When he completed twenty years in international cricket in November 2009, Sachin Tendulkar reaffirmed his status as one of the greatest public icons of post-independence India. Ever since his genius was first glimpsed on the maidans of Bombay over two decades ago, Tendulkar has reigned supreme as a sporting idol, his popularity cutting across the boundaries of caste, class, gender, region and religion. Curiously, however, there has been relatively little scholarly scrutiny of the Tendulkar phenomenon and what it might tell us about the changing nature of Indian public culture.
This chapter attempts to understand, and account for, Sachin Tendulkar's enduring hold over the Indian public imagination by exploring three facets of his remarkable career. The first section considers, in historical context, Tendulkar as ‘hero’: someone who displays superlative skills and performs spectacular feats. An analysis of popular sporting figures needs to reckon with the ways in which their attributes and accomplishments on the field of play are crucial to their elevation as heroes. However, the analytical prism of the ‘hero’ is insufficient in itself in accounting for Tendulkar's fame. The second section suggests that Tendulkar's celebrity is an attendant effect of the intensified relationship between cricket, television and money in contemporary India. At the same time, the immense power and resonance of Tendulkar's image within Indian society makes him more than a frothy confection of the sport–media nexus. The final section argues that as a national icon Tendulkar embodies the aspirations of millions of Indians. The symbolic meanings they have invested in his persona derive their charge from the interplay between cricket, nationalism and the middle classes in contemporary India.