A one-man happiness index
It would be a travesty if Sachin Tendulkar's career is remembered for his numbers. It is unthinkable that two of his statistical peaks - 100 international hundreds and 200 Tests - will ever be bettered, but numbers are a somewhat cold and impersonal way to remember sporting heroes by.
They are best remembered by the memories, by the way they touched our hearts and lit our lives. And on that count, Tendulkar is unlikely to ever be surpassed. If India, like Bhutan, measured its Gross Happiness Index, Tendulkar would be the single-largest contributor to it for the best part of his 24-year career.
Everyone is partial to a certain memory. Mine is from a 20-over match. But it was years before 20-over matches became the fashion. In 1989, ESPNcricinfo was yet to be born, mobile phones were unheard of, India relied on IMF loans to build bridges, the Berlin Wall still stood, and the six was a rare and spectacular sight. The World Cup had been won, but hope was still the oxygen for Indian cricket fans: we dared not expect. A 16-year-old schoolboy making his international debut in Pakistan? With the memory of Javed Miandad's last-ball six in Sharjah still singeing, Indian fans merely prayed for safe passage.
It's against this backdrop that Tendulkar danced down the pitch, every step a rhapsody in adventure, to launch Abdul Qadir for four sixes in one over.
I remember everything about those moments. The brand of the black-and-white TV I was watching the match on at a friend's house, the colour of the mat placed beside the TV, the flower vase alongside, the chair I was sitting on. And most of all, the sounds of "Wah, wah" from the stands, and Qadir's admiring applause at the end of the over.
Qadir and Tendulkar tell slightly different stories of the exchange that preceded the over. Qadir says he goaded the little boy to try to hit him for six so that he could make a name for himself. Tendulkar remembers it more as a dare. He had hit Mushtaq Ahmed, the younger leggie, for a couple of sixes earlier and Qadir, he recalls, challenged him with words to this effect: "Mujhe markar dikhao [let's see if you can hit me]."
India ended up losing the match, but the result didn't matter. The 50-over game scheduled for the day had already been washed out, but the teams had agreed to play a 20-overs-a-side exhibition match to repay the spectators who had waited all day. Qadir swears none of the sixes were a gift, that he bowled each ball to get Tendulkar out. He ended up with 53 off 18 balls and Pakistan was won over.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, it's time to let go. It's almost as hard for his fans. Cricket for a legion of them has meant Tendulkar. Plenty of Indian cricket heroes have gone quietly. Sunil Gavaskar went without warning, Kapil Dev was nearly elbowed out. Among Tendulkar's own team-mates, Anil Kumble never came back from an injury, and Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman bowed out before what might have been their final home season. Only Sourav Ganguly announced it before his final match. "Just one last thing lads, before I leave," he said having finished a press conference, "this is going to be my last series." And that was that.
But it would have felt inappropriate, almost discourteous, had Tendulkar gone without allowing his fans a suitable opportunity to bid him goodbye. It's hard to imagine a sportsperson, certainly any other cricketer, who has shared as profound an emotional bond with such a large number of fans. Some invoke reverence, some inspire awe, some draw affection. Tendulkar found adoration and worship in equal measure, and they grew so strong and so deep that it became, at times, impossible to make sense of. It would be fair to say that at some point Tendulkar became more than a cricketer: he became a faith. It's hard to imagine that there will be another like him.
We know this first-hand. He made our website buzz. Consistently, and by a distance, his player page, has been the most visited of all. This year alone, it registered more than 2 million views. The next best was Ashton Agar, with 500,000. Tendulkar was, almost always, among the most-searched players on the site every month, and stories about him featured unfailingly among the most-read pieces year in, year out. When he was about to become the first double-centurion in one-day cricket in 2010, fans mounted such an onslaught on our servers that they took the site down.
When his final Test comes around we will hopefully be ready for eventualities of that sort. Meanwhile, this microsite will be both a chronicler of and witness to Tendulkar's final month in international cricket. Every day we will bring you tributes, memories, photographs, stats and trivia, archival pieces, quizzes and other nuggets. And it will also be a platform for you to participate by posting your own memories, creating video tributes, taking part in polls and the like.
Get on the ride. This is as much about you as it is about Tendulkar.