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Sachin Tendulkar has been breaking records almost from the first time he twirled a cricket bat; with V.G. Kambli in 1988 he set a record as schoolboys, of 664 for any partnership. He had always been mature way beyond his years in handling the mental aspect of the game. For over two decades since, Tendulkar has kept the faith with Indian cricket fans, and this has been key to the nation building its belief in cricket as salvation. Tendulkar’s mental stability and fortitude would be envied by English sports fans, whose inconstant national sporting heroes seem ever more reliant on lawyers and super-injunctions to keep them on the pitch.


Maybe Indians should be forgiven their worship of Sachin, after all it was Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden who declared after suffering a series defeat in 1998, at the hands of Tendulkar, ‘I have seen God,’ the devout Christian remarked, ‘He bats number four for India.”


But are their dangers in this kind of devotion?


Whisper it – the God-like Tendulkar took 33 heart stopping innings to finally move from number 99 to 100 centuries. India has had to go and lie down in a darkened room to recover from the stress.


There were signs, some would say, that it was all getting too much for Sachin. After his milestone achievement, he’s quoted as commenting on the long journey of missed opportunities between 99 and 100 hundreds, ‘Remember the second innings against West Indies in New Delhi? I played well, India won, but the only thing that got highlighted was me not getting the hundred. It’s not easy.”


Another clue that something psychologically profound happened during this pressure period is perhaps betrayed by another comment, ‘”I wish there was someone to guide me, about how to deal with this. I am not complaining but it happened for the first time.” While he went on to graciously thank the ‘back room boys’ – ‘physios, doctors and masseurs who helped me out when I was in desperate need,’ most elite athletes now understand the vital importance of the mental aspect of the game, but the continuing stigma means they won’t openly admit to using mental health professionals.


So, to get inside the mind of Tendulkar you need to first put the squabbling passionate couple, India and cricket, on the couch for some marital therapy.


Bill Shankly a famous manager of Liverpool Football Club is quoted as once declaring, ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that’. For those outside of sport, this kind of sentiment seems nonsensical, but in the case of India’s obsession with cricket, the game is burrowing its way into the psyche of the nation, so that it curls around national identity with a stranglehold.


During the 1999 Kargil Conflict, former captain Kapil Dev (quoted by writer Nalin Mehta) publicly pleaded for the World Cup India–Pakistan cricket matches, being played at the same time, to be cancelled. Injured soldiers he’d visited on the Kashmir front line begged him ‘Please do not lose a match to Pakistan’. Mehta, an award winning social scientist, writer and broadcaster, has subsequently claimed that India’s senior soldiers believed the cricketing victory in that famous final, boosted their troops’ morale, as well as sapped Pakistan’s resolve. To the extent of even contributing to the outcome.



Mehta quotes an Indian TV executive, in an academic paper Mehta published on the link between Indian TV and cricket entitled The great Indian Willow Trick: Cricket, nationalism and India’s TV news revolution, 1998–2005; ‘I think as far as Indian identity is concerned, cricket overtakes even Bollywood… cricket is perhaps consciously the most nationalistic activity that Indians indulge in… Now in terms of importance, cricket has left Bollywood far behind. It is next only to big political stories and really big economic stories. . . . And very often it overtakes political and economic stories as well.’


Nisha Nair, an academic at the Institute of Management, Indore, is one of many Indian intellectuals assembling evidence that cricket is much more than just a sport to Indians, and wondering if this might not be a cause for concern. She declares that the minimum TV audience for a big one-day cricket international is 200 million (now a fifth of the population), on occasions even hitting 400 million (the combined population of the USA, UK and France).


In a recent polemic published in the academic journal ‘Sport in Society’, she points out the Indian Cricket team’s coach from 2000 to 2005, expresses awe for the particular reverence the nation holds for Sachin Tendulkar, declaring in his book ‘John Wright’s Indian Summers’, ‘. . . whenever he had a niggle, the media would run graphics of the affected body part, with a detailed diagnosis and prognosis, sometimes on the front page. When he was having toe trouble, the BCCI doctor appeared on the national news with a medical model of the foot’s skeletal structure to explain the problem and soothe public anxiety’.


Forget Rooney and the headlines over footballers pay, or Tiger Woods or US Football stars, the Indian cricket team is now, according to Nair, reported to be currently the highest paid sports team in the world. This is no accident because of the powerful psychological role cricket plays in an emerging economy like India’s. Cricket, argues Nisha Nair, is the only realm today where Indians can have a shot at world supremacy. In a society  hamstrung by poor government, corruption and manifold divisions such as religions, ethnicities and 22 official languages, Nair argues that so many differing customs and traditions means cricket has become the one sentiment, the nation can unite over.


Cricket is therefore fundamental to the psychology of India, Nair contends in her academic paper entitled ‘Cricket obsession in India: through the lens of identity theory’, because India has been devoid of any cohesive unifying force ever since the days of the freedom struggle, when the country united to kick the British out (yes even Pakistan and India united on that one). Nair believes that India in the twenty first century is desperately searching for a similar unifying flag to rally around, given practically everything else (religion, politics, language) serves to fracture the country. Cricket  is the only feature of national life which plays a unifying role, and ensures Indians can discover who they are,  hence the religious or hysterical fervour with which it is followed.


But the danger is, if modern India is looking for an identity and focuses only on cricket, can the pressure on this one sport, this one hero, be too great? Gandhi became a kind of messianic figure whom Indians turned to, believing only he could lead them out of bondage from Britain.


And look what happened to Gandhi in the end.


There is no doubt that India is not alone in pursuing sport to establish  national identity. The particular zeal and aggression which accompanies Australia versus England Test matches, are the ex-colonists’ way of vigorously establishing self-esteem, following the humiliations bestowed by the mother country.


Nelson Mandela believed that uniting to follow their Rugby Team played a crucial role in helping heal South Africa’s divisions in the immediate post-apartheid era. He positively encouraged the country to identify with the team, a gamble which paid off when they won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And of course, it’s a great metaphor, the whole nation coming together as one big team, pulling collectively for victory. The movie of the true story ends with Morgan Freeman reciting the lines of the poem Invictus, ‘I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul’.


But what if the rugby team had lost? Would the story then have found a Hollywood producer?


Is it psychologically healthy for players or fans that the burden of national honour falls entirely on the shoulders of Indian cricket and Sachin Tendulkar? A victorious cricket team is a convenient remedy for India’s many failures, but, does it let the rest of the country off the hook?


The media seems to have missed the possible lurking resentment behind Tendulkar’s words when he chose to discuss his son, following the master’s one hundred hundreds. “You know, Arjun is badly in love with cricket, but he should play just for the love of it. I want him to grow up as a normal human being, I really don’t want him to be surrounded by the media. There’s a time for everything, otherwise so he may end up hating everything.” Reading between the lines, was this the closest the dutiful Tendulkar has come to gripe about the burden India places on its star cricketers?


I wish Indians could feel proud of their entrepreneurs, authors, artists, actors, scientists and,  yes,  others sports besides just cricket. I think this is what Sachin wants for his son.


Taking the pressure off cricket might even be good for the Indian game. It might allow Sachin to score more freely.



Nisha Nair (2011): Cricket obsession in India: through the lens of identity theory. Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 14:5, 569-580

Nalin Mehta (2007): The great Indian Willow Trick: Cricket, nationalism and India’s TV news revolution, 1998–2005, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 24:9, 1187-1199

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