As soon as the news of Sachin Tendulkar’s shoulder injury hit the airwaves, I got a phone call from a friend, an ardent cricket fan and conspiracy theorist. ‘It’s all a conspiracy,’ he declared, predictably. ‘It’s because they booed him in Bombay. There’s no injury. This is some image consultant’s doing. He needs to lie low, let the Indian team lose matches and return at some point when no one’s questioning his place in the team.’ I pointed out that Tendulkar had hit many lean patches over the the last decade and a half; that someone of his stature would never fake an injury, or need to. ‘Rubbish!’ he exclaimed. ‘Everyone’s faking injuries. Shoaib did it. Ganguly did it.’ I pointed out this was all conjecture, and that since he was a person who thought all cricket matches were rigged but professional wrestling shows weren’t, his opinion was of no consequence whatsoever.
At this point, if it isn’t clear enough, let me state for the record that I do not think Tendulkar is faking his injury, and am hoping desperately he will get his shoulder fixed and return to his usual magnificent form soon and silence his critics yet again. Because if he doesn’t, some lame-brained selector might decide to drop him, and that would be a sad day indeed.
Besides, if Tendulkar needed an excuse for bad form, he needn’t have gone through the complicated process of faking an injury. The annals of sports history are full of glittering examples of outrageous excuses used to justify failures in every possible sport – and an adoring public are often willing to believe anything their idols tell them. The BBC and the Observer both have lists of the world’s worst sporting excuses, ranging from the Sri Lankan cricket team’s innovative explanation of their loss to Pakistan in the 2001 ICC Champion’s Trophy (their clothes were too tight. ‘We had to add extensions to the trousers and the shirts looked more like tight-fitting women’s blouses,’ – Sanath Jayasuriya) to Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s range of excuses for his team’s losses (not enough penalty time, players couldn’t identify teammates because they were dressed in grey, too much rugby played on the same pitch, biased referees, too many international fixtures). And there are some truly bizarre ones – Carol Gaudie, an Australian netball player tested positive for testosterone in 2002 and claimed her drink was spiked at a nightclub, presumably by someone who thought she was too womanly. And Shane Warne, who claimed his mother had fed him Moduretic to make him look thinner on TV, a noble effort which got him a year-long ban. F1 legend Nigel Mansell once stopped on the last lap of the Canadian GP and lost his lead, because he shut down the ignition while waving to fans on the home stretch. His excuse? The car was too small.
The Athens Olympics were a particularly epic period for self-excusing heroes. The Finnish finished nowhere, for a variety of reasons – a javelin thrower was surprised at the size of the stadium, a 5000m runner was traumatized by an unfamiliar masseuse and a sailor had a malevolent bag stuck in her boat. The same Olympics saw award-winning excuses from a nation whose citizens are internationally renowned masters in the fine art of buck-passing – India. The hockey team complained of bad umpiring, Karnam Malleswari had a last-minute back pain problem, Anju Bobby George found the air in Greece polluted and nausea-inducing after the clean skies of her home nation, markswoman Anjali Bhagwat had stiff muscles, middle-distance runner KM Binu put the wrong spikes on and crack shot Suma Shirur cracked up because she was flabbergasted by the scale of the event she was participating in. I wonder what our nation’s weightlifters will say caused their positive drug tests in the current Commonwealth Games – I just hope they’re not too doped out to think of something.
But the Oscar for Best Supporting Excuse goes, without question, to Zambian tennis player Lighton Ndefwayl, who explained his loss to compatriot Musumba Bwayla in 1992 thus: ‘Bwayla is a stupid man and a hopeless player. He has a huge nose and is cross-eyed. Girls hate him. He beat me because my jockstrap was too tight and because when he serves he farts, and that made me lose my concentration, for which I am famous throughout Zambia.’
That said, at this point Tendulkar needs no excuses, because by and large the nation, Lata Mangeshkar downwards, is behind him loudly and enthusiastically and he has no shortage of shoulders to lean on. Every time he racks up an injury, and he has a fairly impressive collection by now, a billion people feel his pain. Which is a luxury sports stars enjoy – there’s often a genuinely tangible reason for their shortcomings. No other profession is as conducive to forgiveness and forgetfulness – yes, politicians come up with many more feeble excuses than sportspeople do, but no one likes politicians or expects them to perform or tell the truth in any case. But take, for example, people in creative fields – a writer can’t blame an aching index finger for a terrible book and is left with unconvincing things like ‘It doesn’t matter whether my last novel sucked, because the novel is dead.’ Actors can’t blame lactic acid accumulation in their facial muscles for wooden performances and have to take refuge in the relatively weak ‘I couldn’t concentrate because I was busy killing endangered animals/calling press conferences/avoiding sting operations/dancing at criminals’ weddings.’ No one feels any sympathy for doctors, lawyers, businessmen and teachers with nagging rotator cuff injuries. It’s so unfair.
On the other hand, the rest of us might not have easy-to-understand-and-sympathize-with explanations for our failures, but we don’t have a billion people breathing down our necks, analyzing our every step, mimicking our voice and walk, bitching about the lack of our productivity and the lavishness of our product endorsements (possibly because we don’t have product endorsements, but that’s not the point), predicting our downfall, doom and destruction all the time either. Sachin might not be interested in retirement, but the rest of us are. In his retirement, that is. Which can’t be pleasant for him, to say the least. But even his harshest critic must recognize that if there’s anyone capable of coming back and stunning us all, it’s Tendulkar. And I’m sure not even the batsman padding up to take his place in the side wants to see an Indian cricket team sans Sachin just yet.