The Moral Timidity of Sachin Tendulkar


In early January of 2020, Ajinkya Rahane, the vice-captain of the Indian Test cricket team, tweeted a picture of himself consuming vada pav, the famous Maharashtrian snack. Along with the picture, he posted an anodyne question for his followers. “How do you like your vada pav? 1. Vada pav with chai, 2. Vada pav with chutney, 3. Just Vada pav,” Rahane wrote. Sachin Tendulkar, his Marathi compatriot, responded promptly. “I like my Vada Pav with red chutney, very little green chutney & some imli chutney to make the combination even better,” he tweeted in reply.

At the time of this exchange, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act had been roiling the country for more than a month. Throughout this period, Tendulkar had been conspicuous by his silence. The silence had been predictable and, in a sense, his interaction with Rahane was emblematic of Tendulkar’s personality. While the country’s secular future felt at stake, compelling even many otherwise reticent luminaries to speak out, Tendulkar was occupied with the mundane and the banal. In his book How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century, the historian Frank Dikotter underlined the concept of common subordination. “There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals,” Dikotter wrote. “There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule to name only a few. But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.” Dikotter noted that “the cult debased allies and rivals alike, forcing them to collaborate through common subordination. Most of all, by compelling them to acclaim him before the others, a dictator turned everyone into a liar.”

Dikotter’s concept aptly describes the spectacle that followed a tweet by Rihanna, calling attention to the farmers’ protests, which sent the Indian establishment into a tizzy. In response, an orchestrated chorus of imitative tweets by celebrities across the country, most prominently actors and sports stars, emerged the next day, affirming notions of Indian sovereignty. This spectacle has become a periodic farce of the Modi era, when celebrities—out of inclination, inducement or compulsion—front up as handmaidens for the regime. On the evening of 3 February, as social media was flooded with tweets that read eerily similar to one another, a tweet in the same fashion was posted on Tendulkar’s Twitter account, which has more than 35 million followers. Perhaps the logic of common subordination, and its ever-widening circle, explains why Tendulkar felt obliged to join this grovelling circus. Even so, Tendulkar’s addition to this collective debasement was a surprise.

Tendulkar is as close as it comes to being a sacrosanct public figure, beyond the reach of those in power. No establishment in India—not even the present, vindictive one whose modus operandi is more akin to a mafia state—would ever take the risk of being seen to be hounding or persecuting him.

What accounts, then, for this anomaly from someone unusually careful in his utterances? The answer lies in Tendulkar’s conservative upbringing as well as his psychological make-up, which can be described as a state of stunted adulthood.

The nature of his social background is easily understood. Tendulkar grew up in the salaried, lower-middle class, Maharashtrian world of what was then Bombay. He belongs to Mumbai’s largest community that nevertheless lacks any substantial economic and cultural power amidst the upper echelons of the city, the wellspring of the nativism that drives much of the politics of the Shiv Sena. The ordinary Maharashtrian Mumbaikar of Tendulkar’s background often emanates an excessively deferential attitude towards the powerful and the moneyed of India’s financial capital, a dynamic ever-present in Tendulkar’s relationship with the Ambanis.

Before 2014, in a less polarised age, Tendulkar’s timidity towards those in positions of wealth and power did not fully come into view. He was an apposite mascot for a kind of centrist status-quoism and the gradualist, incremental mobility that marked India in the first two decades after liberalisation. Tendulkar became the epitome of values prized in the conventional, hierarchal and self-congratulatory milieu of the middle class, showing no eagerness to challenge the many prejudices of society and state. His notion of ethics remained limited purely to the realm of his own personal conduct.

By all accounts, Tendulkar is a genuinely decent human being, self-effacing and humble; attentive and respectful even towards the least important people in any situation, be it slaving net bowlers or the unsung administrative staff at the countless stadiums he has played in. But this personal decency has always been accompanied by a deeply ingrained timidity towards authority, a primal fear of upsetting any establishment, whether cricketing or otherwise.

An image of studied neutrality served Tendulkar well during the indomitable pressures of his labyrinthine career; it may even have been a refuge from the maddening distractions that followed him everywhere. But no life lived in the public gaze can be sustained, through the course of an entire lifetime, with the complete avoidance of moral choices. There will be moments, such as now, where fence sitting of the sort Tendulkar had mastered becomes untenable.

Before the stark fault lines of our present time, it was harder to see what appears now with increasing clarity, that Tendulkar also shares the worst traits of the Indian middle-class: its indifference to the general good, its lack of commitment to the values of human rights and democracy, and its intellectual vacuousness.

The cricket writer Rahul Bhattacharya once described Tendulkar as a “man-child superstar.” “Perhaps uniquely,” Bhattacharya wrote, “he is granted not the sportstar’s indulgence of perma-adolescence but that of perma-childhood.” It is a curious, even comical, personality. Tendulkar’s autobiography, a monument to mind-numbing banality, was a prime example of his childlike psyche. In the book—a tedious compendium of runs scored, tours participated in and injuries endured—Tendulkar has nothing significant or serious to say at all: the nature of sporting greatness, the state of the modern game, the scourge of match-fixing that he witnessed first-hand. Emerging from its nearly five hundred pages, one is left with no impression of Tendulkar’s thoughts on the life and the times he played through; it seems he has never bothered to reflect on such things.

Uniquely for a public figure atop the most rarefied of pedestals, Tendulkar seems unaware of his stature and its import, and the many ways in which it can be employed as a moral authority in the public sphere. It was probably this misunderstanding of his own place in the national imagination that lay behind his decision to tweet; Tendulkar perhaps assumed his voice would get enmeshed and lost in the collective din. It clearly did not occur to him that while the country was resigned to the likes of Akshay Kumar acting in a similarly craven manner, Tendulkar himself stood in a far more elevated pantheon of national icons.

