As the curtains come down
One day between the 14th and 18th of November, depending on the match situation, Sachin Tendulkar will walk off the field for one final time. I am not certain yet whether I will wear only black on the day or perform some other mourning ritual, but given that I have no recollection of watching Indian cricket without this man in the team, the significance of the moment will not be lost on me.
Much has been said about the timing of his retirement, by both pundits and general fans alike. Opinion has ranged from "he left it too late" to 'he had one last great series left in him' and everything in between. I myself have gone from hoping he would retire while he was still at the top of his game, to silently goading him onto rage, if you like, against the fading of the light. There was something heroic about his stubborn refusal to give in and disappear into the sunset.
Even now, as Mumbai prepares to lay on a farewell party for its favourite cricketing son, the debate rages on. Inevitably, it is along the lines of "no one is bigger than the game", "the opposition has been picked for his benefit", "what is all the fuss about?" or all of the above. Of course, this only proves that you can't please everybody all the time. Over the course of a 25-year long career, Sachin Tendulkar probably knows this better than most.
We can all make our best guesses, but only Tendulkar knows what kept him going for so long - whether it was records, advertising revenue, or some other inner Olympus. And he alone could have known when, finally, enough was enough. The fact is, for the best part of 20 years, he was one of greatest batsmen the game had ever seen. Here was someone who realised he had a gift, worked tirelessly to hone it, and reaped the rewards.
Along the way he amassed wealth and fame beyond the wildest dreams of all but a handful of his countrymen, but he also represented his country with understated grace and dignity, both increasingly rare commodities in modern sport. Young cricketers revered him, his peers respected him, and old-timers unapologetically fawned over this precocious kid who made it big.
Tendulkar wore the India flag on his helmet with pride; he cared passionately about winning, and was determined to be the best. I would even go as far as to say that this sort of sustained excellence by one individual is unprecedented in the history of Indian sport. What better role model for a country so often content with mediocrity?
That's not to say there were no detractors or voices of dissent. In a culture where success is often envied more than celebrated, Tendulkar has copped more than his fair share of criticism. The most common complaint has been that he was a selfish player, someone who was part of a team but played largely for himself. Statistics were produced by people who sought to sum up a man in numbers. His talent may never have been in doubt, but his motives and goals often were.
Even so, aside from the fact that selfishness can sometimes be a virtue - particularly when your pursuit of excellence inspires those around you, I believe Indian cricket owes much of its current status to Tendulkar. He defined and transcended the game, and played a key role in keeping it relevant through the barren 1990s when Indian cricket seemed in danger of going the same way as hockey. Our once-world-beating team had inexplicably turned distinctly average, but in Tendulkar we still had a genuinely world-class player, or "prized asset", as marketing executives might say.
In the new millennium, as the team's fortunes changed, Tendulkar continued to be the talisman, its most recognisable (and therefore marketable) face. The game, now fuelled by corporate sponsorship and lapped up by a booming middle class, weathered the storm and is now bigger than it has ever been. While it might be stretching the point to say that Tendulkar single-handedly saved Indian cricket from oblivion, I doubt this narrative would have played out in quite the same way without him in the lead role.
For me, and a generation of fans, Indian cricket was inextricably linked with this one individual. In our minds, they were one and the same. He grew up with us, and we grew up with him. He was special, and yet one of us. Throughout my life, whenever and wherever I've had a conversation with someone about cricket, Tendulkar's name has always been invoked. When people from other countries, especially England, the "spiritual home" of cricket, have raved about him, I've felt more than a twinge of satisfaction, even pride.
Tendulkar was embedded in our collective consciousness, part of the lexicon. He was the common language that everyone who cared about the sport understood. The thought of surveying a cricketing landscape bereft of him will be to chart new and unfamiliar territory. This man was meant to be around for the ages; the human equivalent of the Taj Mahal.
And so, as the date approaches, I am steeling myself. Maybe it's the time of the day, or maybe it's the time of my life, but when I imagine this cricketing colossus departing the arena one final time to the chants of "Sacchiiin, Sachinnnn", the only thing I can think about it is the closing scene from the movie Gladiator, the one in which the Emperor's daughter stands beside a fallen Maximus and makes one short, simple exhortation to the masses: "He was a soldier of Rome. Honour him."
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