But the West Indies series made Sachin Tendulkar rethink his retirement plans, as Nalin Mehta found out in this exclusive interview.
When did you first entertain thoughts of retirement?
I was looking forward to the tours to South Africa in Dec 2013 and New Zealand in early 2014. But when the BCCI announced a two-Test series with the West Indies in Nov 2013, I had to rethink my plans. It was then – and I don’t know exactly how and when – that the thought of retirement came to me. I started to wonder whether those two Tests against the West Indies should be my last. I remember discussing it with (wife) Anjali and (brother) Ajit. We were sitting on the first floor lounge of my house when I told them that I was thinking about retiring after the West Indies series. The second Test would be my 200th and I would not have another opportunity to retire on home soil till the end of 2014, and I wasn’t sure if I could battle with injuries for that long. There was no point in dragging things out if my heart wasn’t in it.
You talk in the book about the immense pressures of being Tendulkar. How did you deal with it?
I have always liked the fact that people expected something from me, because it meant I was capable of delivering something. When I played cricket it was also about living up to my own expectations and play the way I wanted to play the game – with the right values, in the right spirit and without taking things for granted. I never changed my priorities. Everything happened around cricket and cricket was always the centre. The rest of the things continued happening around my game and my family kept it that way .
My manager, Mark Mascarenhas from WorldTel, understood me well. Being a huge fan of cricket, he did not want me to make compromises. If we were shooting an ad, he never said, “C’mon, let’s skip a practice session because they are giving us money .” The understanding was clear that during my cricket period nothing comes between me and my game. My family was extremely particular about this. This was a protective shell around me and it allowed me to forget about the outside world. Outside pressures were kept outside my territory and my territory was cricket.
How did you keep this bubble going?
In the 1996 World Cup, I was the only batsman in the team who didn’t have a sticker on his bat. Most others had ‘Four Square’ or ‘Wills’ but I didn’t want to endorse a tobacco brand. Then in the middle of a game, the manager of an MNC came to me and suggested that if I put his company’s sticker they would pay any amount I wanted. I turned it down because I didn’t want any distractions in the middle of the tournament. I did not want any alien element on my bat which could catch my eye on the pitch. I had done well without a sticker till then and didn’t want to risk my rhythm. We decided to wait till the tournament ended to fix the sticker.
You had your shell to protect you. But what happens when the fame and pressures start affecting your wife and children?
Arjun is 15 years old now and has faced this for a long time. So has Sara. In 2007, we had told Arjun, who was seven years old then, that if someone makes bad comments at school about our first-round exit from the World Cup, he should ignore it. But when a friend told him that India lost because his dad got out for zero, our advice went to his head. He punched his friend and told him never to say anything about his dad! At that time, reporters also asked him questions. It’s unfair on Arjun and he should be treated like any other 15-year-old now that he is playing his own cricket. People should judge him as an individual and not compare.
You write about how you changed your game for that wonderful Perth century in 1992…
Before that Perth hundred we had already spent two months in Australia, played four Tests and a triangular series. I count that innings as among my best because I made certain adjustments. I was making my debut at No. 4 and by that stage had mastered the backfoot punch. People talk about Perth being helpful for fast bowlers but I feel that once you get your eye in, Perth can also make a fast bowler’s life difficult. If a batsman knows how to use the length, then the bowler has a very small area as far as the good length spot is concerned. Because of bounce, if he falters on the shorter side you can cut or pull and if he is marginally fuller, then naturally you have to read the length and hit him on the rise. Perth is the kind of wicket where if you are in a positive frame of mind, it’s a beautiful track to bat on. If you are not very positive then it’s tough.
The most challenging bowler you ever faced?
There have been so many top players I have played since 1989. I can say there were at least 30 great bowlers that I have played against and it’s difficult to pinpoint one guy as the best.
