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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Srinivas on April 11, 2012, 19:16 GMT

    @Guruvijay, nice compilation of the regular and non-regular bowlers in that said match. No complaints. And now, let us also know who is a Legend among the following list - Ashwin, Praveen, Irfan, Dinda, Jadeja and Sachin. The bowlers played to their potential/ability/inability. Sachin was the one who played way below his ability. Remove the name Sachin for a while. A batsman scored 49 runs off 12.3 overs. That's pretty pedestrian - a strike-rate of 65.33. Now who is that batsman? Sachin it is. Of all the players, Sachin was the one who played way way below his ability. Now don't tell me that 49 runs off 12.3 overs is what Sachin's ability is. Bashing ordinary players for below par ordinary performances and celebrating and defending a below par pedestrian inning by a Legend is nothing new in our Country. I haven't come across any cricketer in the world who goes so scot-free after kicking his own team in the chest, in broad day light, in the pursuit of a personal milestone. Ridiculous!

  • Vijayaguru on April 11, 2012, 15:50 GMT

    Bowling O M R W Econ

    P Kumar 10 0 56 3 5.60 (1nb) IK Pathan 9 0 61 0 6.77 (1w) AB Dinda 5.2 1 38 0 7.12 (1nb) SK Raina 7 1 30 0 4.28 RG Sharma 2 0 13 0 6.50 R Ashwin 10 0 56 1 5.60 (1w) RA Jadeja 6 0 32 1 5.33

    This is the bowling status of our"WORLD CHAMPION" against bangladesh in last ODI.

    Out of 4 main bowlers, only 2 managed to bowl for 10 0vers. They (PKumar, Ashwin) also having a econ of 5.60.

    A cricket team in a higher secondary school also can win the match against the team with this kind of bowlers. Even a team with Mukul Kesavan as captain can win the match against indian team. So there is no surprise in lose against a team of good batsmen (Bangladesh). Even if sachin scored 100 in 50 balls we cant win the match. First of all, we have to find a way to form a team with CONSISTENT bowlers and then we have to start comment about batsmen especially the LEGEND SACHIN....

  • Srinivas on April 11, 2012, 14:10 GMT

    @Vimalan Sadhasivam, article isn't about Dravid or Kallis. Or is it? Dravid is slow or fast isn't the point here. Dravid is slow or fast doesn't change Sachin's century off 138 balls @ 72 into the most scorching century ever in the history of ODI Cricket. My stand would be the same, be it Dravid or Sachin or VVS or Ganguly or Sehwag, any player who kicks India on her chest in pursuit of personal milestones is a selfish player. Sachin it is here. First 51 off 63 @ 81, next 49 off 75 @ 65 = scoring 49 runs in 12.3 overs - if that strike-rate isn't match costing, then one has to question that century's supporters' knowledge of cricket. Nuff said. Bowlers didn't bowl well or not is the second half of the story. First half of the story - let's talk of Sachin - scoring 49 runs in 12.3 overs - is that what Sachin's ability is? Isn't it clear to you guys that he was the one who clearly performed below his ability? It's tragic that I'm going in circles to make you guys see such a simple point.

  • Srinivas on April 11, 2012, 14:08 GMT

    @karan1609, respects to you bro. Yes Sachin is more gifted than anybody we have seen since 1989. No two ways about it. 80/100 men on the street will tell you that Sachin's 100 is more important than India's win - agree with you on that too. Those 80 are Sachin fanatics and assuming that the remaining 20 are Dravid fans - ask those remaining 20 what do they want - do they want a Dravid's 100 or India's win - those 20 will definitely say India's win. You can count on millions of Dravid fans to say that India's win is more important to them than Dravid's 100. Ring any bells mate. That's the whole problem here. That's the fact I have been mentioning many times. An Indian loss doesn't bother Sachin fanatics. Fanatics who are so indifferent to our loss will be seen as adversaries by people who love India's win more than anything else. And there's literally nothing in Sachin's 100th 100 to conclude that he thinks otherwise about his own milestones - For Sachin - Me first, India next.

  • Rajesh on April 11, 2012, 13:03 GMT

    Mukul,I'm afraid you have again chosen the path of the mere mortals to criticize the man.Tendulkar is a gem.Cherish it while you have.This is one of the myriad n number of articles written after his hundreth hundred albeit in a different context.He looked the best in Australia in the first 2 Test.Dare to say the best of both the teams.It tapered of ! Credit goes to him he is able to maintain his form for the last 22 years.With due respect,Just like Coke & Adidas,you too chose the Subject Tendulkar.Remember,he was our best batsmen for 2010 & untill the world cup 2011.There have been tons of article written on how he managed to hit the purple patch in late 30's.Unfortunate,that England & Australia weren't his success stories.Greame Hick after his ton of hundreds in first class,cudn't put bat to ball in Test matches.Lets celebrate this genius when is playing.To make it to a school Team in India is difficult.For State &Country with almost 100000 teams,herculean!Let alone scoring 100- 100's

  • Dummy4 on April 11, 2012, 12:29 GMT

    Excellent Article.This is first time m reading article which criticizing sachin.

  • Kris on April 11, 2012, 10:20 GMT

    The problem with the discussion going on here is that its focus is whether he was guilty or not. Instead, it should have been on a certain culture that glorifies personal milestones over a team's performance in a team game like cricket. Whether he was guilty or not, that culture can't hope to be producing champion sides. Those bowlers' fans can as well say that it was a flat wicket and they couldn't defend a modest score. And the fans of the players who carry drinks/ play domestic cricket /are declared unfit can say they are not getting enough opportunities or their rhythm is disturbed by the erratic selection policy prompted by that culture. What seems to weaken their case is these fans are far outnumbered by the fans of the player on focus.

  • K on April 11, 2012, 10:12 GMT

    Great article. I agree with every word of the author. i am also a Sachin fan but I don't like him play just for the records without contributing to the team's cause or rather to the detriment of the team's interests. For god sake let sachin retire with some dignity before a public outcry develops for his ouster. without him ,team india will do better than with him. K.Ramachandran

  • Alakshyendra on April 11, 2012, 9:20 GMT

    Quazar, you can choose to believe whatever you want, but by now even kids know how meticulous a man Rahul Dravid is and if he really was in Rajasthan when the Ambani function was on (BTW it was a private function), it could have meant only one thing: the man was practising because he had retired 3 weeks ago and might been rusty.

    Besides, you tell us which one was more imporant: a function to celebrate yet another landmark (meaningless according to me) or one to celebrate the illustrious career of a man who had just retired?

  • Kiran on April 11, 2012, 9:17 GMT

    Well said Kartick_raja.. Sachin bore this pity world for many many years lol.. It's not about Sachin getting criticized in this mean way but it tells us something about the way humanity is heading. Attracting negativity and magnifying it.. and inferring too much out of it. Oh god! He has every right to tell people that no one needs to tell him anything. He wants to be HIM.. play like him.. When struggling or when playing well, he can take sensible help but he has to keep doing what he believes in.. listening to his inner voice. And there is no doubt about it that he is doing all that :-) what a human he is! Just imagine he didn't even take his foot injury for granted because he has to play in IPL. people might take this in other way around but that's what he is. to play cricket well (i feel) he respects all those subtle things. be it not attending parties or going to bed early or wary of what he is eating etc and doing all that for 23 years? can v do it for one month? leave him alone!

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