The God Of Big Things

As India's top cricketer--and the world's best athlete--Sachin Tendulkar carries the burden of a billion dreams

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Sumit Dayal for TIME

Cricket God Sachin Tendulkar, photographed in Mumbai in April 2012.

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Tendulkar's deification is also testament to the fact, deeply discomfiting to most Indians, that their giant nation is a sporting Lilliput: heroes are few and far between. Every Olympic year brings forth great hand wringing about India's inability to compete with other large nations--India's haul from Beijing in 2008, a gold and two bronze, was its best medals tally ever. (China won 100.) Its only consistently world-beating performer outside the cricket pitch has been chess champion Viswanathan Anand.

The scarcity of sporting success feeds a national inferiority complex. Growing up in India, I learned to take comfort in pseudoscience trotted out by PE teachers that we were genetically disposed to pursuits of the brain over brawn. (It didn't work; I was good at neither.) "We'd come to think of ourselves as too soft, too physically weak to win on a playing field," says historian Ramachandra Guha. "Sachin showed us that was nonsense--not only could we play, we could consistently beat countries that were supposedly of stronger physical stock." (Indians routinely refer to Tendulkar by his first name, a sign of both affection and possessiveness.) It helped too that Tendulkar was no physical giant who could be dismissed as a one-off: at 5 ft. 5 in. (165 cm), he's almost exactly the national average for male height.

When Tendulkar played his first match for India in the fall of '89, he was only 16, one of the youngest debutants ever; I was 22, already too old to fantasize about a career as a cricketer. But I could live vicariously through the prodigy. After all, we shared a middle-class upbringing and a sketchy academic record. I did not imagine myself smacking the big Australian bowlers around as Tendulkar did at Perth in 1992, when he scored a breathtaking 114. Even so, I partook of his success: I walked taller, dreamed bigger and felt, like hundreds of millions of Indians, that I too could take on the world. Our chance was just around the corner.

Pitchman Perfect

There had been great Indian cricketers before Tendulkar, but his arrival coincided with momentous events that would catapult him and his country to dramatic successes. In the summer of 1991, India began to liberalize its economy, unshackling private enterprise and unleashing a burst of consumerism. Almost overnight, we got access to dozens of TV channels. The market was flooded with new companies and products, including foreign brands that had long been denied access to India. The TV channels needed programming, and cricket was an obvious lode of ratings gold. The new brands needed pitchmen, and who better than the Master Blaster?

He already had the makings of a marketer's dream: cherubic in appearance, soft-spoken and scrupulously well behaved, he was the ultimate Mr. Nice Guy. His father was a well-known novelist, but Tendulkar himself was a man of few words, steering clear of controversy on the field and off. When four colleagues were thrown out of the sport for match fixing, he largely kept mum. When he eventually broke the hearts of millions of Indian women and got married, it was not to a Bollywood star or supermodel but to a pediatrician turned homemaker named Anjali. The couple mostly stayed home and worked hard to keep their two children out of the limelight.

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