How can you differentiate between a Glenn McGrath or a Curtley Ambrose or a Shaun Pollock? They were all accurate and consistently bowled in that corridor, with a nagging length, where you couldn’t attack them on the front foot. Neither could you pull or cut on the back foot. They had mastered that length. For that matter, how do you differentiate between Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee or Imran Khan? All these are great bowlers so I just consider myself fortunate that I was able to play against the top all-rounders and bowlers of the ’70s and ’80s: Malcolm Marshall, Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Imran Khan. In the next generation you had Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Allan Donald, Courtney Walsh and others.
But who made you the most uncomfortable?
The one bowler I didn’t feel comfortable batting against was Hansie Cronje.
I don’t know. There was something. Early on, when someone like Allan Donald is bowling with strike bowlers such as Brett Shultz, Craig Matthews and Brian McMillan, you had to stay focused and respect how they were bowling. Then when you get someone who is just going to bowl 2-3 overs to give the strike bowlers a rest, then you want to put pressure on him. Later, I tried to play him differently. I tried to block, to leave, to slog and to play my normal game but somehow kept getting out to him.
The one thing that didn’t work very well was your captaincy. You say you didn’t get a free hand…
Captaincy left me bruised. I always wanted the best team but many times the selectors wanted to promote zonal quotas. In South Africa in 1996, I wanted Abey Kuruvilla to play with Venkatesh Prasad and Srinath but I didn’t get him. He did very well later in West Indies and not taking him to SA was a mistake.
Who is the best captain you have played against?
Nasser Hussain was the best. He was very proactive, even though he used Ashley Giles against me negatively. He had the ability to think out batsmen and would do very good field placements. I also have a lot of regard for Graeme Smith.
And among the Australians?
Michael Clarke was the best. In 1992, I was about to pick up a ball to toss back to the bowler when Allan Border told me, “Don’t you dare touch the ball.” It was an early lesson in how competitive Australians are. But I was too young to judge him as a captain. Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting had great teams. Clarke had to rebuild his team from scratch.
Some Australians accused you of unfairly backing Harbhajan in the ‘Monkeygate’ incident…
That incident happened because Symonds was continuously provoking Bhajji. Something had to give and when I walked to Bhajji to calm him down I heard him say “teri maa ki” to Symonds. To me it was part of the game. But Australian players started threatening him and he got out. I thought that was that, but later was very surprised when they said Bhajji had called Symonds a ‘monkey’. The match referee could have handled it better. We were shocked at the ban they put on Bhajji. Anil and I decided to boycott the tour if the ban was upheld. It was time to take a stand, and we did.
You write that you always batted best when you were thinking about the opposite end, rather than your end…
Cricket is played best when you are thinking about what the guy against you is thinking, not about yourself or your technique. In 1999 in the first Test against Australia, when I went in to bat in the evening of the second day, McGrath bowled almost five maiden overs to me, bowling fairly outside the off-stump. I kept leaving the ball because I knew I had to stay on for the next day and they were just playing with my patience. So I said okay, let’s play with your patience and see who wins. Next morning, McGrath bowled the same line and length but I hit a couple of boundaries in his first over and started playing my normal game. Shane Warne told me later, “You ruined our strategy because our strategy was to not make you play 70% of deliveries, frustrate you and take wickets from the other end.” When you play against such great bowlers you have to play mind games and this was my way of retaliating to their strategy.
When you first played for Yorkshire and were short of money, you adopted interesting ways to buy food…
I didn’t have enough money when playing county cricket. Quite a few friends were with me. We used to go to Pizza Hut, where if you ordered buffet you could have as much you wanted but you could fill the salad bowl only once. We figured out a technique where we would create a huge wall of lettuce in the small bowl, and then you could fill much more inside! We mastered that technique.
There is a story you recount about playing a shot you saw in your dream. Tell us about it.
