I had joined the Times of India in Mumbai in October 1988 and was struggling to find my young feet in the Old Lady of Boribunder. Having returned from Oxford as a law graduate and spent a few eminently forgettable months in the Bombay High Court, I was a disoriented twenty-three-year-old looking at journalism as my window to the wider world. This was the pre-breaking-news television era, and the Times of India moved at the pace of a tortoise with its hind legs tied up. As a trainee assistant editor, my job was to write the occasional opinion piece: it was a pretty cushy existence and by 1 p.m. I was already making plans for a long lunch. But what I was itching for was to be a reporter and to get a frontpage byline. In a rigidly hierarchical structure of a newspaper imbued with feudal colonial traditions, this wasn’t easy. And then a miraculous December day just six weeks into the profession changed everything.
The editorial meeting on 11 December 1988 was over by noon and I was at a loose end. Mumbai was playing Gujarat in a Ranji Trophy match at the Wankhede stadium, a few kilometres from office. In normal circumstances, a domestic cricket match would hardly attract any attention. But this match was not routine: a fifteenyear-old was making his first-class debut for Mumbai, the youngest to play for a city with proud cricketing traditions. Which is why I suggested to my editor, the very amiable Darryl D’Monte, that maybe I could be sent to cover the game. ‘But we already have a sports reporter at the ground,’ he reminded me. ‘Yes, but maybe I could do a colour story around the teenager making his debut,’ I sputtered. Darryl wasn’t much of a cricket aficionado but reluctantly agreed, perhaps more out of pity for a young journalist stuck with writing editorials on famine in West Africa.
When I reached Wankhede stadium, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar was striding in to bat for the first time in a first-class match. The stands were mostly empty but there was a distinct buzz in the air. Next to the press box is the VIP enclosure, occupied by many former Mumbai and India players. Sunil Gavaskar was in the stands – he had been the sole divinity of Mumbai cricket for almost two decades, now he was about to witness the birth of a new God of cricket. Tendulkar’s school buddies from Sharadashram Vidyamandir were also there: they had been given the day off to cheer their classmate. ‘Sachin nakki shambhar karnar [Sachin will definitely score hundred],’ they all exulted confidently. ‘Shambhar’, the Marathi word for century, has echoed through the city’s maidans for decades, the ultimate marker of cricketing excellence.
The Gujarat bowling attack wasn’t too special but they weren’t going to do any favours to the teenager either. In the first over, Tendulkar was struck on the pad, a close LBW decision which went in his favour. Perhaps the umpire too wasn’t keen to give up his chance to watch the teen prodigy. Once he settled in, Tendulkar began to treat the bowling with the same aggressive spirit that had seen him break batting records in school cricket, hitting the ball to all corners of the ground. It was almost as if making the transition from the maidan to the big stage was the easiest thing in the world. His batting partner in that game, Alan Sippy, recalls being awestruck by Tendulkar’s calm demeanour at the crease. ‘The day before the match I remember telling my dad that I don’t know why the selectors have picked a fifteen-year-old, he may get hurt,’ remembers Sippy. ‘Next day, I realized that Sachin was from another planet!’
When he came to bat, Sippy as the senior player went across to Tendulkar and told him, ‘Relax, aaram se.’ ‘I thought he would be nervous but Sachin just said one word to me in response,
“Bindaas”, and then went and hit the first ball so hard that I didn’t know what to say,’ says Sippy. Indeed, the teenager with the curly locks and rosy cheeks who had barely had his first shave was truly ‘bindaas’, a unique Mumbai word suggesting a fearless approach to life. With every shot he played, the cheers of his school friends intensified, and as the score began to mount, the stadium began to slowly fill up.
Just before the day’s play ended, Tendulkar reached the almost inevitable shambhar: at fifteen years, seven months and seventeen days, he had become the youngest centurion in the first-class game in India in his very first match. Gavaskar and the few thousand spectators stood up to applaud, astounded by the strokeplay of an adolescent for whom the bat was a sword in a knight’s hand, flashing through the air with deadly intent, even as his peers sweated over their school maths. Australia could never find the next Bradman; India had found its new batting icon less than a year after Gavaskar retired from the game. And yet, while we were captivated by Tendulkar’s magical batsmanship, the teenager was unfazed by the adulation. Shishir Hattangadi, the former Mumbai captain, recalls Tendulkar coming to the pavilion with barely a hint of a shy smile on his face. ‘It was almost like another day in the office for him, as if he knew he would score a century since that is what he had been doing in schools cricket from day one,’ says Hattangadi. Indeed, when I rang up Tendulkar’s coach, Ramakant Achrekar, for a reaction, his response was equally unruffled: ‘He has a long way to go, this is only the beginning.’
I returned to office, only to be accosted by my editor. ‘So, how was your afternoon out at the cricket game?’ he asked with a hint of sarcasm. ‘Well, sir, I think I have just seen the birth of the next cricket superstar,’ was my excited response. The next morning, I found my article on Tendulkar with a byline on the front page with the headline ‘A New Dawn in Indian Cricket’! It was my first frontpage article. Little did I know that the dawn of a new age I had predicted would spread the most glorious sunshine across the cricket world for the next twenty-five years.
Excerpted with permission from Democracy’s XI : The great Indian cricket story, by Rajdeep Sardesai, published by Juggernaut Books.