Every sport craves a superstar - a player who transcends the game - to be revered across the entire international sporting spectrum, drawing aficionados and seasonal viewers alike to indulge in the innate pleasure of observing almost mystical levels of athletic ability.
Golf has Tiger Woods, athletics has Usain Bolt, tennis is blessed with a trio in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and, for 24 years, cricket had Sachin Tendulkar.
It’s impossible to comprehend the extent to which Tendulkar was idolised in his homeland during a career that saw him become the most eminent batsman of a sparkling era full of luminaries like Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting among others.
"I hope I live to see the day when 100 countries contest the World Cup.
Right now there are only 8-10 countries where top cricket is being played. The ICC need to spend a lot of money to promote the game, in the way that football and even rugby have done.
The US never used to play football but then the matches would be shown in the middle of the night so people slowly start tuning in.
Cricket has to go to China, to Europe, America and Africa.
Promoting cricket through Twenty20 is ideal because Test cricket requires people to have that particular mindset but T20 really goes like a fire."
The banners at his home ground in Mumbai sum it up: “If cricket is a religion, then Sachin is God”.
Quite simply, Tendulkar’s flourishes of willow had the power to hold a nation of almost one billion in captive suspense - living every success, every failure, and every controversy. Until last October. After 200 Test matches, the ‘Little Master’ finally called it a day at the age of 40.
Since then, India have lost Test series to South Africa and New Zealand.
Kapil Dev captained one of the great India sides to World Cup glory in 1983 and was vice-captain when a 16-year-old Tendulkar made his debut back in 1989. He believes that the intense media focus around Tendulkar’s retirement has made it hard for India to move on.
“The team cannot afford to think about him anymore,” Dev told Al Jazeera. “Sachin has done his job. You can’t expect the man to play 100 years of cricket. Don Bradman couldn’t play forever either. You have to move on in life and if people are always talking about him all the time then the team is not going to settle.”
With the international retirement of Kallis and the ouster of Kevin Pietersen, cricket is currently shorn of a genuine international superstar but Dev believes that could all change with the rise of 24-year-old Virat Kohli, arguably the most exciting young batsman in the game today.
“Without a doubt, Kohli will go on to become India’s greatest batsman and make more records than anybody else. I see the talent and ability in this young boy and it’s amazing, huge for his age. He definitely has more ability than any other 24-year-old in the world.
“He’s maybe even better than Tendulkar was at 24. I don’t think even Viv Richards had scored so many runs by the time he was 24. But while these are both great players, it’s natural that the next generation is better. If as human beings we don’t believe that, they we don’t believe in evolution. So far Kohli has shown that he has the potential to break all the records by the time he’s 32-34 barring injuries and fitness issues.”
Man of the tournament at the last World Twenty20, Kohli was also part of India’s 2011 World Cup winning side and has already scored 1,721 runs in Test cricket.
In many ways he is the polar opposite to Tendulkar’s shy and retiring character, his love-life is rarely out of the tabloids, and with a lucrative Nike contract, he cuts a distinct swagger on and off the pitch. While Tendulkar seemed resigned to the limelight, Kohli actively relishes it and that may be just what cricket needs as it attempts to spread its brand globally.
Kohli is already seen by many to be India’s captain in waiting but Dev advises against pushing him too early.
“It’s not his time yet, it’s important that he waits. He’s young, he will have that opportunity in the future when he’s a little older and wiser. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a mature captain so let him do his job. If you made Kohli captain now, with Dhoni still playing under him, there would be so much confusion as to who was really in charge, that would not be fair on the team.”
Dhoni's the man
India know they face increasing pressure over the next twelve months as they prepare for the defence of their World Cup title but Dev is in no doubt that Dhoni, the man whose brilliant displays lit up the 2011 tournament, is the right player to lead them there.
“If he’s fit enough then there should be no argument because he’s one of the finest batsmen we have seen,” he said.
“How many players have come in at six or seven in ODIs and still managed to average over 50? In the history of the game we’ve never seen anybody who’s a better finisher. He’s won the World Twenty20, the 50-over World Cup, everything in that form of the game.”
Traditionally weak on their travels, India’s first step is to get back to winning ways in Test cricket. Their five-match series begins on Wednesday and Dev believes that the timing is ideal with England in disarray after following up their Ashes humiliation with defeat to Sri Lanka.