The announcement hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Yes, I knew it was around the corner. I knew it was inevitable. The whole world did. But when it came it still had the power to rattle us all. It was as if we could never be fully prepared. The realisation that the short, stocky man won’t step out at No 4 for India is impossible to come to terms with. Habits die hard and seeing Sachin Tendulkar do the duty for India is one such. And that tells me we should all look at the brighter side of things. He still has 10 days of cricket left. We can go deeper and translate those 10 days into 30 long sessions of Test match cricket. And yes, the chance to see Tendulkar in flannels twice more in our lives. Running as if his life depends on trying to save a boundary, throwing the ball back to the bowler, advising Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja if there’s a partnership brewing, waving to the crowd every time they cheer — each of these scenes will be enacted and reenacted over the 10 days of Test cricket in November. It is time we soak in every second that he has left on the cricket field and hope that 18 November doesn’t arrive too early.
I have often been asked how best to sum up what Tendulkar means to us all? For many like me, growing up in an India that was falling prey to turmoil and secessionist movements, he was a ray of hope, helping craft a national imagery that looked solid and resolute. He was a sign of India’s resurgence, a quiet reassurance that things, if not alright yet, were certain to get better. He was a balm, who, even if fleetingly, made things appear better than they actually were. He could help us forget the miseries of everyday existence and bring in a cheer that offered a fundamentally different meaning to life. His hundred at Perth in 1992 against the best bowling attack in the world suggested to millions of Indians growing up at the time that anything was possible. Here was a 19-year-old taming the best in their own den and making the hallowed fortress of the Perth stadium his own.
In the first Test played on Indian soil after the 26/11 attacks, it was imperative that India played well to get the country back to a sense of normalcy. The English set a mammoth 387 to chase down in the fourth innings. Following up on a Virender Sehwag blitzkrieg, Tendulkar remained unbeaten on 103 as India chased down the highest ever fourth innings total on Indian soil in Chennai. Facing the cameras on his way back to the dressing room, Tendulkar took only a second to dedicate the knock to the victims of 26/11. For him, it was but natural to do so. His cricket was all about India and the Indians. We all remember him saying in that squeaky voice of his, “My name is Sachin Tendulkar and I play for India.”
As he awaits his final walk to the 22 yards, it needs to be put on record that Tendulkar is the only cricketer who, when he steps out to bat in Sydney, Barbados, Lahore, Cape Town or even Lord’s, gets the same resounding standing ovation. In fact, it would be interesting to recount for readers incidents that occurred at Lord’s when India played there in 2007 and 2011. For the record, Tendulkar doesn’t have a hundred at Lord’s and hence his name is missing from the Lord’s honours board. In 2007 and again in 2011, it was as if the entire mcc membership, sitting in the Long Room, was desperate that Tendulkar gets a hundred at cricket’s Mecca. They wanted his name on the honours board more than many an Indian fan ever did. And when he got out to Monty Panesar in 2007 and to Stuart Broad in 2011, the entire Long Room was in mourning. The members stood up to applaud the master as he walked back to the change room with every single member sharing his disappointment.
The pressures under which he has played and delivered put his efforts on par with Jackie Robinson’s breaking the colour line in 1947 or Jesse Owens’ defiance of Hitler in 1936. While Robinson had a team behind him and was propped up by Branch Rickey, Tendulkar, after a point, was very much on his own. He was our beacon and, to everyone’s amazement, stood up to the task for 24 long years.
In the light of these achievements, where do we place Tendulkar in the world sporting pantheon? My answer is: at the very top. For a country with a sporting record such as ours, he has given us a dream and has helped us turn it into reality day in and day out, year after year. For a country that has one single individual Olympic gold medal to show for 92 years of competition, Tendulkar was an enigma. He could help us dictate terms to the West and instilled in us a renewed sense of self-confidence and purpose.
It’s time we go a step further and place Tendulkar on the same prestigious platform that is graced by the likes of Owens, Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, Carl Lewis, Greg Louganis, Michael Phelps, Roger Federer and Usain Bolt. He is India’s contribution to the history of world sport, a man who gave us international recognition on the pitch for more than two decades and continues to do so in anything he does.
The pressure of a billion-plus fans every time he has walked in to bat for over two decades, an ordinary team till the late 1990s that forced him to carry the burden of batting almost alone and finally, surviving at his best for a staggering 24 years despite surgeries on his feet, ankle, hip, elbow and fingers — we are now talking of the Sachin Tendulkar Phenomenon. Few sporting greats have overcome so many challenges. Rudolph overcame polio on her way to three Olympic golds. Tendulkar’s long and steadfast journey to sporting glory is equally remarkable and perhaps more awe-inspiring. Don Bradman, the legend from Bowral, considered cricket’s epitome of greatness, never played with the pressure of a billion-plus fans. In a country where a loss on the cricket field is similar to a criminal conviction, with a billion people sitting in judgement, the pressure can be deafening. Bradman didn’t have to listen to this music, nor to critics baying for his retirement, ready to tear him apart at the slightest opportunity. India, in that sense, is unique. We are a country that loves to demean its icons, bring them down and show them in poor light. Tendulkar could buck this trend for the longest time and that, in essence, is his singular achievement.
It is time now to think beyond cricket. Tendulkar is bigger than just five days of six hours on the field, lunch and tea, or a 50-overs match. He is a sportsman, he is an athlete and he needs to be spoken of in terms of men and women who have performed impossible feats in the arena of sport. There is no need anymore to compare him with other cricketers, even The Don. He has to be seen as a remarkable sportsperson who achieved a lot even beyond cricket.
For us in the media, we now have a serious responsibility — that of pushing the champion on before his 200th Test match. The scale of this achievement, the monumental nature of it and the impact of this occasion around the cricket world should make each and every Indian cricket fan proud. It will never happen again and that is what we should celebrate. Few cricketers can continue to play for 25 years, leave alone play 200 Test matches. It is this we need to memorialise, come the West Indies series. We just need to enjoy every moment of the upcoming series because such an occasion will never come again in our lifetime. We need to watch every ball bowled because that’s how we will see cricket history unfold before our eyes.
Because after that, every stroke will be missed and there will be no one else for whom every cricket fan the world over will stand up and applaud. Retirement is around the corner but there’s still some time to it. Time we need to live through and enjoy.