Saturday, 22 January, 2022
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The awkwardness of being Arjun Tendulkar

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On 17 July, Arjun could make his national debut. If he does well, he’ll be celebrated. If not, he will face a situation no 18-year-old should have to put up with.

There’s a YouTube clip of a tall, young, left-arm medium-pacer in a red Mumbai Cricket t-shirt bowling to Rohit Sharma in the India nets ahead of an international match at the Wankhede Stadium. Ravi Shastri is standing behind the stumps, watching Rohit, and the first ball is a wide outside off stump. Shastri does the tea-top, hands going on hip. The next ball the young man delivers is down the leg side and even as he politely tries to play it, there is no way Rohit can make contact. The hands are akimbo once more.

Any other net bowler would have copped a cheeky but firm Borivali-twanged Marathi gaali from Rohit for wasting his time, and a withering, if sarcastic, South Bombay slap on the wrist from Don Bosco’s Shastri. But this was not any bowler.

This was a young man who doesn’t have to go as far as saying, ‘the name’s Bond. James Bond’. For everyone already knows his name.

Arjun Tendulkar, son of the highest cricketing God in a country that thinks calling a sport a religion is a good thing, returned to his mark, and bowled.

To be fair to the kid, and that’s all he is at 18 today, he is in a position no young man should be in, he is in a situation that is not of his making, he is in the middle of a bubble that even his father cannot burst.

For, he is Sachin Tendulkar’s son, and like the father, cricket is his game. To keep things simple, allow us to refer to the two gents by their first names, for the purposes of this piece. In a cricketing sense, it’s impossible to confuse the two. One a short, painfully correct, exceptionally technically adept right-hand batsman who was also blessed with the ability to do many other things on a cricket field, the other a lanky, bustling, punchy left-arm hustler who was most fortunate to be gifted the ability to swing the ball late.

Arjun the cricketer is less Tendulkar than Zaheer Khan, albeit without that trampoline leap in the lead-up to delivery. Arjun’s bowling technique, guided by Atul Gaikwad, the Pune-based biomechanics expert with no first-class playing experience, and honed by Subroto Banerjee, the former India medium-pacer and longstanding Sachin confidante, is more Western than Oriental.

He does not have the quirks and idiosyncrasies of an Akram or Vaas or Mustafizur. Rather, there’s an almost Australian shape to his run-up, his build-up and his release — Banerjee, who was one of the early products of the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, then spearheaded by the great Dennis Lillee, should approve.

While Arjun’s approach to bowling — and he has chosen a discipline that is much-needed but never in vogue in India — is Australian, his rise through the ranks has been less uncluttered. In the Cooch Behar Trophy 2017-18, Arjun picked up 19 wickets from five matches for Mumbai, including two five-wicket hauls. Later, when the zonal competition happened in Una, Himachal Pradesh, Arjun once again impressed. He wasn’t the highest wicket-taker, but he was the best medium-pacer who had age eligibility on his side for the forthcoming tour of Sri Lanka.

“Look, he has pace, and you can’t judge his ability to bring the ball back into the right-hand batsmen yet because the balls we use, SG Tournament, don’t do as much as some others,” Aashish Kapoor, chairman of the junior selection committee, told ThePrint. “But, he’s got enough pace to get reverse swing in a place like Una. He also bats well enough to hold his own. The most important thing, though, is his attitude. He’s the one guy whose voice you can hear from the sidelines when the team is in trouble out in the middle.”

On 17 July, Arjun could make his national debut, if picked to play against Sri Lanka Under-19 in a four-day game. If he does, you can be sure all hell will break loose. If Arjun does well, and who wouldn’t wish success to a young man trying to find his feet in the world, he will be celebrated. If he does not do so well, turning in a performance that some might call failure, he will be subjected to the kind of discourse that no 18-year-old should have to put up with.

But that is the life he is going to have to live. For Arjun might not be where he is, if he wasn’t Sachin’s son.

Arjun bowls in the nets to India’s players when they are in Mumbai; Arjun speared a yorker onto Jonny Barstow’s toe when England were preparing to play South Africa; Arjun plays for a Cricket Club of India XI in Bowral, Sir Don Bradman’s home-town, against a Hong Kong team; Arjun plays for an MCC XI, in England, against Namibia Under-19s.

Arjun wants to play cricket professionally, and well, but, even as he towers over his old man, he will always be in Baba’s shadow.

In 2013, Sachin addressed a gathering of sportswriters at the Press Club in Mumbai. “My son played a match today. His first club match. He is passionate, he is madly in love with cricket. But the other things that go around the cricketer and not just the on-field activity but whatever he gets to hear or gets to read or the way it gets projected, I would appreciate if everyone allows him to be himself and to have his own identity and enjoy his cricket above all,” he said.

That sounds entirely fair, if mildly unrealistic.

“Since the entire sports journalists’ fraternity is here, I am going to be a protective father. When I started playing cricket, though my father was a professor and was in literary field, at no stage I had this pressure from anyone who said you are playing cricket but how about following your father’s footsteps,” said the master of the checked on-drive and the flamboyant cover-drive.

Sachin has never asked for a single favour for his son. In fact, since the ill-advised duty/tax exemption on the Ferrari, there is no documented evidence of Sachin asking for anything.

But this story is about Arjun. When he did an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation — perhaps part of the package that got him to The Bradman Oval, Arjun said he had no surname-pressure. “I don’t take that pressure, when I bowl I just hit the deck hard on every ball and when I bat just play my shots and choose which bowlers to take on and which bowlers not to.”

Arjun said this to ABC, but he has before and since been kept far away from Indian journalists.

The issue now is not whether Arjun is good enough. The question is whether the system can be fair to him.

Look at it this way: If he does well in Sri Lanka, someone will say he only got a chance because he’s a Tendulkar; If he gets picked for India A, there will be enough other hopefuls claiming to be wronged; And, if he rose through the ranks to be in contention to play for India, here’s the rub.

MSK Prasad, chairman of the senior selection committee, played six Test matches for India, every single one when Sachin was captain. Devang Gandhi, the second national selector, made his Test and ODI debut under Sachin. The third, and final selector, Punjab’s Sarandeep Singh, was only 10 years old when Sachin made his India debut, and when Sarandeep played the last of his three Test matches, Sachin was still 10 years away from retiring.

Arjun might be an extraordinary young man hoping for ordinariness, but the peace of mind he gets from banging the ball in, to lofting a cover-drive will never be his off the field.

When Sachin addressed that gathering in 2013, he might have also taken care to ensure that Arjun wasn’t in the spotlight because of the father. Getting him into the India and England nets, allowing his participation at the Bradman Oval with an interview to boot, enabling him to play for MCC … every father wants to give his son the best.

But, as every son of a successful father knows, what appears wholesome today might end up being another whole different thing down the road.

Anand Vasu is a freelance journalist. He tweets @anandvasu

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