It’s difficult to explain Sachin Tendulkar to Americans. Cricket, the world sport he has dominated for over two decades, is impenetrable to most of the U.S., which clings to its guns and baseball, lamentably insensible to the epic narratives of a five-day Test match and the heroism of a budding centurion at the crease. Elsewhere, Tendulkar, a global icon, needs little introduction. In his native India, he is the “master blaster,” the “god of cricket,” a hero to over a billion people desperately lacking in sporting idols. And, on Oct. 10, following the announcement that he would retire next month after playing in his 200th test match at the age of 40, the tributes poured in from Australia to the U.K.
Tendulkar’s career stats are peerless. As a batsman, he has broken almost all the records there are to break. In the history of the sport, no one has racked up more runs in both international Tests and one-day matches. He achieved the unprecedented feat of hitting 100 centuries in international competition: a century is when a batsman scores a hundred runs in one innings. Hitting just one is a mark of prowess; hitting 100 of them seemed unfathomable, or it did until Tendulkar did it. Not for nothing did the Australian Shane Warne, a legendary cricketer in his own right, laud Tendulkar as “the best player without a doubt.” After him, said Warne, there was only “daylight.”
Tendulkar’s greatness, like that of all famed athletes in any sport, is the product of both genius and application, a natural talent honed by a dogged work ethic and hunger for success. When observing his batting, cricket analysts struggled to single out a signature stroke—he was so complete, so skillful, so balanced, so precise in his movement, that every shot he played carried with it its own majesty. His commitment to the game led to an international career spanning 24 years, starting in 1989 on enemy territory in Karachi, Pakistan, when he was just a 16-year-old kid.
That kid is now India’s most beloved star, a champion with a World Cup to his name and myriad other trophies. A whole generation of Indians—roughly half of the country’s over 1.2 billion population is under 25—only knows the Age of Sachin, an era that began with the country mired in stagnation and economic crisis. As Tendulkar’s career powered forward, so did India’s liberalizing reforms, its growth rate galloping ahead. Decades-old anti-colonial resentments and inferiority complexes faded in the face of a newfound confidence, embodied, it seemed, in Tendulkar—all five feet and five inches of him, an Indian colossus on the world stage.
In terms of public regard, Tendulkar rises well above the glitzy celebrity of Bollywood and the tawdry muck of Indian politics. His persona is humble, honest, kind. He didn’t date a string of supermodels (or at least, not that we know); his wife is a pediatrician, shielded from the public eye. He speaks in a thin, slightly high-pitched voice, not unlike that of English soccer icon David Beckham—though it’s unimaginable Tendulkar would ever be subject to the sort of derision, cynicism and scandal heaped on the latter.
Still, there is not a single athlete, perhaps in the history of all sport, who has had to shoulder a greater burden of expectation. Cricket is all in India — a nation, which despite its enormous size, is a minnow in most other sports — and Tendulkar was the Chosen One. For each Indian setback, he has had to bear a billion cries of disappointment. But in the last decade or so, as Tendulkar starred, cricket’s gravitational axis swung definitively away from its twee upper-class origins in the U.K. to the hurly burly of India’s slums, streets and cricket grounds. A flashy, lucrative league sees the world’s best players line-up every year for franchises in Indian cities—the former colony now the seat of the empire.
A new, brasher generation of players entered the Indian team and led to the country’s cricketing apogee in 2011, when it won the World Cup in Mumbai, Tendulkar’s home city. At the end of the game, though the “Little Master” may not have been the top player on the night, he was scooped up on the backs of his teammates and paraded around on a lap of honor. “He has carried the burden of a nation for 21 years,” said one emerging star of the team then. “It is time we carried him on our shoulders.” That’s a moment any sports fan, anywhere, must rise and cheer.