Among the many questions that will never be answered after the Carnage at Centurion is this: Is Sachin Tendulkar human?
In a country where cricket has already crossed---or so we are told by the media and marketing mavens---the narrow niche of sport and entered the broad realm of religion, it's probably silly to ask if Sachin is like the rest of us.
Of course, he isn't. (He has more international runs than most families' average salaries!)
And certainly not after he used cricket's biggest stage to prove that he could handle everything Shoaib Akhtar could throw at him on one leg, with a divine 'tandav' that the other artistes of his Kala Nagar could envy.
Typical Indian hyperbole?
"When I watched Sachin bat (against Pakistan)," writes an ardent devotee from the United States, "I was overcome with the same emotion which I felt when I first gazed at the majesty of Mt. Everest, when I tried to comprehend divinity standing at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, or when I heard the deafening roar of the Niagara Falls.
"When I watched Sachin bat. my belief in God was strengthened because I truly believed that I had witnessed an Act of God."
The author of that panegyric: Hyder Khan from Chicago, Illinois.
Sachin's stunning assault has achieved two things. It has left the Pakistanis speechless: they don't know what hit them. And it has left Indians speechless: we don't know how to explain how he did it. Which is why we find it easy to employ the phraseology of another world to explain what happened on our own on Saturday, March 1, 2003.
And which is why we end up asking inane if suitably heavy questions like, is Sachin human?
Human as in, do his hairs stand on end ever? Does he ever get goose pimples? Does his pulse-rate ever shoot up? Does his heart ever pound faster than usual? Do fear and anxiety ever enter his thoughts? Does pressure ever weigh him down? Do his ears ever seem warmer than usual sometimes, when the adrenaline kicks in?
Television commentators have turned the challenge of combat into a dreadful cliché. "Pressure brings out the best in him," they say in one easy drawl. Or, "He looks nice and pumped up." It is easy on the ear, all right, but it doesn't even begin to convey the gladiatorial nature of tough, professional competitive sport.
Mohammed Kaif being sent up at No. 4 against Pakistan is dismissed as a "masterstroke" after the lad has hit up 35 and India has won, but who knows what went through the mind of the 22-year-old boy whose house had been attacked back in Allahabad just a fortnight earlier? What if he had failed, if India had lost?
That's two `ifs' for sure, all right, but an India-Pakistan clash doesn't become "just another game" just because the two captains say so or just because there is more pressure on the other side to win to stay in the competition. There's more to India v Pakistan than just the cricket. We know it. They know it. (Why else do you think the Army Chief N.C. Vij has decided to pat the team for its splendid performance "so far" in the World Cup?)
It's only when we look at Saturday's match in the theatre of the subcontinent that the magnitude of Sachin's innings begins to sink in.
Consider the size of the occasion (World Cup) and consider the nature of the opposition (Pakistan). Consider all that this team has been through in recent times (New Zealand) and consider all that this man himself has been through in recent times (No. 4, No. 3, No. 1). Consider that he doesn't figure in contemporary India's finest Test and one-day wins (Match No. 1535, Kolkata, and Match No. 1856, London).
Consider all that and you will still only get a slice of the 98 nerve-tingling runs he finally scored.
Indeed, when Pakistan hit up a modest if competitive 273, ten Indians out of ten would have suggested the same play-safe approach. Approach the first 15 overs gingerly. Don't try anything adventurous. Keep rotating the strike. See off Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar. Don't take too many risks. After all, the Pakistanis reached 273 in spite of only being 72 for 1 at the end of 15.
Look at what really happened (50/0 at the end of 5, 82/2 off 10, and 120/2 off 15) and you will realise the import of how it was set up: A six over backward point off the man who had publicly served a warning to Sachin the day before. Looked great, of course, and it was probably the best insult that any human being could have provided to the man who had only recently "bowled" the fastest ball hurled by a human being.
But how many of us have the ability to such risks in such a high-pressure contest when we know that even a little mistake can send the hopes of the team and that of a whole nation crashing, incurring consequences that were never originally envisaged by the game's makers? Has any predecessor of Tendulkar---Sunil Gavaskar included---ever had to deliver under such relentless public, marketing and political pressure?
In the other contest-within-a-contest of the day---the world's highest one-day scorer vs the world's highest one-day wicket taker---Sachin employed a more classical approach. Using a shuffle that sees him walk across the stump from leg, Sachin converted even good in-the-corridors balls from Akram and later Waqar Younis into legside fours. Different strokes for different folks.
