200218 Sachin
Sachin Tendulkar Image Credit: Reuters

March 30, 2011

Mohali stadium, Punjab.

Our blue Team India jerseys crinkled with heat and excitement, we stepped inside. A sea of Tricolors greeted us as though the flags were trying to sway to the fusion of loud Punjabi songs and beats of the dhols across the stands. The atmosphere was electric. A handful of players were on the field practicing ahead of the big World Cup semi-final against arch- rivals Pakistan.

Suddenly there was a collective gasp and then, the stadium erupted in a frenzy. A short man with curly hair and a red T-shirt was making his way to the ground. Sachin Tendulkar had not even padded up and yet for screaming thousands, it was love at first sight. The match was already won.

The hearts though had already been conquered in 1989 when as a 16-year-old, Sachin Tendulkar made his debut in Karachi. Since then, he redefined hero worship in a country where cricket is an obsession, an escape and a promise of a better world.

The king of cricket had arrived.

Such has been his aura that over time much has been forgiven, a lot has been overlooked. Reports of tax evasion or dodging duty on imported vehicles were dismissed faster than his straight drive against Brett Lee. Debates over the master blaster playing for his personal milestones especially towards the end of his career never have any winners, even now.

He was the king of cricket.

India’s highest civilian honour

He retired. His no 10 jersey was also back in the pavilion as a tribute, this time for good. The cricket board claimed other players had too much respect for the ‘Little Master’ to even think of wearing the same number. A player who did so for astrological reasons on his debut was heavily trolled by fans. The day Sachin retired, he was rewarded with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. He was the first sportsman and the youngest recipient of the award.

He was the king of cricket.

Sachin Tendulkar was nominated to the Rajya Sabha and became a Member of Parliament, but unfortunately, he didn’t speak. How could he when he was never present and for once was the winner of a dubious tag- the worst performer along with actress Rekha. We should have seen the signs.

Yet, he remained the king of cricket.

Faux nationalism

A country became polarised, a genie of hate and faux nationalism was set free. Mobs attacked on a whim, a minister shouted ‘goli maro’ inciting even more violence, police watched as masked men entered a university campus in the middle of the night unleashing terror, people died in street clashes over a controversial citizenship law, girls- some of them the age of his daughter and old women stood their ground for months. He didn’t speak. But we forgave him. Or perhaps once again overlooked it.

He was still the king of cricket.

For months the farmers sat in the biting cold protesting the new farm bills and losing lives, no one came. He instead remained the icon for Mumbai Indians.

And then he did speak, and it was the deepest cut of all.

“India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised. External forces can be spectators but not participants. Indians know India and should decide for India. Let’s remain united as a nation,” copy tweeted the man whose greatness knew no boundaries and whose talent was respected by spectators at Lords just as much as in Sabina Park.

The game is bigger than the player, Sachin perhaps didn’t realise that this mantra applies not just to sports. His message broke the unwritten code he had with his followers- to remain a bystander.

Reticence of celebrities

What possibly hit his legion of fans the hardest was the hashtag #IndiaAgainstPropaganda that Sachin used in his tweet. Those like me who have always questioned the reticence of celebrities to speak openly on burning issues have learnt their lesson. Their silence is golden.

While most other top cricketers, former players and the coach tweeted similarly, some including Rohit Sharma and captain Virat Kohli noticeably did not use this hashtag. Kohli though has taken a harder stand when people are throwing litter on the streets than when they have garbage in their thoughts. Meanwhile, farmers protest was also discussed in the team meeting before the start of the England series.

Have we then got our hero worship all wrong? Have we been searching for the stars when all along our cricket and Bollywood idols had feet of clay? Their trajectory is similar, the capitulation complete whether it’s the whiff of the Panama papers, payback of a selfie or promises of more interviews that are a lesson in subservience. Someday they will learn their image was collateral damage to ironically save another’s image.

Choose wisely, they say. Instead, we Indians went with the optics. We were happy to see our stars in a toothpaste advertisement or selling us colas. We sold ourselves cheap.

Megan Rapinoe, the football star who took the US to a second consecutive FIFA World Cup victory has done as much off the field as she has on it. From being outspoken on discrimination to gender equality, she lent her social media account during the #Blacklivesmatter movement- hardly any Indian celebs tweeted on #DalitLivesMatter unlike the barrage of tweets with this hashtag- to black women. She is just one in a line of American athletes past and present who understand that stardom is about give and take.

Even at the Oscars political and social activism reached such a high that critics say there is something known as too much activism. We don’t have that problem. Back home there is the Filmfare awards and silence of the lambs.

By taking a collective copy paste stand and allowing himself to become part of a public relations pushback, Sachin and many other celebrities have shown how they don’t have the very thing they are also protesting against- freedom of expression. They just don’t know it yet.

Pacer Sandeep Sharma has much more to lose, our hockey players have spoken, tennis star Somdev Devvarman has questioned the landslide of identically worded tweets in recent days. The women led by Taapsee Pannu are raising a voice so that someday, the children of our fallen idols won’t have to raise theirs. We do have heroes we were just looking in the wrong place.

Ten years ago, I sat in a stadium with face paint, a fluttering Tricolor and hope. Now it is time for me to retire my blue jersey.

The king of cricket has left the building.

PS: Thankfully Rahul Dravid is not on social media