December 28, 2012

The Tendulkar habit

More than any other player, Sachin Tendulkar defined ODI cricket. To start with, he played in over half of all India's games

Dear Sachin,

I guess this means the countdown has begun. It couldn't have been easy for you since cricket has been your life, your solitary love outside of family. I know there are cars and music and seafood, and, as I recently realised, the odd glass of wine, but a bat was what you were meant to hold, and it is with one that you mesmerised a nation and a sport. I wondered if you could have given up Test cricket and stayed on in one-day internationals - until you told me it takes a lot out of you. And you were never one to give less than a 100%.

I guess your body finally won. It had been giving you signals - that permanently cracked bone in your toe, the struggle to get out of bed when the back played up, that elbow... ah, that's a different story altogether, but you always overruled it. It must have sulked but you forced more out of it than anyone else. It was bound to serve notice one day. I mean, you will be 40 soon; people get reading glasses at 40.

But you leave behind an aspect of cricket that you defined. There will be comparisons with other greats in Test cricket, and you will be a chapter in its history, but with the one-dayer, you are its history, in a sense, certainly for India, where you played in more than half the games (463 out of 809). The team had played a mere 165 games before you started, and it is a measure of the impact you had that there were only 17 centuries scored by then. India made a century every 9.70 games. After you started, that number comes down dramatically, to one every 3.52 games. And since that first century, in Colombo, it comes down even further, to one every 3.23 games. To think that you started with two ducks.

Now, of course, the kids keep notching up the hundreds. This young fellow Kohli, for example, who plays with your intensity but whose vocabulary I guess you would struggle with!

Looking back, I can't imagine it took you 78 games to hit a hundred. But then you were floating around in the batting order, spending too much time not being in the thick of it all. I can see why you were so desperate to open the batting in Auckland that day in 1994. Why, when you told me the story of how you pleaded with Ajit Wadekar and Mohammad Azharuddin to give you one opportunity, you sounded like you were still pleading. But I guess you had a history of wanting to be in battle, like that misty night in Kolkata (it was Calcutta in your youth, wasn't it?) when you took the ball in the 50th over with just six to defend and delivered a win.

It seems impossible to imagine that you averaged a mere 30.84 till that day in Auckland, and that you dawdled along at a strike rate of 74. Since then you averaged 47 at a strike rate of 87. It was a marriage meant to be.

I remember that afternoon in Colombo when you approached your first hundred. It had to be Australia, and you were in sublime touch, and you so wanted that first one. You made 110 in 130 balls, but oh, you agonised over those last 15 runs before you got to the century. In a sense, it was like that with the last one too, wasn't it? It was in those moments only that you were a bit like us, that you wanted something so badly, you let it affect your game. But between those two, you were always so much fun, in that belligerent, ruthless, adolescent first phase, in your second, rather more mature and calculated, existence, and of course in that joyous last. What fun that was. The 163 in Christchurch, the 175 in Hyderabad, that 200 in Gwalior, the 120 in Bangalore, the 111 in Nagpur. If it hadn't been for that devilish 100th, would you have continued playing the same way? That 100th hurt you, didn't it, as it did all of us, and I guess we didn't help you by not letting you forget. When the big occasion came, you always played it like another game, even though you knew it was a big day, like those two classics in CB Series finals in 2008, or, of course, those unbelievable nights in Sharjah in 1998. But this 100th took away four or five more.

Somebody said to me he didn't want you to quit because it would mean his childhood was over. It isn't just them. Just as the child in you never grew up, so too did many grizzled old men become children when they saw you in blue

I know how disappointed you were after the 2007 World Cup. You weren't batting in your favourite position, you were unhappy (if you could ever be unhappy in the game that you revered and tended to like a servant), and without quite saying it, you hinted at the fact that you might have had enough. But the dawn always follows the darkest hour.

After the age of 34, in a young man's game, you averaged 48.36. Even by the standards you set yourself, that was unbelievable (in spite of all those nineties, when, almost inevitably, I seemed to be on air). And most of those came without your regular partner. While Sourav was around, you averaged almost 50 at a strike rate of 89. The mind still lingers on the time the two of you would come out at the start of a one-day international. (I watched one of those partnerships the other night and it seemed only the commercial breaks could stop you two.)

By now you were playing the lap shots more than the booming drives down the ground. It puzzled me and made many nervous. "I want to play down the ground too," you told me, "that is why I am playing the paddle shot. As soon as they put a fielder there, I'll play the big drive." You were playing with the field the way your great friend Brian Lara did when he was on top of his game.

But beyond the numbers some memories remain. I couldn't believe how you went after Glenn McGrath in Nairobi. I must have watched that clip 50 times but understood it more when you told me you wanted to get him angry, that on a moist wicket his line-and-length routine would have won them the game. That pull shot is as fresh in the memory as that first cover drive off Wasim Akram in the 2003 World Cup when you took strike because you thought the great man would have too many tricks for Sehwag.

I remember that World Cup well, especially an unheralded innings in Harare that helped beat a sticky Zimbabwe and put the campaign back on track. And your decision to keep the Player of the Tournament award in your restaurant because you would much rather have had the smaller winner's medal. It told me how much that meant to you, and when I saw the tears on your face that night in Mumbai, I instantly knew why.

