Thursday, March 24, 2005

Tendulkar biography review

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
Roli Books


  1. Good point that it's too early to write the man's biography. But that point about the conflict between the Richards and Bombay styles is so relevant now - I think that's what's throttling his batting.

    Amit Verma had an interesting take on the Bucknor incident/s. That the generation of the '70s and '80s could never forgive India for coming from behind and upstaging them. So even if there is no conscious malice, there is a sub-stratum of resentment that colours their decisions. Think Clive Lloyd and Cammie Smith apart from Bucknor.


  2. Good job, dudesy. I think you should stick to being "too determinedly, self-consciously BALANCED". Makes for better reading. Conversely, your writing may go the same way as SRT's batting. Holy eff! the devta and pujari facing the same dilemma.

    BTW you missed out on SRT's bowling: that's surely gone down. Today (Bangalore test, Day 1) either long hops or short. What happened to the famed armoury?
    * Say "Hi" to Govinda if you bump into him in S'land. Au revoir.

  3. Totally disagree with you there YB dudesy: "self-consciously balanced" makes for very mediocre reading. Passion is all. But yes, figured you'd feel otherwise, considering how often you've implored me not to use the first person in my reviews.

  4. So, why does a review *have* to be "balanced?" It's opinion, right? I mean sure, it makes sense to go over everything. But, you know what I'm sayin?

  5. Exactly my point, Vivek. But for numerous reasons I've turned over-cautious when it comes to writing/saying anything about Tendulkar. Hence this half-baked effort.

  6. About SRT's bowling - methinks he's been grossly underbowled. The more often he (and Sehwag) bowl, the better they'll get.

    The problem, really, is that Tendulkar can probably never meet the expectations of the general public, while Dravid's performance regularly exceeds them.

    On a tangent, but I remember reading a scoop in Mid-Day about how Anshuman Gaekwad woke Tendulkar in the middle of the night and told him he'd just received an anonymous call saying that there's a plan to throw the next days match away. Tendulkar said he'd do something about it, and scored a hundred. Moist eyes, when I read that. Incidentally, are the transcripts of Ravi Shastri taped by Manoj Prabhakar, available online?

  7. Nikhil: that story's probably apocryphal, but if it's true it actually draws attention to one of the things Tendu gets a lot of flak for - that he might have had some idea of the shady goings-on (with Azhar, Jadeja etc) at the time but chose to look the other way, just "concentrate on his cricket", etc.
    On the positive side though, it neatly captures the fact that he was practically the only ray of hope during one of Indian cricket's darkest, murkiest phases. Ganguly and Dravid were both junior players then, far from being in a position to have a say in team management/decisions. And the integrity shown by Tendulkar and Kumble as senior players during those years - in terms of both cricketing performance and dignity off the field - laid the groundwork for the Indian team's subsequent achievements.

  8. why MUST anyone be 'balanced' et all while writing about /referring to the man, I ask?!

    He has done enough (and then some con-si-derable more) in his lifetime to not warrant any fly-by-jack's wise-ass opining/whining about his 'lack of form' or whatever in the current scenario.

    ...did I say 'man'? I'm sorry, I meant God.

  9. And what could he have done, if he knew? I think he did what he could by playing the way he did. He probably lost a lot of people (including administrators) a lot of money.

    You read my mind. This team is what it is today because Tendulkar and the Karnataka gang did not give in to temptation. And they must have influenced subsequent selections and exclusions. For me, the only regrettable loss was the exclusion of Nayan Mongia. Still remember how he'd upstaged Healy in the Kotla test in 97 ( I think).

  10. The comparison of 'Gavaskar-style and Richards-style' confusion in Tendulkar is well-put! This is one discussion which will lead to no boolean answer, it always results in a '50-50' answer.

    Tendulkar started as a 100m sprinter and later thought with-age he should do the marathon and we have to agree that Sachin has mastered both the 100m and the marathon with ease.

    I think Tendulkar takes Gavaskar Sir's advise a bit too seriously. Gavaskar is more a defensive player and Gavaskarisque game doesnt suit Sachin - who has alacrity written all over him. I wish he plays one of those carefree knocks more often.