November 13, 2013

Tendulkar: forever icon

In some ways, we know less about him now than before. The more he has played, the more godlike and inscrutable he has become

Tendulkar has had no choice but to go along with what a billion people wanted him to be © Associated Press

Change is constant, but the pace of change is wildly inconstant. Some lives are played out in the context of continuity and stability; others must adapt to dizzying change and upheaval. Endurance, perseverance and resilience are all relative concepts: standing your ground is much harder when the sands are shifting all around you.

In 1989, when Sachin Tendulkar first took guard for India, cricket was mostly played in whites. The dominant team in the world was West Indies. ODI cricket was emerging but Test cricket firmly remained the game's gold standard. T20 was an accidental form of the game, a solution used only when rain shortened the duration of play. When the England Test team played away from home, it still wore the egg-and-bacon colours of the MCC, a strip invented in the 19th century. India was a passionate cricketing nation but a marginal player within the game's power structure and governance - money and influence lay elsewhere.

Twenty-four years later, as Tendulkar lifts his bat for the last time in Indian colours, survey the contours of the cricketing world today. Many more cricket fans love and understand the white-ball version than the red. India is the game's great superpower; it commands such huge television contracts that every other country wants a slice of the goodies. A whole dynasty, the Australian machine of the 1990s and 2000s, one of sport's greatest empires, has risen and retreated. T20, once a mere entertainment, drives the commercial imperatives of the sport.

When the final history of cricket is written - for our purposes here, let's call it the age of Tendulkar - his period has been seen as one of deep change and constant uncertainty. Yet throughout Tendulkar has adapted and endured. He has found answers to every new question - his 49 ODI hundreds are arguably the more remarkable achievement than his 51 Test centuries. And yet he has also belonged to the great, timeless tradition of pure batsmanship. Modern and classical at the same time, Tendulkar has been a cricketer for every stage.

It is a truism that he has faced a unique burden of expectation. That is partly because the changes in Indian society between Tendulkar's first Test and his 200th have trumped even the revolutions in cricket. In 1989, the Indian economy languished from protectionism and introversion. The beginning of India's economic recovery was the moment of Tendulkar's emergence as a global talent. That Tendulkar's career coincided with the emergence of India as an economic power was just that - a coincidence. But the subliminal link between the "Little Master" and a resurgent India provided yet another dimension of pressure and expectation.

So in celebrating Tendulkar's achievements, we are partly paying testament to the weight he has carried. When India won the 2011 World Cup final, Virat Kohli captured a deep truth: "He has carried the burden of our nation on his shoulders for the past 21 years. So it is time that we carried him."

Despite all this - all the many ways in which Tendulkar is admirable and impressive and inspiring - I have found it very difficult to gather together my thoughts about his retirement. My feelings about his career will not settle into a shape or a narrative. I can see the achievements but not the thread. I can list the feats and accolades, but the personality that achieved them eludes me. When I describe him as an enigma, I feel a failure on my part, as a writer. It is my job to find the man underneath the enigma. And I regret that I cannot.

My feelings about his career will not settle into a shape or a narrative. I can see the achievements, but not the thread. I can list the feats and accolades, but the personality that achieved them eludes me

When we watch athletes perform hundreds of times, we nearly always get to know them. Not from their quotes and their interviews but from the sporting performance itself. "An artist is usually a damned liar," DH Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature, "but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day." Change the word "artist" for the word "sportsman" and the same point holds: trust the runs and wickets, not the press-conference quotes.

We see into a sportsman's character by watching him play. We know when they relish the battle, when they allow themselves to enjoy it, when they are anxious and unsettled, when they are confident or in the zone. With players we care deeply about, we know and understand them almost as close friends. Knowing and being known, the mask slipped from the face: that was the playwright Tom Stoppard's definition of the emotion that sustains meaningful relationships.

But there is a strange paradox at the core of Tendulkar's career. The more he has played, the less we can see the real man. The mask has not slipped, it has risen. The carapace has not shrunk, it has grown. In a strange way, less is known about Tendulkar than ever before. The icon has supplanted the man.

Only a handful of human beings can understand what it has been like to be Tendulkar. Bob Dylan, writing in his autobiography Chronicles, said the hardest thing to handle was not criticism but deification. When they called him a prophet, hero and saviour, Dylan replied, "I'm just a song and dance man." Dylan drew upon his innate savvy to wriggle free from the straightjacket of being a redemptive hero. Sportsmen, sadly, find it harder to escape the traps of idolatrous celebrity.

I used to think that Tiger Woods had experienced the weirdest of all sports careers. In his heyday, Woods treated his own humanity almost as a flaw, like a kink in his backswing that needed to be ironed out. Woods wished to ascend from human frailty into machine-like invulnerability.

Now I realise that becoming a machine is much easier than being turned into a god - as Tendulkar has been. Perhaps he had no choice but to go along with what a billion people yearned for him to be. But I cannot avoid the feeling that the god has gradually displaced the man.

I try to understand men; gods leave me cold. Perhaps that is why, when I write about Tendulkar, for all my admiration and awe in the face of his great achievements, the words will not come.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

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