The icon


Regarded as the “God of Cricket” by many, prayers were offered to Tendulkar across India as he played his final Test match. PHOTO/Noah Seelam/ AFP Getty/Al Jazeera

With the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar from international cricket, it would be topical to examine his legacy not just as a cricketer but also as a global sporting celebrity. While Tendulkar is, of course, handicapped by the fact that he earned his laurels in a sport with limited global appeal, it would be reductionist to perceive him merely as a great cricketer. This article attempts to understand the socio-cultural phenomenon that Tendulkar has been in cricket-consuming India for most part of his international career and establishes a parallel with Pele and Diego Maradona, global football legends from two developing South American nations with a vast, stratified football-obsessed population.

Mortals or Messiahs?

Recently, Tendulkar played his last Ranji Trophy match for Mumbai in Lahli, a village in Haryana. Coverage of the match on the national news channels—one of the very rare occasions when 24/7 news channels covered a Ranji Trophy game—focussed on sound bites from the local population. Particularly poignant was what a villager told a national news channel: that he viewed Tendulkar as Lord Ram.

For those uninitiated in Hindu mythology, Ram is a reincarnation of Vishnu who lived the life of a perfect human mortal devoid of the flamboyance of a miracle-performing god. The gentleman in Lahli could very well have been influenced by media narratives about Tendulkar being a grounded family man despite being a supremely wealthy citizen in a massively stratified developing country—a throwback to his upbringing in a middle-class family. In the past, India’s electronic media have reported how photos of the Mumbai genius are being subjected to traditional Hindu worship across the country—one instance being after his match-winning knock of 98 off 75 deliveries against Pakistan in the 2003 ICC World Cup.

Tendulkar has pretty much embodied the mass public consumption of cricket in India which, in turn, has kept global cricket in the pink of health—the advertising revenue from the country has helped the sport to sustain itself globally over the previous decade and a half. Tendulkar’s excellence on the field for a little over two decades has represented the global aspirations of a gigantic middle-class population of a developing nation which left behind a rather insular “socialist” past and sped into a competitive, global era of economic inter-dependence in 1991.

Like the Indian genius, Maradona, too, had crowds swooning over him. It is well documented that he has a syncretic religion after him in Argentina which is modelled along the tenets of Catholicism. In Naples, southern Italy, “El Diego” is perceived as a co-patron saint of the city for his title-win-inspiring exploits for the city’s football club Napoli in the then most competitive league in the world, the Serie A, in 1986-87 and 1989-90.

Argentinean and Neapolitan media have, at various times, pointed out a parallel between the massive ups and downs of Maradona’s roller-coaster journey through life—beginning with the legend’s birth into the depths of poverty in a Buenos Aires shantytown much like the humble surroundings of Jesus Christ’s birth—and the Messiah-Crucifixion-Resurrection pattern of Jesus Christ’s life. Maradona’s own messianic moment came in the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, when as the national captain and the team’s master creator he orchestrated a memorable title triumph for Argentina. The country then had just clawed its way to democracy after the tyranny of the military junta regime; it had emerged from the humiliating defeat in the Falklands War of 1982 scathed by the military government’s warmongering chauvinism and its people were yearning for global recognition on the basis of economic growth. Sporting excellence in 1986 offered a perfect opportunity for them to actualise their economic aspirations.

European football was, in the later part of 1980s, in the midst of an emerging global media revolution just as cricket in India was in the later part of the 1990s. The sporting peaks of Maradona and Tendulkar, therefore, were beamed into the living rooms and bedrooms of millions of fans through sports networks and the electronic news media in Argentina, Italy and India made a killing by programming based on the pocket-sized geniuses.

The Pele factor

Tendulkar’s largely non-controversial personality is, of course, a far cry from Maradona’s life. The Mumbai maestro is, in this aspect, more reminiscent of the Brazilian legend Pele, who was voted the best footballer of the 20th century by a FIFA-commissioned panel of experts though the Brazilian finished second to Maradona in the people’s poll for the Player of the Century.

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