My first encounter with the game of cricket occurred when I was only 10 years old.
India had won the 1983 Cricket World Cup and I remember everyone around me was celebrating and going absolutely crazy. At that time, the significance of winning a World Cup was kind of lost on me. I had never even picked up a cricket bat until then. I remember everybody celebrating wildly and my friends and I joining them. It was this sort of unbridled passion that you hardly ever see. Seeing firsthand how happy this sport could make people had a profound impact on me. Cricket seemed to be much more than a game.
When I was 11, I started playing cricket for my school. I didn’t just pick up a bat and start getting runs at the beginning. In fact in the first year, it took me a while to get a real feel for the game. But, within a year, I started playing better. As I was developing, I began working with a coach named Ramakant Achrekar, who pushed me to develop my skills. Sometimes during our training, he would put a one-rupee coin on top of the stumps. The coin would be given to any bowler who dismissed me during that training session. But if I made it through the whole session without being dismissed, it was mine. It might not seem like the highest of stakes, but seeing that coin ignited the fire in me. I won 13 coins while training with Coach Achrekar, and I proudly still possess them all today.
As I kept improving, my performance in school cricket was being noticed and expectations began mounting.
Honestly, I loved it. I took it more as a compliment than any sort of pressure. I figured that if I wasn’t good enough, people wouldn’t expect much from me. Having that constant high-level of expectation was with me at a young age and kept me on my toes. It really helped me develop.
At the age of 16, I had the privilege of being the youngest player to ever represent India in a Test cricket match. On my debut, we were playing our archrivals Pakistan at Karachi. I was scared. I was clueless. I was completely out of place. I was surrounded by opposing fans who wanted nothing more than to see me fail. And, initially, I did.
On that day against Pakistan, I experienced a level of cricket that I had never been a part of. I was facing bowlers who were older than me, some even twice my age or more. I went up there swinging wildly and made just 15 runs before getting out. As I was walking back to the dressing room, I had started doubting myself. Maybe I wasn’t the prodigy that I was made to be. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a successful cricketer after all!
As I sat in the dressing room completely dejected, I spoke to the team manager Chandu Borde and Ravi Shastri, a senior member of the team. Their advice to me that day was incredibly simple yet invaluable: “Slow down.”
I was so focused on proving myself that I had failed to step back and concentrate on the challenge in front of me. When you’re burdened by expectations (and not to mention surrounded by many, many spectators) the toughest thing to do is to stay focused and control your mind. One of the challenges for any cricketer is to concentrate on the next ball, rather than think about the last one.
The next innings we played against Pakistan, I had an opportunity to bat and I told myself that I was going to stay at the batting crease for half an hour. I wanted to let everything come to me. And I did just that. The longer I batted, the more comfortable and relaxed I felt. I put doubts about my age and inexperience out of my mind and just focused on playing the ball. I ended up scoring 53 runs, but each of those runs meant a lot.
After the match, I got back to my hotel room and had the moment for myself to celebrate. I was so excited that I was dancing around the room full of joy. I felt so relieved that I was able to perform well in the situation. The self-doubt about belonging at the highest level was suddenly gone.
Conquering self-doubt is a tremendous obstacle for many athletes. Confronted with this situation at a young age probably prepared me for the challenges ahead in my career.
I have had many memorable matches against Pakistan during my career, and gained a real appreciation for what a special rivalry it is. In both countries, cricket is by far the sport of choice. The pride of hundreds of millions of people is on the line every time we play against each other. Every single ball tips the scales for one nation or the other.
One of the most memorable contests was during the 2003 Cricket World Cup. Even though we played against Pakistan in the quarterfinals, it seemed like a fight for the title — the only game that everyone cared about!
The expectations were high and I’ll never forget our drive to the stadium that day.
It was a sea of humanity on the road with Indian supporters on one side and Pakistani supporters on the other side. Even though we didn’t win the tournament, we won that match, and to most people in India, that’s all that mattered!
I mention this rivalry because even though cricket isn’t an American sport, in so many ways it represents what Americans love about sport: The strategy, the passion and yes, the intense rivalries.
I’m incredibly excited to tour America and expose more people to this wonderful sport. I’m particularly looking forward to these games because fans will get to see some of the greatest cricketers in history in a fun and relaxed setting. This is a sport with great personalities and interesting characters, and they will be in their element during these matches.
I have a lot of friends from India who have settled in America. Initially, they had no understanding on how baseball and basketball were played. But eventually, they went to the stadiums with their friends, and over time learned about the games and started to appreciate them. My hope is that cricket fans in America will bring their friends to these matches and help them enjoy the game.
America is a very diverse country and a sport-loving nation. I’m confident, that with time, cricket will be adopted in much in the same way the country has adopted other international sports over the years.
There are billions of cricket fans around the world. I’m excited to show Americans why!
This month Sachin will be joined by other cricket legends to compete in a series of exhibition matches around the United States. For more details, visit CricketAllStars2015.com.