March 1 is only a minor stop on the road to March 23, and nothing, but nothing, demonstrates the superhuman effort of Sachin than the manner in which he has put his distinctive stamp on the tournament.
Tendulkar entered the World Cup with a big question on his position in the batting order. Tendulkar entered the World Cup with anybody who could put mouse on pad (yours truly included) asking why he had scored just 10 runs in each innings of the Kolkata Test against Australia, in which V.V.S. Laxman scored 281, and why he had managed only 14 when India chased 325 in the NatWest finals last year when Kaif roared.
And Tendulkar entered the World Cup as the greatest batsman of his generation, ahead of Brian Lara with whom he started out by a mile, but still smarting under the charge of not having led his side (and country) to any big tournament win. India is not even halfway there yet, but who would have thought they would have come this far a fortnight ago, when effigies and posters of the gods were being torched?
And remember how the turnaround began?
Not the captain, not the vice-captain, but Sachin decides to take the bulls by the horns. He comes out and addresses the fans. Keep cool, he says. Things will change. Unwritten bottom line: "You know me. I will see to it." And, boy, have they changed.
Guess who has led the charge with a Made-for-DVD series! Six innings, 469 runs, 4 fifties, one 100, average 78.17, S/R 93.80.
Sunil Gavaskar has for long been calling Tendulkar the Little Champion, and at no time has it sounded better. Many of us face challenges in our lives. Some of us even muster the courage to combat them. But such is our fear of failure, we also line up ready-made excuses and escape-routes. "I will try my best. Beyond that I cannot promise." "It's all in God's hands." Etcetera.
That's where Sachin's strength of character and certitude shines through - and a steely determination to see it through to the end. Where does it come from? Why does it elude the rest of us?
No wonder it surprises few people that Sachin had spoken to his brother and mentor, Ajit Tendulkar, at length before embarking on the African safari.
A certain somebody who doesn't wish to be named has been calling Sachin's showing as the "Ronaldo Phenomenon". Ronaldo went to France with giant expectations from fans back home but failed to bring the Cup back to Brazil. Ditto Sachin when he went to England last time. Ronaldo made up for France in Seoul last year. Sachin Tendulkar might still not make up for 1999 in South Africa, but no human could have made a more determined bid.
Of course, it is still a team game, and without the other ten, "Ten" would have not managed to do what he has, and will not be able to do what he has set out to. But one hesitates to think where Ganguly and his men would have been if Sachin had not come to the party like he has, providing direction, purpose and leadership that have escaped smaller mortals. And if he does not in the ensuing matches.
Sachin's surgical slaughter on Saturday---unfazed by the occasion and the opposition, and the pressures and pain of a strain---holds up sport in all its greatness.
Whether we are software engineers or doctors, industrialists or scientists, politicians or bureaucrats, or even piddling journalists for that matter, our lives, careers and reputations are built by hiding, by couching, by masking things from the sight of others. If somebody looks over our shoulder, we can get distracted.
But at a sportsman, on the other hand, exposes himself to public view, public scrutiny and public ridicule at every step, every moment of the day. We can see his every performance, we can judge his every performance. That is what makes a sporting feat like Saturday's so sweet, so great, and yet so inexplicable.
"When you are told about God, you question its (unsure if it's his/her) existence until you drop dead and meet it in heaven, (or get a glance from hell). Or when there just seems no other explanation for events that conjure up so many shades of emotions yet unknown, that you come to accept that there is something so magical, that you cannot explain it!
"That is what happened on Saturday for millions of Indians in 'des' and 'pardes'. Sachin, the God has been questioned and doubted many a times, by many a mortal, cricketing or otherwise. But after seeing him bat against Pakistan on the world stage, everyone will shut up and accept. Accept that Sachin is the best that cricket has ever seen, or will ever see."
The author of this panegyric: Divya Sharma from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
After what religion has done to our politics, the last thing any cricket fan would want to see is religion in sport. But if cricket is a transcontinental religion, Sachin is its first, most secular god.
Thirteen years is a long time in the era of one-day cricket, but this is as good a time as any to say thank you to Bishen Singh Bedi for allowing me the small pleasure of bowling a couple of overs, right arm over, to God.