The 16th of March was a day filled with tremendous possibilities. India's Finance Minister was presenting his Budget to a fairly sceptical country which had witnessed the petty drama surrounding a good Railway budget just then, and Sachin Tendulkar was having another go at his elusive hundredth century as he had done on quite a few heartbreaking occasions last year. The Finance Minister delivered a damp squib even as he quoted Shakespeare. Sachin Tendulkar reached his milestone late that afternoon several hours after the Budget presentation and India collectively released its breath.
Encomiums poured in. Greg Chappell, who knows a thing or two about batting (if not about coaching), called him the Picasso of batsmen. In fact, while comparisons will always be made with the incomparable Don Bradman, it must be remembered that the Don himself rated the then young Tendulkar extremely high. But there is more to Tendulkar than being the greatest batsman the world has seen. He is India's answer to an iconic brand. After the plaint of Indian experts that no Indian brand has reached the iconic status that global brands such as Apple and Harley Davidson have done over the years we have Sachin Tendulkar to cherish and admire.
God with a bat
Sachin gave early indications of his phenomenal talent as a schoolboy when he and childhood friend Vinod Kambli had a mammoth 664 run partnership. He was soon taking on the most feared fast bowlers in the world such as Waqar Younis with the aplomb of the maestro that he soon became. He was soon the top celebrity in a country that laps up celebrities with the same zeal with which kids lap up ice-cream. He was a sponsor's dream. No sponsor who signed on the genius ever had sleepless nights wondering what fresh controversy his celebrity might get into.
Even as the Shane Warnes and the Tiger Woods of the world tempted fate and the paparazzi with equal ease, India's greatest batsman remained squeakily clean. He continued to make runs, mountains of them, while most of his team-mates fell like nine pins, leading Amul, that genius of topical ads, to run one which said “Tendu, ten don't”, a cheeky reference to Indian cricket's non-productive cricketing assets. Sachin laboured on, trying to realise his life's ambition of a World Cup triumph. He had to wait for nearly two decades till his admiring team mates carried him around the Wankhede stadium in 2011. A fitting triumph at Sachin's home ground, just a few train stops away from Shivaji Park, which used to be aptly called “the cradle of Indian cricket”.
All this while brands were benefiting from the Little Master's endorsement. Perhaps the one that readily comes to mind is “Boost is the secret of my energy” which has endured.
Sachin Tendulkar endorsed MRF for many years too. He had a dream World Cup in 2003 and while several brands were being endorsed by him then, the brand that benefited most from his batting prowess was the TVS Victor, which had a great launch. Sachin did not know how to ride a . But who cared as long as he could belt Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee to every part of the cricketing fields of South Africa?
I remember, earlier the agency I used to work for in those days used to handle Visa. The brand was looking for someone who represented the brand's values – an achiever with nothing but his own ability who makes it to the top globally. What greater brand fit than Sachin Tendulkar who made it to the top only on the basis of his phenomenal ability in a country whose philosophy has largely been “Jaanta hai mera baap kaun?”! I remember the Visa commercial being played through the night of the famous ‘Sharjah Desert Storm' and the phone never stopped ringing on the toll-free number as more and more people wanted to own Visa cards as Sachin the brand ambassador took the Australians to the cleaners.
You can criticise God but not Sachin
Yet his success is not so much his ability to sell brands as his phenomenal ability to galvanise the nation. When India was going through the blues Sachin still performed. Often he was the only hope on and off the field for a beleaguered nation. He, like Atlas, bore the burden of a billion and more people's hopes as casually as an Olympic weightlifter would carry a 10 kg dumb-bell. If he was under stress, his opponents never knew it. Everyone loved him and his opponents grudgingly accepted his rare ability.
As a blogger, I quickly realised that in India it is okay to criticise God, but it is prudent to be not critical of Sachin. Though it was common for his detractors to say “What use are hundreds if we lose?” often failing to realise that he was often carrying deadwood in the team.
Should I? Or shouldn't I?
Sachin has always battled questions of retirement and he has already resisted the urge to retire after a triumph in the press conference at Bangladesh. The sponsors hope he will play on, forever maybe. After all, it is not uncommon for half the stadium to walk out when he is dismissed. Maybe Pepsi is already preparing for falling cricket viewership when he leaves with its “Change the game” campaign.
But instead of worrying about the future, let us savour the present and relish the champion that God has given India and the world, who, one hopes, will bat with even greater freedom after reaching the milestone that no one will get to, in my lifetime at least.
Sachin Tujhe Salaam!
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