It happened when I scored my 51st Test hundred in Cape Town. I was batting outside the crease to negate the bounce. I had seen in my dreams five days before that game that I was hooking Morny Morkel for a six to reach my hundred. And I just got this strong feeling that this is that ball where he would bowl a short of length bouncer. It was the only one in the innings where I went back inside my crease got all set for the ball. He actually balled exactly the same ball I had seen in my dream and I hit him for a six exactly the same way to reach my hundred. I went for a hook shot and normally I don’t do that. Something inside just told me inside that this is the moment, just do it. I went up to Veeru and told me this is the second time I have played this shot, the first was in my dream. Then I moved back to my normal stance.
You also describe a hilarious incident with Anjali in a movie hall.
I could never go out publicly without being mobbed so we had to make adjustments. When we were dating, we went to see Roja in Mumbai in 1993. I put on a wig, a false moustache and glasses. But in the interval the glasses broke and in my panic the moustache came out to. There was a huge ruckus in the hall and we had to run away half through the film.
What do you plan to do in your second innings?
The first innings was all about excitement, being competitive and chasing my dreams on the field. The second innings is about giving back to people as much as I can, and in return to expect satisfaction. I have been with an NGO called Apnalaya for 20 years but it was difficult to be there when I was playing. Now I have promised them more direct involvement. I am also donating part of the proceeds from this book to ending malnutrition in children and providing clean water for the underprivileged.
The expectations from me continue. And I realise that in this innings I do not have a bat in my hand. On my 40th birthday , I developed an initiative with a team to light up villages.We are pursuing this idea very passionately through the Spreading Happiness Indiya Foundation. I know it sounds silly and I can’t do it on my own. The whole nation has to participate. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is also something I’m passionate about.
What about your work as an MP?
Three months ago, the PM asked each MP to create a model village and I have adopted a village in Nellore in Andhra Pradesh. I am also working with UNICEF to increase awareness about hygiene, with emphasis on hand-washing and sanitation.
Do you see a role for yourself in politics?
No, I don’t see myself in politics. I share my ideas with the concerned people and that is my contribution.
Will you push your ideas in Delhi as an MP?
I have shared my ideas with the PM and the details with his team. They were fantastic and the follow-up has been really good. They were very receptive, especially the PM. While the adoption of the village has been implemented with the support of the local administration, I also did my bit to help the locals when Jammu and Kashmir was ravaged by floods.
Do you see a role for yourself in cricket as a coach or administrator?
At this stage I am focusing on other things. I continue to help few players. When the team is travelling we speak on the phone and whatever I observe I tell them, but not in any official capacity. If I can have access to players or they can have access to me, then that is what matters.
You are heavily involved in the Indian Soccer League. What are your plans for promoting other sports?
Sports for all is something I have discussed with the PM. From the grassroots level, kids should be encouraged to play sports. Sport should become a subject in schools, where if you represent your school you get marks, more marks if you represent your state and even more if you play for your country. I am not saying that all children should become sportsmen but they should all engage in outdoor and physical activity. We have 62 million diabetes patients in India and if we don’t change our lifestyle or eating habits, or the way we spend our day, then this figure will soon be 75 million. The idea is for children to be fitter.
Why can’t India produce more champions in other sports?
In other countries, talent is identified as early as 5-6 years of age. We identify talent at 11-12 years. Some other guy in China has already had experience by then of 7-8 years. That much gap at a competitive level is too much. It is not a fair competition and whatever we achieve is because of sheer talent. We need better facilities.
Sachin though have lived your life in the media spotlight you have still managed to fill your book with surprises and it is a fast-paced easy read with unexpected twists. Now that your story is out in the public domain how does it feel to get it all off your chest?
We started this book three years ago and it has taken a lot of effort, spending a lot of hours recalling my wonderful and disappointing moments. It is a mixed package deal. It’s relieving that everything is out in the book the way I wanted. There are a number of facts which people were not aware of as I did not entertain those things while I was playing. I wanted all my energy to be focussed only on scoring more and more runs and winning matches for India. Once I retired I wanted to pen it down. It wouldn’t have been possible without my friend and co-writer Boria Majumdar who by sheer persistence kept me sitting for endless sessions and his enthusiasm and pointed questioning made this project animated and enjoyable.