There were mythic sports figures before him — Jack Johnson, Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio — but when Cassius Clay burst onto the sports scene from his native Louisville in the 1950s, he broke the mold. He changed the world of sports and went on to change the world itself. As Muhammad Ali, he would become the most recognized face on the planet. Ali was a transcendent athlete and entertainer, a heavyweight Fred Astaire, a rapper before rap was born. — King of the World, David Remnick.
Let’s try that with Tendulkar.
There were iconic sports figures before him — Dhyan Chand, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev — but when Sachin Tendulkar burst onto the sports scene from his native Bombay in the 1980s, he broke the mould. He changed the world of cricket and he would become the most recognized cricketer on the planet. Tendulkar was a transcendent athlete and entertainer, a cricketing Satyajit Ray and easily the most loved Indian of his times.
These were two great sportsmen, among the best in their fields. But more importantly, they were men who went beyond the boundaries of their sport to capture the imagination of entire nations. They were similar in some ways, but it is their differences that tell us more. Like an orange wall against a gray sky, each of them enhances the other’s qualities. The differences shine a light on the times they lived in, on their cultures, on ourselves. But we must begin with a similarity.
The fight began. In black and white, Cassius Clay came bounding out of his corner and right away started circling the square, dancing, moving around and around the ring, moving in and out, his head twitching side to side, as if freeing himself from a neck crick early in the morning, easy and fluid — and then Liston, a great bull whose shoulders seemed to cut off access to half the ring, lunged with a left jab. Liston missed by two feet. At that moment, Clay hinted not only at what was to come that night in Miami, but at what he was about to introduce to boxing and to sports in general — the marriage of mass and velocity. A big man no longer had to lumber along and slug, he could punch like a heavyweight and move like Ray Robinson.
Tendulkar brought to the world of Indian cricket the marriage of Gavaskar’s defence with Richards’ violence. Earlier, big, bad fast bowlers, with zinc war paint stretching from ear to ear, could be worn down, but now, they could also be slapped with disdain. No innings showcased the marriage better than the gem in Lahore. In conditions where the ball swerved around like a drunk driver, where Dravid — Dravid! — groped like a novice, Tendulkar was in total control. Long spells of quiet defence, with leaves that had to be so well-judged that everyone — the bowler, the fielders, the crowd, you, me, maybe Tendulkar himself — thought that the end would come soon, were rudely interrupted by staccato gunfire: a pull over midwicket, a cut over point, a punch off the backfoot. The end did come, but only after he had scored 95 off 104 balls, with 16 fours and a six, more than 62 dot balls, many of them glorious, and a daunting total virtually hunted down. The great journalist AJ Liebling once said : “I can write faster than anyone who can write better, and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.” The same could be said of Tendulkar: over the past forty years, he was more aggressive than anyone who had a better defence, and he had a better defence than anyone who was more aggressive. A man for all formats in all conditions against any bowling attack, the perfect marriage.
Liston, Miami, McDermott, Perth, Thrilla in Manila, Sharjah sand storm, Frazier, Warne, Foreman, McGrath. Many were their duels, with their signature styles evoking unique images, but it is their differences that we shall focus on.
The chief one is this: Ali, with a raised mirror in one hand and a raised finger in the other, asked a society to stare at its reflection and focus on the ugliness. He took on outsized social causes, civil rights for the black people and protests against the Vietnam war, and spent time out of the boxing ring at the peak of his career. Tendulkar, on the other hand, was like Steve Jobs: he gave a society what it yearned for even before they realized that this was what they wanted. Mac, Edgbaston, iPod, Chennai 136, Pixar, Chennai 155*, iPhone, Cape Town 146, iPad, Melbourne: we, apparently, can’t get enough of these. Like Steve Jobs, Tendulkar was a cult, particularly towards the end: you were either with him or against him, there was no ground in between.
In their approach to the world and the response they generated, Ali and Tendulkar reflected the mores of the society around them.
When he was four years old, Cassius asked his mother, “Mama, when you get on the bus, do people think you’re a white lady or colored lady?” When he was five he asked his father, “Daddy, I go to the grocery and the grocery man is white. I go to the drugstore and the drugstore man’s white. The bus driver’s white. What do the colored people do?” Cassius was wounded by the accumulated wounds of mid-century American apartheid: the sight of his mother being turned away for a drink of water at a luncheonette downtown, whites cutting in front of them in lines at the Kentucky State Fair as if by divine right, the sense of shame when his mother went across town to clean floors and toilets for the white families…Clay used to say that from the age of ten, he would lie in bed at night and cry as he wondered why his race had to suffer so.
