Why do we insist on seeing the 'real' Sachin?
Which is your favourite Sachin? The child who scooter-pillioned from maidan to maidan, playing three matches a day? The boy who stood on a deck set on fire by Waqar and Imran? The son of India who Lata Mangeshkar kisses on the forehead?
My favourite Sachin is the boy who scampers after the ball with the enthusiasm and delight of a cricketer playing his first inter-school match. The delight, the glee at having an open field to run in, a ball to chase, a day to spend under a cloudless sky - that, I believe, is the essence of Sachin.
We all have our favourite, and it is of that favourite we ask: is this the real Sachin? Perhaps one way of finding out is by imagining Tendulkar having played a different sport and then asking ourselves: Would anything change? Would he be different? What if he was a tennis player? What if he had been a tennis contemporary of one of his childhood heroes, John McEnroe?
Imagine McEnroe playing Sachin in a tennis match. John spewing and cursing, Tendulkar stoic, determined, aggressive. John thinking he'd steamroll this meek Indian kid through sheer intimidation, only to find Sachin, after a quick adjustment of his shorts, rifling forehand after forehand past him. (Would he play left- or right-handed?) Would Sachin ever exhort himself with a Murrayesque "Come on!" on breaking McEnroe after being a set down? Would he change his shirt to catcalls in the break? Pump his fists and thrust his crotch in a Becker hip-stutter on taking the fourth set to make it two-all? Would he collapse on his back, crying, when won 9-7 in the fifth? Throw his wrist bands and towels into the stands? What would his exultation be like when he lifted the cup at Wimbledon? Would he have, a few minutes before, clambered up clumsily to hug his trainer, his girlfriend, his mother? Or would he simply play controlled, aggressive tennis, emotions in check, VIP gallery unmolested, trophy kissed for the cameras, autographs for the ball boys, a ball or two hit high into the stands?
Would playing another sport have revealed the "real" Sachin to us? For the answer, we have to turn our gaze inwards.
Towards us. To our insolent impatience, our speed of dismissiveness, our propensity to fawn, our alacrity to scorn, our delusion in claiming greatness through our idols. Would you risk showing any more emotion than Tendulkar has if you were faced with the most volatile, excitable, mercurial crowd on earth? Would you risk being skinned one day and crowned the next? What would that do to your equilibrium, your focus, your sanity? And what if this extended into every corner, every millisecond of your private life? Would you air your opinions freely knowing they could start a riot? Take a stand knowing people might immolate themselves?
And so, when you retired would you change because you feel the pressure lift? Or, having descended one step below the pedestal, would the protective gild of idolatry lose one coat, making you 10% more vulnerable and open to the sharks? Would you breathe easier because you don't have to step into a cauldron of 50,000 people every week, or would it be suffocating to not ever play under a summer sky bleached by an Indian sun?
It was easier for McEnroe when he retired. Much easier. All he had to do was sober down. He gentled down. He relaxed, and so did we. It was a relief. Now, just to keep us interested he plays the odd exhibition match where he stokes the "You cannot be serious!" myth by giving us theatrical displays of mock anger.
With Sachin the question is different: do we really want to see him with his guard down? Because then there might have existed the possibility he would not have quite commanded the unquestioning respect of a young-blood Indian dressing room despite his records, his incredible cricket brain, his intense desire to maximise everybody's abilities. He mightn't have been listened to as intently as he sorted out technical glitches in tens of India debutantes, batsmen and bowlers. Captain after captain might have quietly and ever so slightly discounted his counsel to change the field, shuffle the batting order, effect a risky bowling change. Because he would not have had the aura. The halo.
You can ask as much as you want for a more "human", more "feelable, touchable" Sachin. But it's my bet he's never going to change. He's going to be the Sachin we've always known - considerate, gentle, fiercely determined, careful, kind, well brought up.
Lightning rods of a country's hopes and dreams don't have options, they have responsibilities. Thank your stars he never forgets that.