Sports Of Empire

The Story of the World’s Greatest Cricket Player

Sachin Tendulkar may be one of the most brilliant players in the sport, but he struggles to liven up his memoirs.

Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

Wickets, googleys, bouncers, centurions, and leg spins—it’s enough to make a baseball-loving Yank’s head spin.

Those terms, along with a multitude of others, can be found sprayed throughout a new memoir by the Indian former cricket player Sachin Tendulkar, one of the world’s greatest batsmen ever, titled Playing It My Way: My Autobiography.

Cricket is a sport enjoyed by hundreds of millions around the globe, mainly in former British colonies. The glaring exception, of course, is the United States.

I am one of many Americans unfamiliar with the sport, and as a result of my ignorance about such a big part of so many people’s culture, the insecure cosmopolitan in me thought there couldn’t be a better way to dip my toes in those waters—to understand the history, players, and drama—than with a memoir by one of its all-time greats.

Boy, was I wrong.

The disappointment came in two parts.

The first is that this book is, at its heart, a somniferous highlight reel of matches during Tendulkar’s career. He experienced a rapid rise, only beginning to play cricket competitively at age 11. He went on to lead Mumbai in scoring in a season that he began at age 15, making the international team at 16. He went on to be a star on the international circuit all the way until his retirement in 2013.

Perhaps to the fanboy (or girl) who knows Tendulkar’s career so intimately, his version of the matches would be exciting, but for the casual reader there is a frustrating lack of drama beyond the stakes of each match—and when it’s between India and Pakistan, there should be plenty.

The second pitfall is that Tendulkar has given the reader little of what should be a gripping, meaningful story of his life. He spends scant time on his early life in Mumbai. Glimpses into it, like the fact that he took multiple buses to cricket practice with his bag, and the bus drivers tried to make him pay for two tickets he could not afford, are a tease because they are all the reader gets. His life, as he himself admits, is all cricket from an early age. But his overly safe narrative fails to take us beyond the scores, to see how a boy becomes a man while in the glare of the spotlight, and how his rise coincided with his country’s rise, and how his team really dealt with adversity.

His father, a writer, and his mother, who worked in insurance, were flawless. Tendulkar is effusive about all three of his siblings, but fails to mention that they are from his father’s first marriage to his mother’s sister. Strife on the home front as a child was supposedly nonexistent, except for the few pranks Tendulkar and his friends played on neighbors. But these anecdotes do not really give his childhood depth as he opens his tale of childhood pranks by writing, “While we were never violent and never caused bodily harm to others, I’m ashamed to admit we sometimes enjoyed having a laugh at the expense of other members of the colony.” Even when he opens up, the sentences are wooden, the scenes sucked dry of emotion. When he reaches a low point in his career, in 1997, he writes that he “even contemplated moving away from the sport completely.” Nowhere to be found is the anguish, the drama, the pain of an athlete on that level who considering walking away. Even when he writes about match-fixing scandals in 2000, he starts by saying he was “disappointed, shocked and angry at the goings-on” but finishes with “and said so in a press release at the time.” No dishing, and his emotions in the book are no different than the ones he expressed, apparently, in a press release.

Tendulkar’s attempts to connect are usually relegated to relaying a benign humorous story, such as when he and others convinced a teammate to pull their coach’s mustache. However, the story ends with him reassuring the reader that the coach “took it all very sportingly and the act was applauded by everyone on the flight, making [the teammate] an instant hero.”

One can be forgiven for feeling a bit spun around when he suddenly declares that, “Before I knew it, at 16 years of age, I had been picked to play for India.” Up until that point he had recounted how his brother saw potential in him, as well as a local coach, but there is a passive journey to success in which all of this sort of happened to him. His goal of coming across as humble subtracts from his ability to share just exactly how he became so great at such a young age. Again, he often teases the reader, because some of the most engaging parts are when he opens up about his approach to batsmanship, whether how he changes his stance based on the bowler, or the mind games he engages in. Yet they are buried in mind-numbing recitations of matches.

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His book is impossibly politically correct. When he writes early on about matches against Pakistan, he declares, “I didn’t feel any extra pressure about playing against Pakistan. The whole political baggage of India-Pakistan cricket meant nothing to me.” He continues, later, writing, “The political history of partition has always cast a pall over India-Pakistan cricket and it was my first taste of this unfortunate reality.” When he is awarded Player of the Match while competing for India in England, he is given champagne at the ceremony. “But,” he claims, “not being 18, I didn’t drink at the time.”

Part of the stiffness is likely due to the fact that Tendulkar, at least as he portrays himself, is uncomfortable with a lot of things. He uses some combination of the words comfort or discomfort in regards to how he feels about situations over 30 times. He even had his future wife be the one to talk to his parents about their marriage because “I would not have felt comfortable discussing the engagement with my father … I felt slightly embarrassed at the thought of discussing my future wife with him.”

In some ways, the Tendulkar who emerges from the pages is refreshing in his self-effacing modesty given today’s plethora of sports-related egos. His constant worship of his wife stands in stark contrast to scandals of the domestic nature in other sports. And yet if he had just opened up a bit more, laid bare his life as one of the most iconic athletes in the world over the past two decades, it might make these 500 pages more enjoyable for somebody other than a cricket statistician.