Years later, he said:
“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show that to the world.”
To do this, he had to be a rebel. Before fights, he recited doggerel in praise of … himself: “Marcellus vanquished Carthage, Cassius laid Julius Caesar low, And Clay will flatten Doug Jones, With a mighty, muscled blow.” He changed his religion, his name and outraged blacks and whites. He wasn’t politically neutral, as expected of athletes, famously refusing to go to Vietnam with the words: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Any stereotype was ten sizes too small for him to squeeze into.
After his retirement, Andre Agassi said, “For me the greatest part about what I did was the chance to impact somebody’s life for a few hours. I mean that’s really what you could do. That was the best part. They come and watch you play for two hours.” Oh, the impact Tendulkar had on our lives. For countless hours, he relieved us of the drudgery: children ignored their homework, youngsters took their minds off tiffs, middle aged men postponed their battles with bureaucracy and old men shut out their aches. He soared and we soared with him. His was a strictly middle class upbringing, with an emphasis on humility and respect for authority: respect for the father, respect for the teacher, respect for seniors. His approach to batting was rebellious, but off the field, he was no rebel. He was the kind of boy every Indian mother wished her daughter would marry: accomplished and humble.
People who hold up mirrors, who sing their own praises are rarely popular and Ali was viscerally hated by the press.
On the morning of the fight, the New York Post ran a column written by Jackie Gleason, the most popular television comedian in the country, that said, “I predict Sonny Liston will win in eighteen seconds of the first round, and my estimate includes the three seconds Blabber Mouth will bring into the ring with him.”
The feeling was mutual:
Then Polino put Liston’s mouthpiece in. Liston spit it back out. “I … said….that’s it!”… Reddish held out his hand and waved…Now Clay was on his feet, his hands thrust over his head. He knew immediately what Reddish’s wave meant. “I am the king!” he shouted. “I am the king! King of the world! Eat your words! Eat! Eat your words!”
With Tendulkar, there were no such problems. We anointed him king long ago and it was his duty to rule over us justly, to satisfy our every wish. “Is Sachin Tendulkar the greatest schoolboy cricketer ever?” asked Harsha Bhogle in Sportsworld in 1988. Yes, sir, he answered in that squeaky voice of his and proceeded to pile on world records. He started playing at a time when there was one TV channel, little entertainment and even fewer heroes. He was the best in the world, he was ours and our hopes rose and sunk with him. When he failed to carry us over the line, most memorably at Chennai 1999, some of us grumbled, but we still loved him. The expectations never diminished, but Tendulkar always tackled them with grace. Gavaskar once told Tendulkar that if he did not score 40 Test centuries and 15,000 runs he would strangle him with his bare hands. “Ah,” Tendulkar replied. “but by then Mr Gavaskar will be too old and have no strength left in his arms.” Who does it surprise today that Gavaskar need not become a murderer?
Ultimately, though, people are captives of the times and environments they grow in. Irreverence and humility rarely dine at the same table. It is difficult to imagine a humble Ali, with no hint of brashness, standing up to officialdom. Likewise, it has been said of Tendulkar that he hasn’t raised his voice enough when it mattered. That his public pronouncements were like the howl of a dog that was kicked, not the bark of a leaping dog with bared teeth. Of course, he has his defenders: for example, Rahul Dravid, in a recent interview, said that the players managed to get things done behind closed curtains, without shouting. At any rate, this is a good reminder that a humble rebel sounds ambitious and was a wish that was beyond even our mighty king.
I began by wanting to write about America and race in the Sixties, not a biography of Muhammad Ali, of which there were thousands. When I looked at the period, I discovered that the contours of the sociopolitical landscape I wanted to map were drawn out in the lives of three men – all black boxers …They were almost like characters in a novel – Remnick about King of the World
Years later, when someone attempts a history of India in the late 90s-early 2000s, will Tendulkar fit into a neat narrative, marking out the contours of the sociopolitical landscape? If so, what will it be? It’s easy to fit him now into the theme of liberalization, but as Zhou Enlai said of the impact of the French Revolution, it’s still too early to tell. What we can be certain of, though, is this: even if he turns out to be a shooting star in the vast expanse of time, we were the lucky ones who got to see the star. He showed us that you can be an honest whale in the midst of corrupt fishes, he showed us over ten hours at Sydney that you could overcome flaws with sheer will power. But most of all, he gave us hope in cricket, lit up our lives and allowed us to soar with him. For all this, as Gavaskar said, thank you, thank you, thank you.