Congrats, Sachin! And thank you

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Photo: AFP

Even the most unlikely of milestones has been logged. Plaudits and platitudes duly recorded. Take a bow, Sachin Tendulkar. We have had enough.

Runs may still trickle, even flow on occasions. But it is time Tendulkar retires, certainly from the ODIs. Not because some losers would have us believe that his centuries lose us matches. Such nonsense discounts the fact that Tendulkar has scored more match winning hundreds than most batsmen scored in their entire careers.

Rickey Ponting, statistically the closest we have to Tendulkar, has hit 30 ODI tons. Tendulkar’s centuries helped India win 33 ODIs and 20 Tests. Only four other Indian batsmen have ever scored more than 20 tons in the five-day format.

True, many of his efforts did not translate into match-winning, or even match-saving, knocks. Not his fault. He scored so much and so routinely that some of his runs could no way have impacted his team’s fortunes unless his teammates matched up to his amazing consistency and skills.

No batsman will ever achieve in numbers what Tendulkar has. But his time is up. Not because it pains millions of his fans to watch him graft, even struggle, against both quality and average bowling. Tendulkar, and his fandom, has taken such tests in the past. In 2006, he was booed at Wankhede after edging one to the wicketkeeper after an agonising half hour at the crease during which he managed to score just a single.

Before and after that Mumbai ignominy, Tendulkar made emphatic batting statements while under scrutiny. Grounds across the world—Nagpur (October 2005), Kuala Lumpur (September 2006) and Sydney (January 2008) – bear witness, Tendulkar makes memorable comebacks.

Yet, the ‘thank you’ note is due.

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Two decades ago, Tendulkar was the game’s most outlandish promise. Even generations that worshipped a certain Gavaskar or a Kapil were in awe of the boy wonder who played without a fear of his mighty opponents but with all the care for the correctness of his craft. And boy, did he score runs.

Over the years, Tendulkar’s game had to lose that daring spontaneity, that innocence of bounty. As his body aged, the mind took over from the instinct. While Tendulkar increasingly optimized the splendour and risks involved in his batting, we moved on to admiring the results in the record books.

We had little choice. Like all sports, cricket is also an indulgence. We could not have abandoned such a rare and precious love that we grew for a boy genius and his munificence even if we had to eventually find more mundane justification, such as statistics, to keep the flame aglow. Once his fans made that adjustment, Tendulkar rarely gave them a reason to complain, by keeping the bookkeepers busy.

But even when his game does not test its limits, it is often a treat to watch. On the occasional rough patch, the king of his craft unabashedly grinds like a scavenger. Now that is as big a demand on someone’s character as is the level of focus Tendulkar maintains after all the press, good and not-so-good. When one is deemed God, it anyway takes a lot to keep playing, and performing, by the same set of rules that apply to 21 others who are merely accomplished men on the ground.

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In a world where change is the only constant, the mortals are programmed to hanker after permanence. But we are a reasonable lot. So when Sourav Ganguly called it a day, we reasoned that flair, like beauty, faded. When Anil Kumble hung up his bowling shoes, we knew hard work became harder with age. And with Rahul Dravid, we accepted that the wall knew best what was happening on the other side.

But with Tendulkar, we never believed that even the world’s most celebrated cricketing brand came with a sale-by date. When all his contemporaries have quit, we contemplated a grand occasion that would become the maestro. A few suspects among us even dared suggest that he could have retired from the ODIs after the World Cup win at Mumbai.

Tendulkar batted brilliantly during those six weeks last year. He would have believed he had enough in him to carry on. After his hundredth ton, he echoed Dravid on the idea of timing. Retiring on a high, both argued, is selfish; it denies the country one’s service while one is still good at the job.

Dravid, however, called it quits after a bad run because he did not think it was in the interest of the team, or his conscience, to deny a youngster and play a farewell series at home. Few have the stomach for Dravid’s inhumanly righteous standards. So we were not surprised when Tendulkar took the flight to Dhaka. Asian opponents on sub-continental tracks were our best bet for his hundredth ton.

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Anyone who happened to wake up early enough on that chilly February morning in 1981 and tuned in to the ether waves from faraway Melbourne became indebted to Kapil Dev for life. With a groin injury, Kapil ran in exactly a hundred times and returned 5 for 28. A batting line-up bosting Chappell, Hughes, Yardley and Border was wrapped up for 83 in less than 50 overs.

The rest waited for their mega Kapil moment till 1983. For the generations that watched him play in the 1980s, he was the ultimate cricketing genius. But Kapil continued to play well into the 1990s. His last 16 Test matches earned him just 33 wickets before he finally quit one wicket ahead of Richard Hadlee who had retired four years ago and played 45 Tests less.

MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Sachin Tendulkar during a practice session
Photo: Getty Images

During 1992-94, Kapil did not do himself, certainly not his fans or Indian cricket, any favour. Sunil Gavaskar, who brought substance to Indian batting and earned his rightful place among the towering trinity of his time with Richards and Chappell, went past Sir Don’s tally of 29 tons and Geoff Boycott’s 8114 runs in 1983 while still in his prime. But even he was tempted to carry on till he scaled the summit of 10,000 Test runs in 1987.

In his Bradman Oration speech last December, Dravid spoke of how each cricketing generation influences the ones that follow. Gavaskar and Kapil were India’s first two champion cricketers, better than the most in the world. But their team rarely returned triumphant, perhaps because the rest of the eleven were not nearly as good. So fans were left to celebrate two individuals who obliged by chasing a few late personal feats. That tradition continues.

Such a sporting culture made Tendulkar’s departure impossible before his century of tons. To be fair, nobody thought after the World Cup that he would struggle to get there. The phasing-out-experience and easing-in-youth plan meant that he was, and still is, a necessity for the Test squad. But after Dravid snubbed an SOS call to the ODI squad in England with a pre-series retirement announcement, fans expected clarity from Tendulkar.

He was entitled to take it easy. It made sense that he would preserve himself for quality contests and give soft engagements a miss. We understood when he did not turn up against West Indies at home. But Tendulkar going to Dhaka would not have made sense, not unless he played 11 tests since the World Cup without a century, and then another seven sterile ODIs down under. Suddenly, nothing else mattered. Irrespective of the stage, the opponent or the challenge, all of us just wanted Tendulkar to get it over with. As did Tendulkar himself.

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The only ODI batting record not on Tendulkar’s book and worth his motivation now is perhaps the fastest hundred. But to beat Afridi’s 37 ball feat, Tendulkar will have to post one almost double quick than he has ever done. After Mirpur, even the most demanding of fans will not burden him with such a thought.

A number of firsts, besides of course the hundredth hundred, happened at Mirpur. It was Tendulkar’s first ODI hundred against Bangladesh. It was Tendulkar’s first ODI hundred in the subcontinent at a strike rate below 78. Possibly, it was also Tendulkar’s first hundred that cost India the match.

Tendulkar took 138 balls to reach his 100th ton. Playing at Sharjah in October 2000, he scored an equally tedious ODI century against Sri Lanka, also in a lost cause. But on that occasion, wickets kept tumbling and he was joined by the last recognised batsman Robin Singh as early as the 24th over.

At Mirpur, India was two-down till the 47th over. Yet, Tendulkar scored 8 runs from 9 balls during the batting powerplay. He failed to score off two free hits. At 83, he played out a maiden over to Mashrafe Mortaza. He would take another 10 overs to reach his century. Skipper Dhoni was justified in feeling that his team was at least 20-25 runs short.

Like all of us praying for him, Tendulkar wanted the century badly. But Tendulkar was also batting for India. He knew he slipped on that count. That is why his pointing at the tricolour on the helmet during a particularly muted celebration for such a colossal feat smacked of guilt. That is why his repeated insistence during post-century interactions that he plays for the country rang hollow.

Tendulkar has given the country his blood and sweat for 22 years. Nobody can take away any of that. But at Mirpur, once he got close, he was not ready to risk it for anything. Not even for his team’s cause. If it was a personal tryst with the annals of the game he was so determined to fulfil, the deity of cricket also extracted the price for such ambivalence. It did not look like Tendulkar was enjoying his game. It did not look good at all.

Few doubt that Tendulkar can still score as quickly as any of India’s young guns every now and then. But after the world cup triumph, he could not have any justification for playing ODIs except for the thrill of the game. Or for that hundred that would complete his legend.

After Mirpur, he has none.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist 
[email protected]

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