To be writing about a boy whom you have seen unfold from a talent into a genius is a tad embarrassing. My hesitancy to write on Sachin Tendulkar is more out of the fear of riding piggy back on a name the world seems to have dissected. And my passion for writing is not so strong as to sideline the feeling.
But his birthday is an international occasion, especially in the cricket world. Thus, penning a few memories of the boy at 14 makes more anecdotal sense than idolizing a sporting achiever.
If I am convinced after years that one needs to be in love with ones work not to perceive it as work, then I may have seen it in Sachin Tendulkar's early days. Always keen to play that extra game, keener to have an extra session in the nets, keenest to play tennis-ball cricket in the dressing room or the hotel corridor, all signifying he wanted more of it.
In an era where masseurs, trainers and physios were unheard of, the game was relatively simple. Young talent like Sachin and their ilk sought answers from the nets and their seniors. Video was only a medium for the rich to watch movies so analysis was making sure the same mistakes weren't repeated.
I first heard from him through my senior and former Mumbai captain Milind Rege and Hemant Kenkre, another long serving cricketer. Both Rege and Kenkre had one thing in common, they were old fashioned romantics who were impressed by the minute nuances of the game (the walk to the wicket, the initial movement, called trigger for some reason today, or even the sweet part of the bat meeting the ball).Tendlya, as he was known at 14, was top of the mind for these men.
They convinced the late Raj Singh Dungarpur and Madhav Apte to get him a membership at the Cricket Club of India (CCI), amending rules to permit him to enter the dressing rooms of the CCI since he was only 14!
Sachin walked into the Mumbai (then Bombay) dressing room at 14 as a certainty. His bat was heavy as any piece of wood. He would shadow practice before going into a net or a match thumping the block of willow. The thump had a touch of determination of a steely desire to score runs by dominating the opposition. His debut ton was as easy as I have seen a stalwart bat. For seniors like us then, it was a realization how far ahead he was in his game.
His second innings at Rajkot was equally special. On a turner, I had the best seat in the house for the Sachin show. Coming in at 0 for 2, he was not out 20 at the end of the over. He had inquired on his way in if the ball was turning. His next question was 'Is there bounce?'
It was much like a surgeon's calculated diagnosis and remedial treatment.
More than his skill it was the questions that shook me. At 14 how does one think so deeply? Maybe these were questions that came naturally through those hours in the nets or at matches in the maidaans ... or perhaps tennis-ball contests in building complexes and hotel corridors.
His metamorphosis to greatness is no surprise for those of us who saw him in his early days. Yes the edges have been sharpened, the finishing done but the basics remain a constant.
He loved his vada paavs, his fish, his food. But his true love was total devotion to his cricket gear- the rubber grips on the handle, the quality of his willow, the sound of the quality of wood, the length of his flannels and preserving the shine on a ball. He's always loved his willow. Taking pains to get the excess wood shaved from the bat or even asking makers to give it a shape that makes him feel good when he looks down before the bowlers charge.
His love for batting was seen then and it still exists. He may not replicate what has been done in the past but the foundations to this great player can somewhere be a template for the future generation.
Watching him grow has been a learning. Happy Birthday, Tendlya!
(Shishir Hattangadi was a senior member of the Mumbai team on Sachin Tendulkar's Ranji Trophy debut in 1988. He played 60 first-class matches.)