And so it is, the end of an era. It’s been a while since I have had a chance to sit down and write anything. Life has been so busy for the past couple of months that I haven’t even had a moment to sit back and take stock of my feelings. But over the last week, I have felt them building up, slowly but steadily. And today is the day of catharsis. In India, it can’t be anything other than Sachin’s impending retirement. Sachin, SRT, Tendlya, Tendulkar, Master Blaster, Little Master – whatever you call him affectionately – will never bat for India in cricket again.
Any kind of sport or art is an evolutionary paradox. How does dancing or opera singing help in human survival? What does being good at tennis or football have to do with reproduction? Sure, artists and sportspersons probably sleep with more partners than an Average Joe. But the role of their endeavors in the advancement of the human species is questionable, at best. As a female friend of mine once noted wryly about basketball, it is a bunch of people putting a man-made ball into a man-made hole a million times.
And yet, as a society, we spend millions of dollars on arts and sports. Being good at any form of art obviously demonstrates creative thinking, dexterity, or a sense of balance that is a cut above everyone else. Being a top athlete entails physical superiority, mental toughness, a sense of anticipation, and a host of other attributes that arguably establish genetic superiority. For spectators, a virtuoso art performance can bring happiness or reduce stress levels. And sports, after all, act as surrogates for war. A physical, yet non-lethal way of establishing superiority over other tribes or nations. But every once in a while, a Pavarotti comes along and gives you goose bumps. Michael Jackson walks up to the stage and the girls in the front rows faint. Jordan leaps to dunk the ball and you stop breathing. And Sachin walks back to the pavilion, probably for the last time in his life, and a nation starts weeping. Maybe not tears down the cheeks, but on a Friday morning, a country of a billion people sets aside all its work and doesn’t blink its misty eyes until he disappears in the pavilion.
I am not a devotee of the God of cricket to the extent that I would not find flaws in him. Professionally, Fannie de Villiers always had his number. Tendulkar clearly dominated Shane Warne throughout his career, but McGrath always enjoyed a slight upper hand in test matches. In the famous ball tampering controversy, it is impossible to imagine that he felt the need to cheat, but he was clearly doing something unusual with the ball. As a finisher of matches, he is not in the league of Dhoni. Even personally, when he was gifted a Ferrari by Fiat, he apparently requested the Indian government to waive the hefty customs duty on it. When Fiat stepped in to kill the controversy by agreeing to pay the customs duty on his behalf, he could have come forward and paid it himself. When it comes to cricket, the game he so loves and respects, he has rarely weighed in – like a statesman would – on the match-fixing or other controversies of the day.
But what these observations lack is context. The statistics speak for themselves. They call them lies, damn lies, and statistics; except when we are talking about sports! That’s not the whole story, though. He set his standards pretty high through incredible consistency over a span of 24 years. After the first few years, though, those standards took a life of their own. A billion people started expecting, and the opposing teams started fearing, centuries from him every time he would come out to bat. Still, he managed to carry the weight of all those expectations effortlessly with his boyish charm. His commitment to the game and his legendary work ethic made his fans bestow superhuman abilities on him. But instead of all the fame and love, the only thing he seemed completely focused on was the next ball. That’s it.
Others came and went. The other day, I read that Sachin debuted with Salil Ankola. That guy, a fast bowler, left cricket, tried his hand at acting, and faded out of public memory before he could even enter public consciousness. His contemporaries that Sachin is sometimes compared to – Lara and Ponting – debuted after him and retired before him. Rahul Dravid, another contemporary legend-turned-commentator, who was putting things in perspective on TV, had a 16-year international career; a full 8 years less than Sachin. Sachin joined a bad team in which he used to be the savior and is leaving a team of kids behind who all grew up idolizing him. Metaphorically, at least, he made this team happen. If I don’t have the team I deserve, I’ll inspire an entire generation and win the World Cup with that generation. That is why, when India won the World Cup in 2011, instead of picking up the captain on their shoulders during the lap of honor, they picked up Sachin Tendulkar. That is why, even after getting the bad news that he had cancer, Yuvraj Singh carried on, became the Man of the Tournament in the World Cup, and dedicated it to Sachin. Words fail to congratulate you on a career well-executed. You may not have been the statesman. You may have been shy or tight-lipped. That was ok. We just never wanted you to stop playing.
And yet, none of that explains why every mother wants a son like him. Or every kid wants a father like him. Or everyone my age would love to have a brother or a friend like him. Given his studied silence about his personal life and lack of any scandals in it, we really don’t know much about him. But we never want him to go away. If my dad would make a mistake in recalling his score from the previous day, my mom used to correct him. My dad, an oncologist who has maintained a stoic face through the demise of several friends and family members, cried when he walked away for the last time. And I had misty eyes in a not-so-crowded coffee shop. Please don’t go! Please don’t go! But like your ailing grandmother, or your first love, he walks away for the last time. For a moment, he turns around, raises his helmet and his bat to acknowledge the standing ovation, and flashes a wistful smile. You wonder whether he is trying to hold back his tears. He just turns around, puts his head down, and walks up the stairs to the dressing room, with a piece of your heart secure in him.