October 14, 2013

A farewell left too late

Tendulkar's legacy has been diminished by his long twilight, and the team he served for so long with such distinction has been damaged too

Hang on, he hasn't left yet. The time to pay tribute, to lift our eyes from the here and now and celebrate a great career, to memorialise genius, will come when Sachin Tendulkar's cricketing life ends with the second Test against West Indies in late November. This is the time to debate the manner of his going, the timing of the departure. And no, it isn't bad form to do this: Tendulkar is an active player; embalming fluids like reverence and nostalgia can wait.

The last great Bombay batsman retired without notice. He played one of the great innings against spin bowling on a pitch that turned square, 96 in a losing cause against Pakistan in Bangalore and left. He was 37. He was in the form of his life: his last 25 outings had yielded four centuries and six fifties at an average of over 58.

Tendulkar's retirement, in contrast, has been chronically foretold. Not by him but by his bearish batting form. In his last 25 innings Tendulkar has scored four fifties, no centuries, and has averaged under 30, more than 20 runs off his career average. He is 40; he has been in decline for at least two years.

Enoch Powell famously wrote, "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs." Substitute "political" and "politics" with "cricket" and you have the justification offered by Tendulkar's partisans for his unwillingness to acknowledge cricketing mortality. Don't all cricketing lives taper off, they ask. Why shouldn't a genius like Tendulkar be allowed to rage against the dying of the light?

If this is a serious question, not just a rhetorical flourish, it's worth answering. First, there is nothing inevitable about great batsmen eking out unworthy ends. Not all cricketing lives end in failure; some manage the proverbial blaze of glory. Look at Sunil Gavaskar and his valedictory 96. And if Gavaskar belongs to the past, that foreign country where things are done differently, let us look at Tendulkar's contemporaries.

Steve Waugh's last series - against India - was a PR spectacular, so it's almost unfair to compare that leave-taking with anyone else's, but it's worth noticing that the run-up to that climax was pretty impressive too. Waugh's last 25 innings include five centuries, six fifties, and his average in this final phase of his career makes Gavaskar's seem modest: Waugh averaged close to 65 per innings.

His compatriot Ricky Ponting makes for an interesting comparison. He is Tendulkar's nearest contemporary, 38 years old to Tendulkar's 40, and he played his last Test a year before Tendulkar is scheduled to play his, almost to the day. Like Tendulkar, Ponting was criticised for lingering after his "best-by" date. But for someone who overstayed his welcome, the 25 innings rule-of-thumb tells us that Ponting averaged 38 to Tendulkar's 28. He also managed to produce a century and a double-century through this batting twilight.

But it is the comparison with Brian Lara, by common consensus Tendulkar's greatest batting contemporary and his closest contender for the title of the best batsman of the fin de siècle, that speaks most directly to the "dying of the light" argument. Look at Lara's last 25 innings. He averaged just under 45, more than ten runs an innings better than Tendulkar, but that's almost beside the point: it is his big scores that stand out.

Children ought to be indulged, not great men, and Tendulkar is an immortal. We are such a needy nation that as a cricketing public we have created a force field that has skewed the game's priorities and conflated Tendulkar's well-being with the good of cricket

Lara hit two centuries and two double-centuries in his last year of Test match cricket. These centuries were scored against substantial teams: Australia, India and Pakistan. For a team in near terminal decline, against strong opposition, Lara fought magnificent rearguard actions; in the grim desert of West Indian decline, he blazed like a brand; he raged against the dying of the light. Teams give ageing, inconsistent geniuses the benefit of the doubt because they believe they are still capable of match-turning bursts of inspiration. Lara repaid that faith; Tendulkar hasn't.

Over the last two years Tendulkar has been more accountant than artist. His ledger is filled with entries that tally quantity and longevity. He has a 100 international hundreds, over 34,000 international runs, and by the time the Wankhede Test is done, he will have become the first cricketer in the history of the game to have played 200 Test matches.

Over the last two years he has plodded towards these landmarks with all the flair of a time-serving journeyman. From being a batsman who brought to the crease the intent of Viv Richards in a rage, he has become a batsman as intent on self-preservation as Boycott batting out a bad patch.

Does it matter? He remains the greatest batsman of his generation and India under Dhoni are once again near the top of the Test match tree. Tendulkar carried India, so the argument goes, for more than 20 years: can't India carry him for two?

No. It can and has, but it shouldn't have. Children ought to be indulged, not great men, and Tendulkar is an immortal. These two years have damaged Tendulkar, the Indian team and cricket as an international game.

Kapil Dev prolonged his career painfully as he chased after Richard Hadlee's then-record aggregate of wickets. By the time he huffed and puffed his way past the mark, a career marked by loose-limbed grace had begun to seem a little laboured and leaden. And for what? With Murali on his Everest, Kapil's summit begins to look like base camp. In much the same way, Tendulkar's legacy has been diminished by his long twilight.

The team he served for so long with such distinction has been damaged too. If he had left, as Dravid did, in early 2012, after the rout in Australia, India's middle order might have completed its post-Galactico transition earlier. Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma and company might not have set the world on fire if Tendulkar had left then, but they would have been hard put to do much worse than he did during this time.

Most importantly, if Tendulkar had retired earlier, India might not be playing an unscheduled two-Test engagement against West Indies at the expense of a proper Test series against South Africa, Test cricket's top-ranked team. It is no secret that this attenuated "series" against one of the less formidable Test sides in contemporary cricket was likely dreamt up by the BCCI to give Tendulkar a comfortable way of both getting to his 200th Test and saying farewell at home.

Think of the enormity of this: the Future Tours Programme has been disrupted, the financial standing of the South African board compromised, a marquee contest between the first- and third-placed teams in Test cricket put at risk or, at best, abbreviated, just to make sure that Tendulkar can retire at the time and place that suits him best. The BCCI might well be settling other scores with CSA, and Tendulkar may not have asked for the West Indian tour, but what are the chances it would have materialised if he had retired earlier or, alternately, committed himself to touring South Africa? Zero.

This destructively delayed retirement and its fall-out isn't Tendulkar's fault alone. He is such an extraordinary cricketer, and we are such a needy nation that as a cricketing public we have created a force field that has skewed the game's priorities and conflated Tendulkar's well-being with the good of cricket. No individual, or so the cliché used to go, is bigger than the game. There's an exception to that rule now: for the duration of the series against West Indies, till the end of Tendulkar's 200th Test, Test cricket will principally be an occasion for rehearsing Tendulkar's greatness.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi