It did end with a whimper, the career of the greatest-ever one-day batsman, but it probably means that Sachin Tendulkar will be allowed a chance to go out with a bang in Test cricket. He has been the best all-round batsman in the game – Don Bradman played no one-day cricket, not all of the matches in which W G Grace scored his centuries would be considered first-class today – and if the selectors dropped a hint, then that is no more than he deserved.
What’s next? The 40th birthday approaches, and there cannot be a great deal of international cricket left. Twenty-five years of first class cricket, 23 beginning as the youngest player to represent India, and over 650 international matches and all the travelling, modelling, practising, injuries, public appearances, would have taken their toll. If relief is the most powerful emotion Tendulkar feels now, he cannot be blamed.
But there is something to prove yet. Dissatisfaction, wrote Shaw, is the root of all progress. Sometimes it is the root of misjudgements too. A poor Test record over the past year, and a tendency to misread length has called into question Tendulkar’s fitness for the big game. If, after 15,000 runs and 51 centuries, he wants to bow out with one final, dramatic, redeeming innings, that is understandable too. But is it practical?
Tendulkar has the gift of focussing on a single theme. You need to have it to eliminate distractions in the cricket stadiums around the world where a Tendulkar sighting is reason enough to raise the decible level. And now he has reduced his career into a single theme – the Test match, and nothing else. What remains? A record 200 Tests, perhaps. But more importantly, a final glimpse into the boy he once was, straight driving the world’s best fast bowlers, cover driving the finest spinners. But now ranged against him is not a Dale Steyn or a Shane Warne but the ultimate wicket-taker – Time.
Muhammad Ali went on for too long, Michael Schumacher returned for another shot at glory. The last encounters of the misguided hero are always the saddest in sport.
In one-day cricket, Tendulkar’s place in the pantheon is assured. He played more games (463), made more runs (18,426), and scored more centuries (49) than anybody else. Of the Top 10 batsmen – those with over ten thousand runs – only Jacques Kallis has the marginally better average, only Sanat Jayasuriya the better strike rate and only Ricky Ponting held more catches than Tendulkar (140). In that list, only Jayasuriya had more wickets than Tendulkar’s 154. This is one of those cases where the stats do not lie – Tendulkar was indeed the best of the lot, the first choice in a game for Earth versus Mars.
India won more than half the matches Tendulkar played in, his importance underlined by his average of 56.63 (career average: 44.83) and strike rate of 90.31 (career: 86.23). He is no longer the only man to have made a double century in the format – but he was the first to suggest the possibility of attaining that score.
He played 69 matches before living up to the expectations generated by the mauling he gave Abdul Qadir in Peshawar in an unofficial match. He opened the batting in Auckland, made 82 off 49 balls. The first century came later, after ten more matches, but it had begun in Peshawar.
Half his unbeaten 53 (18 balls) came in one over from Qadir. He was 16 then, a boy among men, but there was a light in his eyes and steel in his wrists as he even mis-hit for six. It changed the face of one-day cricket for India, and found the man who could play the new game the old way, or innovate if that was the need.
It seems only yesterday he was making 143 in Sharjah at more than a run a ball, against an Australian attack that was actually grateful for the sandstorm that held up play. It is nearly a decade since he taught Shoaib Akhtar to be more respectful by not only hitting him over third man for a six but following that up with a cover drive of such delicacy that we knew beauty and the beast co-existed in the little man from Mumbai.
Tendulkar never lost his capacity to surprise. His decision to retire from one-day cricket was both expected and surprising. In a few months there will be another expected surprise – and the pressure will be on those who have followed his career for two and a half decades to say something beyond “He was a great player.”
Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack