April 8, 2012

How not to close a great career

Sachin Tendulkar's media blitz in the wake of his 100th hundred has been unseemly and cheapens his legacy

After winning the World Cup last year, India endured their worst season of Test cricket in 50 years. Tests played overseas: eight. Tests lost: eight. These defeats weren't close-run affairs; they were old-fashioned thrashings, which brought back the bad old days when Indian teams travelled like reluctant invalids and Indian batsmen played fast bowling from outside the leg stump.

To make matters worse for a team that had climbed to the top of the Test match tree on the strength of the greatest middle order in contemporary cricket, these were batting defeats. India's modest bowling attack did as well as could be expected; it was the batsmen who embarrassed the team.

The only batsman to emerge with some honour from this debacle was Rahul Dravid. Not only did he score three centuries in the four-Test series in England, he was unbeaten in two of those innings. But the Australian tour was an unmitigated batting disaster for the Indian team, Dravid included. He was bowled six times in eight innings - seven times if you count the no-ball that bowled him in the Melbourne knock. He averaged 24. At the end of the tour, he called a press conference, acknowledged his fading form, spoke movingly about how much cricket had meant to him and retired from the game.

There can be no doubt that the Australian series underlined for Dravid the fact that this was the right time to go. As a unit, India's batting galacticos had faded. The English and Australian tours made it clear that on lively pitches against quality pace attacks, they couldn't collectively deliver any more. VVS Laxman, who played all eight Test matches, averaged in the early twenties; Sehwag, who missed two Tests in England because of injury, scored a pair in the third, and in the series against Australia did nothing after scoring a quick fifty in the first innings of the Melbourne Test. Like Laxman his Australian average hovered in the low twenties.

The two of them made no announcement about retiring, hoping, no doubt, to eke out another year or two in Test cricket, but they remained silent in the light of their horror season. In contrast, Sachin Tendulkar inaugurated a noisy celebration of himself.

Bear in mind that Tendulkar had had a poor season by his standards. He had scored no centuries, played no decisive match-saving innings, fought no heroic rearguard actions. His average over the eight Tests was 35: 20 runs below his career average. Dravid averaged nearly 47 in the same period and retired, while Tendulkar travelled to Bangladesh in search of his elusive hundredth international hundred.

This is not to suggest that Tendulkar ought to have retired. Given how poorly the new generation of middle-order batsmen has performed, it's not as if he has an obvious successor. Virat Kohli has been the best of an indifferent lot and he isn't challenging for Tendulkar's spot in either Test or ODI cricket. But it is worth attending to the increasing divergence between Tendulkar's career, his opinion of himself and the fortunes of the Indian cricket team.

There were a series of press conferences and public events starring Tendulkar immediately after his 100th hundred at Mirpur. In none of them did Tendulkar spend much time on the fact that a) India actually lost to Bangladesh, b) that one of the reasons India lost was that Tendulkar was so focused on getting his hundred that his run rate dropped as he approached this landmark, leaving the team short of the 300-plus target that was there for the taking, and c) that India were eliminated from the tournament before the final.

Indian cricket seemed to regress to the days when desis consoled themselves in defeat by talking up individual performances. To be fair to Tendulkar, a large part of the responsibility for this regression rested with the mainstream media and the country's cricketing public, which bought into the ersatz frenzy about his 100th hundred with such enthusiasm.

The other interesting thing about this rash of public appearances was the contrast it made with Tendulkar's camera-shyness through the rout in England, the whitewash in the Australian Test series, and the wooden spoon in the triangular one-day tournament in Australia. Pretty much every other player had trudged up to the post-match interview and dealt with the mortification of being publicly quizzed about abject defeat, but not Tendulkar.

Tendulkar isn't merely a great player; he is the greatest human brand in the history of Indian advertising. So many corporations have so much riding on him that his career can't be allowed to end like Dravid's: it has to be talked up and eked out and wrung dry so that it gives them a fair return on their investment

What were we to infer from this? That Tendulkar had reached a place where he was committed to saturating the airwaves to celebrate an individual landmark but was unwilling to step up and take ownership of team defeat? Or had Tendulkar genuinely begun to believe that his cause and India's were indistinguishable? Asked about retirement he suggested that it would be unpatriotic for him to retire:

"When you are at the top, you should serve the nation. When I feel I am not in a frame of mind to contribute to nation, that's when I should retire, not when somebody says. That's a selfish statement, that one should retire on top."

To appreciate the tin-eared narcissism of this, bear in mind that Tendulkar had averaged 35 in his last eight Test matches. If we were to extend the curious logic of "international hundreds" (the notion that you can club together scores in two different forms of the game and create a composite landmark) and calculate his "international average" between his 99th hundred and his 100th, Tendulkar averaged just under 33 in 33 individual innings. Thirty-three runs per innings for a batsman of Tendulkar's class is a kind of batting twilight, not the "top". That he can't recognise this is not surprising: most successful sportsmen find it hard to deal with the dying of the light. Tendulkar, like many greats before him, is in denial. In the normal course, denial is a short-lived phase: the gap between a player's valuation of himself and his performance generally kills off delusion.

But Tendulkar isn't merely a great player; he is the greatest human brand in the history of Indian advertising. So many corporations have so much riding on him that his career can't be allowed to end like Dravid's: it has to be talked up and eked out and wrung dry so that it gives them a fair return on their investment.

As Tendulkar's career faltered over the last year, the prospect of the 100th hundred became for Coke and Adidas and his other sponsors a heaven-sent way of disguising the new low at which his career had plateaued out. They didn't invent the idea but once they found it in the zeitgeist, they ran with it. The 100th hundred became an imminent peak, always just one innings away, and since this mountain top was one that only Tendulkar could climb, it helped elevate him at precisely the point where his form dipped.

There's a bizarrely funny photograph of Tendulkar at a press conference in a shiny shirt, flanked by two anonymous corporate men. One holds a special Coke can that commemorates the 100th hundred and the other man is holding an Adidas shoe. Tendulkar stands in the middle, with a shoe in one hand and a can in the other, like a shaman about to divine the hidden with the help of unlike fetishes.

Tendulkar's unwillingness to share responsibility for defeat (in a media interaction he attributed the whitewash in Australia to a *single big Australian batting partnership per match but for which, according to him, the teams were equal) and the uncharacteristic way in which he milked the Mirpur hundred seemed like a case of individual and corporate anxiety merging and, in concert, trying to make the most of what is left.

For a man who through his long career, has been a model of unassertive poise, the crassness of the publicity blitz and his own odd complicity, is startling. It cheapens a great cricketing legacy, like a tinsel garland on a solid gold icon. Tendulkar doesn't have to brief us about his retirement plans; he is the greatest batsman of his time and he ought to play for as long as he can hold his place in the team. But he should, as he did in his pomp, let his bat do the talking.

*04:42:05 GMT, 8 April 2012: The article originally said Tendulkar attributed the whitewash to a lack of big opening partnerships by India.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi

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