Bombay Times Exclusive
“If I was walking out to bat and people didn’t expect me to score runs, then I was probably at the wrong place, and should have done something else with my life”
One of the finest batsmen in the world, Sachin Tendulkar is every bowler’s nightmare. He may have retired from professional cricket but the stadiums continue to reverberate with ‘Sachin Sachin’ chants upon his arrival and tales of his talent dominate the Indian households. Throughout his celebrated career, the Master Blaster went about doing his job quietly, even when provoked by hot-headed sledgers. Beneath the soft-spoken exterior was a warrior who never let the chink in his armour show even when he had to battle several challenges, including anxiety. In a conversation with Bombay Times, Sachin opened up on an array of relevant topics like the most debated rivalries, mental wellness, Rahul Dravid as a coach, his soft corner for Roger Federer and more. Excerpts…
You played cricket for a cause — Road Safety, a few months ago. Do you miss playing the game professionally?
It was fun to play in that tournament. We got a great response and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was nice to be back on the field, but there are different stages in our life. I am at a stage where I am enjoying playing these tournaments and watching India take on New Zealand in a big Test match. Both things are equally exciting for me — to watch cricket and sometimes to go out there in the middle and play competitive games at our level.
The ‘Sachin Sachin’ chants never cease to reverberate across stadiums the moment you set foot on the field. What is the thought that crosses your mind when that happens?
It’s a blessing from up above. I thank people for all the love and affection and I hope it continues this way. No matter how much you get it, you always want more. It feels nice and I cannot thank the fans enough for their blessings.
You were down with COVID. The pandemic has taken a toll on us in more ways than one. What has kept you motivated?
We all face different challenges in life and this is something that no one had expected. We never thought that something like this could hit us. I have tried to keep myself engaged in all possible ways but when you see so many lives being lost, it hurts immensely. As individuals, we should step forward and help others in whatever capacity we can and people have been doing that. Every little step goes a long way. You look at yourself in the mirror and feel gratitude for being able to be of some assistance to those in desperate need. I am better now although one of my family members had a major surgery recently and they lost a lot of blood. That was a traumatic experience for my family and me. A person whose identity is not known, donated blood and saved someone close to me. I had also read about the blood shortage in India, so on World Blood Donor Day (June 14), my team and I donated blood. The way I don’t know who saved my family member, a person who may get my blood won’t know of it either. If we all do this, at some stage, it is going to help some individual. This human chain needs to grow stronger, so that we can help each other. I urge people who can, to come forward and donate blood.
Be it Virat Kohli, Abhinav Bindra or Naomi Osaka, sportsmen are now opening up on the need to put their mental health first amid the professional pressure. Athletes are expected to be resilient when it comes to their mind and body. Would you say that discussions around mental wellness are the need of the hour?
Many athletes go through this. Some speak about it, while some choose to keep it to themselves. If you are unable to find a way, a solution can only be found if you are willing to share that information. So many people support us and wish us well, but these issues aren’t visible, and need to be addressed by mental health experts. As far as Naomi’s withdrawal from the French Open is concerned, no athlete would want to miss a tournament. If a player of her calibre feels that way, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. If she is not in the right space, she needs to be given time. She felt it was the right thing to do at that moment and she did it. If you sprain an ankle, a physiotherapist looks into it. Likewise, only an expert can look into this. She will get back when she’s ready. It’s important for sportsmen to be in the right space physically and mentally.
You have spoken about battling anxiety yourself. How did you tackle it?
For 10-12 years of my career, I couldn’t sleep on the eve of the match. I used to be wide awake tossing and turning in bed, constantly thinking about the match the next day. That anxiety and restlessness were palpable. After over a decade, I realised that this is perhaps how I prepare before a game and accepted that. I did not fight that feeling anymore. I would watch something on television, read or play a game. I did whatever I felt would help me play better the next day. It was not just about physical, but mental preparation, too. I made sure that mentally I was at ease and not panicking about how I will play the next day if I have not slept the previous night. Over a period of time, I learnt more about myself. I learnt to deal with various issues and acceptability helped a great deal.
Fans have always had enormous expectations of you from every match you ever played. Did that trigger your anxiety?
One thing is to think about people’s expectations and the other is to live up to your own. I felt I should live up to my own expectations, because people didn’t know what went on in my head. The pressure was from within. I never spared myself. I pushed myself as hard as I could. You meet ten people, and they will tell you ten different things. Eventually, you have to go by what you think is the right thing to do for your team and country. My priority was always that and when you deeply care about something, you want to put your best foot forward. If I was walking out to bat and people didn’t expect me to score runs, then I was probably at the wrong place, and should have done something else with my life. I took it positively when people expected me to score big. The feedback you give yourself is crucial. People are entitled to an opinion. How you absorb that information is important. If you take it negatively, you will get bogged down by the pressure, but if you take those expectations positively, it adds to
The French Open was a hit and a lot of interesting sporting tournaments are on. At a time like this, some view sport as a welcome distraction, while some as a deterrent to safety. The timing and venues of the IPL evoked several debates. How do you perceive this situation?
Sport is a good way of engaging the audience. It is something that you can sit at home and watch. I enjoyed watching the French Open. The standard of tennis was incredible, especially the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal. As far as safety is concerned, I don’t think I am qualified enough to answer that. This is an area where the experts come into play. They study and assess the situation. If they think it’s safe, it’s fine to go ahead. If not, they know what restrictions to put and it is important for us to follow those guidelines.
GOATs as we call them (Greatest of all time) are often pitted against and compared to each other. Messi-Ronaldo, Federer-Nadal, Sir Don Bradman and you, Sunil Gavaskar and you or Kohli and you. Do you think these rivalries and comparisons make the sport interesting?
It does make things interesting for people. I remember in 1998 when Australia was touring India after a long time, the series was termed as Warne vs Tendulkar series. I had to remind people that it was ‘Australia vs India’. There are bound to be rivalries and I encourage individual rivalries for people to get engaged and involved in a sport. People talk about Borg vs McEnroe, Sampras vs Agassi even today. Now there’s Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic. People remember rivalries for decades and that is the beauty of sport. I feel test cricket needs more rivalry to generate interest.
Djokovic could most likely equal Federer and Nadal’s 20 Grand Slam wins at the Wimbledon. If you were to choose one player between these three champions, who would that be?
It has to be Roger Federer for me, and I also know him personally. I have heard good things about Nadal and Djokovic as well. Just like Roger, the other guys are also world class players and nice people. Along with being good at sport if one can be nice to people, I value that quality a lot and all three possess that.
Rahul Dravid is the coach for India’s Sri Lanka tour. What does he bring to the table?
These players have spent enough time with Rahul, so they know him. A coach is someone who should keep a healthy atmosphere in the team and the dressing room, and Rahul will do that. At this level, unless there are weaknesses, you don’t need to coach the players. They all know how to hit a cover drive or bowl an outswinger. When somebody is struggling, that’s when someone of his experience will play a role. Otherwise, the team knows what they are supposed to do. Shikhar Dhawan (skipper for the ODI, T20 series) has been around for 10 years. That’s a long enough period. The team is a nice mixture of experience and youth, and Rahul is around to help them without any doubt.