When a Hundred is a Fifty
By Pranay Gupte
Sachin Tendulkar of India cracked his 50th Test century in South Africa on Sunday evening, a record that’s unlikely to be broken any time soon. His nearest rivals – Ricky Ponting of Australia, with 39 centuries – and Jacques Kallis of South Africa, with 38 centuries – simply do not have Tendulkar’s stamina and steadiness. Moreover, the 36-year-old Indian batsman isn’t done yet – who knows how many more centuries he will pile up?
If Tendulkar’s 20-year career in Test matches is a metaphor for the values that typify cricket in its purest form – class, endurance, technical skills, success in a diversity of playing fields, and the sheer joy of being in the sport – it is also a metaphor for his native city, Mumbai. He personifies the go-getting nature of Mumbai, India’s commercial and financial capital. And Mumbai, in turn, shares common ground with Dubai in that its vibrancy and positive energy are very much discernible in this much younger metropolis on the Arabian Gulf.
Tendulkar has always enjoyed playing in the United Arab Emirates, which hosts international cricket tournaments in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. He has spoken warmly of the welcome extended to him not only by Indian expatriates but also by Emiratis. And he has noted that Dubai – which arguably has the world’s most modern cricket stadium – is home to the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council. The ICC determines which country is eligible to play “Test” matches – typically five-day games, with each side fielding 11 players. Ten nations currently qualify to play Tests.
The UAE is not among them, even though its stadiums have been the venues for Test matches involving Pakistan, where domestic political conditions these days are deemed too delicate to stage international matches. While Emiratis have long followed and supported cricket, a new generation of nationals is increasingly engaged in the game – as players, albeit at an amateur level. I think it’s a matter of time before a UAE team qualifies for Test cricket.
That would be yet another step for the country to advance in participating in the global economy. Cricket has the second largest following – after soccer – in the international community’s 192 countries. And top Test cricketers have not only become worldwide celebrities, they are gathering huge commercial endorsements. Tendulkar, for example, has a $40 million contract with sports management firm Iconix; India’s captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, recently inked a record two-year endorsement deal with another sports-management company, Rhiti, for $42 million.
This kind of money makes Dhoni and Tendulkar superstars in a sport where Test cricketers average $500,000 in annual income. That average may not match the revenues of baseball, soccer or tennis players – but the endorsement deals commanded by the two Indian players touch those of the best players in other global sports.
Revenues of this sort have meant, of course, that cricket has attracted unsavory hangers-on. In recent years, the sport has been marred by allegations of illegal betting by underworld characters colluding with some Test players. Indeed, the ICC and national cricket authorities have defrocked some high-profile players after official inquiries.
There hasn’t even been a hint of scandal involving Tendulkar – in any manner. Although he hails from the commercially freewheeling city of Mumbai – which is also the reported capital of India’s underworld – his personal values mirror the “zero tolerance” policy of Dubai. Just as Dubai emphasizes the upholding of civic and moral values, Tendulkar retains his middle-class bred principles of frugality, closeness to family, and humility. Surely louts and touts, even if subtly, must have endlessly approached him. One simply cannot imagine Sachin Tendulkar succumbing to such importuning.
And why would he want to? He has earned his place in the history of sports; he has earned lucre as well as the love of millions of fans through his extraordinary dedication to cricket. The century that he made on Sunday in South Africa is not only for the record books, it is for the ages. That’s why the applause for his achievement resonates around the world.
(Pranay Gupte’s next book – the 15th that he has written or edited – “Dubai: The Journey,” will be published worldwide in early 2011 by Viking-Penguin. He is currently working on his memoirs of more than four decades in international journalism.)