I had only once seen you in tears and that was at a World Cup too. You were practising in Bristol. You were just back from your father's funeral and were wearing the most peculiar dark glasses. There was none of the usual style to them; they were big enough to cover half your face. You agreed to my request to speak to the media and briefly took them off while you were arranging your kit bag. I was taken aback to see your eyes swollen. You must have been in another world but you were courteous as ever. It was only Kenya the next day, but I can see why you rate that hundred.

There are so many more. I was only a young cricket writer when I started watching you play, so there will be many. That is also why so many of us will miss you. Somebody said to me he didn't want you to quit because it would mean his childhood was over. It isn't just them. Just as the child in you never grew up, so too did many grizzled old men become children when they saw you in blue. You were a great habit, Sachin.

So you are done with the blue then. But the whites remain. That is our first image of you - the curly hair, the confident look, the front foot stride… all in white. I hope you have fun in them. You don't need to try too hard to prove a point to us because when you have fun we do too.

Cheers, you did well for us. And you gave life and strength to our game.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sam on December 31, 2012, 7:39 GMT

    Harsha never tires of writing Tendulkar articles, I didn't even read this one. This is bad journalism. There are more issues to write about Indian Cricket. The future development of spinners, fast bowlers, batsman, pitches, etc. But this guy is stuck in Tendulkar timezone. Good journalists are the ones who evolve.

  • Jay on December 31, 2012, 4:16 GMT

    Dear Harsha - "The Tendulkar habit" is defined by his phenomenal Staying Power! The doubters have been quieted. Some even won over. Even Greg Chappell now proclaims: "That he played for 23 years is astonishing ... To think that he has carried the hopes and expectations of more than a billion people each time he batted set him apart, even from Bradman"! Greg adds: "He also played in more countries & varied conditions than Bradman". And achieved a "batting record that may never be challenged"! Just to think that Greg, as India's coach, wanted to move Sachin down the batting order? LOL! What's truly unimaginable to Greg is Sachin played "Test cricket at the tender age of 16", just as it is to Harsha that he's still playing at 39. One in a billion indeed! He's defied the odds & the gods with his extraordinary physical endurance & mental toughness. Yes, he's reinvented himself & cricket, especially ODIs. Any doubt that he's in the pantheon of the greatest batsmen of all time, Harsha?

  • Rupesh on December 30, 2012, 13:21 GMT

    Cmon Harsha!!! You gotta write a book on him, i assure you it will be an all time bestseller in Sports Domain :)

  • Steve on December 30, 2012, 0:28 GMT

    Thanks to Sachin for all the good memories in the past. I hope you can find something to pursue outside of cricket bec you are clearly burning all the goodwill of fans earned through your performances years ago. Time to let next generation of players to make their mark like you did 2 decades ago.

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2012, 20:03 GMT

    Sachin as a pakistani fan em happy to see you retire. It seemed a very heavy batting line up seeing your name in between.And now I hope inspite of having goodbatsman still in the side it seems weak. Anyways you were a great cricketer

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2012, 18:22 GMT

    Great article by a fantastic cricket writer about the best player in the world. Harsha told the entire world in an article about his admiration to the great little master... Great one, Harsha...

  • Jay on December 29, 2012, 18:17 GMT

    @Lillianthomson: The fact you have included Sobers, Don Bradman in the list is laughable. Those guys played during a time Tendulkar wasn't even born. Cricket was different back then. Tendulkar is from a different era. I am talking about Tendulkar as a player post 1989. In his generation, Tendulkar is the BEST, followed closely by Lara, Kallis and Ponting. Do not bring in old men here. Who cares about Bradman ? He played mostly against England and in 2 countries all the time. I don't think he is a good benchmark by any means. You see, in sports we do benchmarking based on number of games played against a group of oppositions across different venues. To me playing basically against England in either Australia or the UK isn't convincing. So please stick to players of THIS generation when talking about Tendulkar. He's easily the best on that list.

  • Harsh on December 29, 2012, 17:32 GMT

    Sachin Tendulkar is an equivalent of Muhammad Ali to one day Cricket.His batting contained every ingredient of the perfect one day batsmen-be it consistency,temperament,innovative ability,technique,ability to build an innings and destroy bowling and above all radiated joy.Sachin's career reminded one of the journey of a mountaineer reaching his destination after traversing every kind of danger and hazard.Sachin was like a surgeon,artist and boxer rolled into one.He combined orthodox strokes with perfect execution combined with strokes which were his very own invention.Watching him bat often reminded you of a teacher giving a lesson to his pupil and he paced his innings with the precision of an Olympic marathon gold medallist.One almost felt that God sent him to play cricket.Dominating at the top for 22 years makes him a contender for the best of all sportsman.

  • Vikram on December 29, 2012, 17:23 GMT

    Hussey just took out any wind that you might have had in your sails. 2013 would be the year that people end up talking why Hussey retired so early and why Sachin retired so late. You can deny plain facts only so much.

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2012, 16:58 GMT

    simplest man in d world SRT... miss u sachin...