Unlike most other sports stars who ascend into the world of stratospheric success, Tendulkar seems peculiarly unable to transcend the limitations of his social background. His personality has not grown commensurate with his public stature, animated by no larger ideas about the society and the world that he inhabits. If ever placed in a position of pressure to make a choice, Tendulkar was always likely to squeal on the side on the establishment.

Both the social and psychological aspects of his personality play out in Tendulkar’s subservient equation with the Ambanis. One veteran sports editor recalls coming across a video recording of one of the obscenely opulent Ambani weddings. During a festive cricket match organised as part of the multi-day celebrations, Tendulkar—in the manner of any supplicant employee of the Reliance-owned Mumbai Indians—was seen bending down and strapping a pad to Mukesh Ambani’s knee. For a man who has always seemed petrified of controversy, his relationship with the country’s wealthiest family was also probably a factor in Tendulkar’s decision to align himself with a line that ultimately benefits the Ambanis.

It remains baffling to a large extent what Tendulkar has gleaned from those he claims as his sporting heroes, none greater for him than Donald Bradman. In the aftermath of Tendulkar’s tweet, Raunak Kapoor, a talk-show host at the sports website ESPNcricinfo, shared a 2008 piece from the Sydney Morning Herald. Written by Roland Perry and headlined “The day apartheid was hit for six,” the piece described Bradman’s dilemma in the 1970s while he was chairman of the Australian Cricket Board. Bradman was faced with the decision of whether to ban the all-white South African cricket team from touring Australia in 1971-72.

Bradman flew to South Africa to meet its prime minister, John Vorster, an admirer of Hitler and the Nazis. “Vorster expected Bradman to support the tour, but the meeting quickly became tense, then sour,” Perry wrote. “Bradman asked questions in his direct way about why blacks were denied the chance to represent their country. Vorster suggested they were intellectually inferior and could not cope with cricket’s intricacies.” Referring to the legendary West Indian all-rounder, one of the greatest cricketers to ever play the game, Perry recounts Bradman asking the prime minister: “Have you ever heard of Garry Sobers?”

Appalled by Vorster’s racism, Bradman returned to Australia and announced the tour’s cancellation. Perry narrates Bradman making what he called “a simple one-line statement.” “We will not play them (South Africa) until they choose a team on a non-racist basis.” A South African cricket team would not land on Australian shores until 1992, after the end of the apartheid.

If Bradman seems too remote from our present epoch, there is an example closer to home. In 2011, Kumar Sangakkara, a modern great and a former captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team, delivered the prestigious annual Spirit of Cricket lecture at the Lord’s cricket ground, home to the Marylebone Cricket Club. In a speech that received a standing ovation from a MCC crowd usually understated in its praise, Sangakkara movingly located cricket within the bloody and turbulent history of his country, the unifying impact of Sri Lanka’s miraculous 1996 World Cup victory and the continuing obligation of cricket to be an agent of reconciliation as the island limped back from decades of civil war. (Later, in 2019, Sangakkara would take over as the first non-British president of the MCC.)

In 2019, during the festival of Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka was struck by a series of coordinated bomb attacks at churches and luxury hotels, killing 267 people. The attacks were reported to be the handiwork of the Islamic State and its local affiliates. In the weeks after, as reports of rioting and attacks against Muslims began to pour in, Sangakkara once again reaffirmed his role as an ambassador for his nation’s plural ethos. “If we lose ourselves in violence, racism, thuggery and hatred we lose our country,” he tweeted. “Unite as Sri Lankans, be peaceful, keep each other safe. Do not give into shameful, divisive political agendas.”

Sangakkara’s moral courage should be seen in the light of a polity dominated by the ideology of Sinhala supremacism for more than half-a-century—the entirety of his life—and a democracy that has been relatively far less robust and free than India’s for most of its history. The contrast with Tendulkar could not be starker.

On 11 February, Wasim Jaffer, a former India Test batsman, who had been working as the coach of the Uttarakhand state cricket team, was sought to be maligned with communal overtones by its administration. Jaffer had resigned as the team’s coach, alleging unethical interference in team selection. Cricket has thus far remained largely undiminished by sectarianism; the dog-whistling by the Uttarakhand cricket administration was so egregious and scurrilous that it immediately sparked outrage from within the cricket fraternity and beyond.

Even Anil Kumble, who had joined the orchestrated chorus of tweets earlier and is generally seen as close to the Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted in defence of Jaffer, widely considered a figure with an unimpeachable track record with more than two decades in the game. Throughout the day, a clamour grew for Tendulkar to speak up in defence of his fellow Mumbai and India teammate. In the statement following his retirement last year, Jaffer had spoken of Tendulkar in effusive terms, describing him as his “role model.” On Thursday, as much of India’s cricket community showed its solidarity with Jaffer, this time Tendulkar’s Twitter stayed silent.

In the ensuing backlash following Tendulkar’s tweet, a meme has been doing the rounds. It is a picture of the little master from his playing days, mid-motion through one of his majestic upper cuts, with one intervention: the blue trousers of the national kit have been overlaid with the khaki shorts of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. In the end though, it is a misleading characterisation. More accurate would be to think of Tendulkar as a man who wears the colours of whichever establishment happens to be in power—let us not forget he became a member of the Rajya Sabha under the Congress government—a man without any beliefs at all, devoid of any ethical or moral concerns towards the society and country that has so deified and venerated him.