Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar may not be subjected to quite the same levels of unfettered adulation in the United States as he is on the streets of Mumbai, but anonymity continues to elude the 42-year-old.
“People have said to Sachin and I the last few days ‘does it feel nice to walk down New York and no one recognize you,’” good friend and fellow cricket great Shane Warne recalled during a press conference in a hotel overlooking the bustling heart of New York City’s Times Square on Thursday. “Well yesterday they had the chant of ‘Sachin, Sachin’ going on with 500 people out the front. So it doesn’t happen here.”
Tendulkar is currently in the U.S. to play a three-match Cricket All-Stars series with some of the sport’s best-known players from the past 30 years. The first of the twenty-overs-a-side (Twenty20) contests takes place this Saturday at New York’s Citi Field, home of the recent World Series runners-up, the New York Mets. For Tendulkar there is a very specific motivation for stepping back into action two years after he played his last competitive cricket match.
“The reason for picking up a cricket bat again after retirement is to globalize the sport,” he said, while alongside Warne. “To be here in America, I never thought this day would come. I know that Americans love sport, and cricket is one sport everyone is waiting to embrace.
“One day we would like an American team to be participating in the World Cup, it would be a great moment. And something more than that, which is really, really important, which a lot of cricketers have been endorsing, is cricket in the Olympics. This is the beginning, hopefully.”
While there is a long way to go to turn the U.S. on to the world’s second most popular sport, if anyone can do it, it could well be Tendulkar. Back in India, home to 1.25 billion people, he has had gold coins and stamps released in his honor. When the man dubbed the “Little Master,” played his final match for India at the age of 40, the whole nation came to a standstill, tears flowed, and the crowd in Mumbai reverberated with the same chant heard on the streets of New York this week. To Indians both at home and throughout the world he is “the God of cricket.”
Yet, while there are obvious comparisons to be made with Michael Jordan or LeBron James in the country where Tendulkar currently finds himself, they fail to do justice to his immense standing in the world’s second most populous country and where cricket dominates the sporting and cultural landscape. In a 2012 survey, 85 percent of respondents in India said they watch cricket on TV or in the media at least once a week, nearly twice the figure of any other sport.
“For many in India, Tendulkar was God -- a statement, from the evidence of the frenzy he frequently triggered, several came dangerously close to believing,” read an editorial in The Hindu newspaper at the time of his retirement. “Certainly much of Tendulkar’s batting seemed like a gift from above.”
Tendulkar’s international career began when he was 16 years old back in 1989, at a time when India was struggling on the cricket pitch and away from it, with an economy in crisis. His rise helped trigger a golden age of Indian cricket and coincided with the rapid growth in the country’s economy. As a consequence, the man from Mumbai became cricket’s first millionaire when signing an unprecedented $7.5 million contract with a sports-management company in 1995. It was a dramatic transformation in a sport which when Tendulkar started out still saw most players in India having to hold down a regular job.
His first hundred in the traditional five-day form of the game came at the age of 17, and by the time he retired he had amassed a record 51 Test centuries. His total of 15,921 Test runs is over 2,000 more than any other player. Many of his greatest performances, though, came in losing efforts, such as against Australia in 1992, when he struck 114 on a lightning fast pitch in Perth -- an innings that he has credited with being the spring board for his subsequent greatness.
It wasn’t until his career’s latter years that the team caught up with Tendulkar, culminating in his greatest moment, when lifting the Cricket World Cup, played in the shorter 50-overs-a-side format, on home soil in 2011. In the One-Day format he also holds a dominant record for most centuries in history, 19 more than his closest rival, despite not scoring his first ton until his 79th match.
In the annals of cricket, perhaps only Australian great Don Bradman, whose heyday came in the 1930s, comes close to matching Tendulkar.
Alongside him in the U.S. is a collection of players who have enjoyed remarkable careers in their own right. There’s the king of spin bowling, Warne, one of the greatest all-rounder in history, Jacques Kallis, the record holder for most runs in a single Test innings, Brian Lara, and former Australia captain Ricky Ponting. But all know they are merely vying for second place in the competition for their generation’s greatest cricket players. The diminutive Tendulkar reigns supreme.
Citi Field in Queens, New York, could hardly be much further away from the Wankehde Stadium in Mumbai, both in terms of geography and history, but Tendulkar’s popularity and reach is such that the chant of “Sachin, Sachin,” could well be heard echoing around an arena once again on Saturday.