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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At the start of his career, Tendulkar, like most cricketers at the time, had to hold down a job in order to make ends meet; he worked at an apparel manufacturer. In 1990 he did his first ad, an embarrassingly low-rent affair for a cheap moped. Two years later, he was endorsing Pepsi and was on his way to becoming cricket's first millionaire. In 1995 he signed a five-year, $7.5 million contract with a sports-management company, the first deal of its kind in India.

For much of the 1990s, his exploits on the cricket pitch were solo efforts: he was world-class, the team around him less so. That great 114 against Australia in Perth? Despite Tendulkar's brilliance, India lost the game by a humiliating 300 runs. That pattern was repeated over and over again.

Still, his wondrous bat would keep Indian hearts beating. Says Anirban Blah, who runs the celebrity-management firm Kwan Entertainment: "We'd watch as long as Sachin was batting, because there was a chance we could win. The moment he got out, we switched off the TV set and went back to work, because we felt victory was no longer in the cards."

But Tendulkar was influencing a new generation of players such as Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly who would soon arrive on the national stage with an aggressive, winning mentality that owed as much to Tendulkar's exploits as to India's new economic confidence. By 1998, the Indian team entered most games with a decent chance of winning. The following year, I wrote a story for TIME on the upcoming World Cup. There was little debate over who would be the first cricketer on the magazine's international cover: Tendulkar, representing not just India but the rising power of Asia over the game.

India didn't win the 1999 World Cup--Australia did--but Tendulkar served notice that India's time was coming. By then he was unquestionably the world's best batsman. Sachin became a popular first name for newborn boys, and his face was seemingly on every second billboard and TV commercial, hawking everything from cars to cameras and cookies. India's economy, roaring along, growing 6.4% annually, was extremely good to its cricketing god.

He was great for the Indian cricket industry too. With hundreds of millions tuning in to watch him play, India became the biggest TV market for the sport, and cricket's Mumbai-based governing body supplanted its traditional power structure in the hallowed halls of London's Lord's Cricket Ground. This also had an impact outside of cricket. Says Shashi Tharoor, an author and member of India's Parliament: "Eventually, when an Indian company bought the great English car companies Jaguar and Land Rover, it made perfect sense--we already owned their national sport."

But the pressure was beginning to show on Tendulkar. A long-untreated case of tennis elbow hurt his performances, and a spell as team captain was a failure. The man of few words didn't communicate with his teammates well enough and couldn't motivate them.

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