just as easily dismissed by his detractors. If this is the only ammunition Tendulkar supporters have, their position is weaker than they know.
Towards the end of his book, Purandare uses a personal yardstick (“how did Tendulkar respond to challenges?”) to rate his subject. As a reviewer, I put this book through a personal test of my own: how does it deal with some of the man’s most heart-lifting innings (Edgbaston 1996, Cape Town 1997, Bloemfontein 2001)? Rereading the relevant portions, my answer was: with more insight and wit than you’d get in most match analyses, but with less passion than the subject deserves. That’s the book in a nutshell. Is it definitive? No, but it’ll do for now.
Sachin Tendulkar: A Definitive Biography
by Vaibhav Purandare