His last waltz
During the last World Cup, as India battled England at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, I was looking for the historian Ramachandra Guha. Given the variable nature of the rules for what spectators can carry into the ground, Ram had told me earlier that morning he would not be carrying his cellphone inside. Now an hour into the game, I stood in the Members Stand, assessing the task ahead of me. The stand contained several thousand people. I wandered the aisles, scrutinising row after row, drawing suspicious, and occasionally hostile, glances. And so it went, until I finally spotted Ram in one of the front rows.
I had hoped our conversation would become part of a travel book I was writing, with the World Cup as its fulcrum. In the circumstances, it was hardly conducive, that for the first hour or so, we barely spoke. Our attention was seized entirely by the present. For in front of us, Sachin Tendulkar was propelling himself to a hundred and his mastery was meant to be received with the fullest attention. Conversation, in the middle of this, felt not only jarring, but positively detrimental.
Tendulkar's innings that afternoon had begun in subdued fashion, for the Indian opening strategy in the tournament dictated him to play himself in while Virender Sehwag laid first siege. But once his opening partner perished in the eighth over, Tendulkar began to manouevre the innings with the quality of a wily old lion, as if he instinctively knew when to attack and when to refrain.
At some point after the hour, he changed to a different bat. And then before anyone - or indeed England - knew, he began to bend the game to his will. The gentle lollipops of Paul Collingwood were banished with two straight sixes. This was followed by an absorbing battle with Graeme Swann, newly arrived then from a stellar Ashes campaign in Australia. For a while the two sized each other up, before Tendulkar settled the argument in two balls of Swann's fifth over. To his first delivery, Tendulkar stayed in his crease and lifted the ball over long-on, this landing just in front of where we sat. To his second, an identical shot, directed this time towards midwicket and landing deep into the crowd.
One could not help but feel sorry for Swann. For the spectator, it was a thrill: to see Swann that afternoon, running out of tricks and ideas, was to be transported back to the summer of 1998 and a slightly obese Shane Warne.
Tendulkar's century in Bangalore was a masterclass in dissecting a bowling attack incrementally, with an ever-deep thrust of the sword. That innings had some of the ebullience of his younger self but not its pitfalls, imbued as he was now with the awareness of an older, wiser batsman.
Two weeks later, in the sweltering heat of Nagpur, I saw him compose an even more imperious hundred. This time he faced down the most lethal new-ball attack in the tournament, the South African pair of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Tendulkar began in his sedate manner, then exploded into rage.
Despite the placid surface, and the format in which it was played, it was an exhibit in classical attacking batsmanship that could belong to the ages. Still head, high elbow, straight bat - every shot that emerged from Tendulkar's bat was more or less how the MCC had ordained it to be.
One hook of his from that afternoon has stayed with me. After suffering perfectly timed drives through cover and down the wicket for an hour or more, Steyn banged one short. The ball rose sharply towards the grill of Tendulkar's blue helmet, and then, just before the moment of collision, was swatted away behind square for the flattest six I have seen at a ground.
Tendulkar took only 33 balls that afternoon to reach his fifty. And once the early violent assault was done, he retreated into his meditative rhythm, emerging only occasionally to reveal his contempt for the pedestrian and part-time spin, respectively, of Robin Peterson and JP Duminy. The familiarity of this routine, the inevitability of the hundred as he sailed towards it, masked the great subtle craft that underlay it. So much so that his 99th international hundred, when it arrived in due course, seemed less of an event than any before.
Tendulkar's genius that day was evident during his innings, but more so once he departed. When he fell to an uncharacteristic miscue, India's score, in the 40th over, was 267 for 2. Inconceivably the team collapsed to 296 all out. Mostly poor and unintelligent slogging was to be blamed, but in a perverse way, one must lay some blame at Tendulkar's door too. For 40 overs in that game, he had made batting look easy, so easy that it was impossible to shake off the feeling that it had instilled a dangerous mix of complacency and overconfidence in the team-mates who followed him. The discovery they made that afternoon was that the more deceptively simple genius looked, the more difficult it was to replicate.
The overwhelming consensus today suggests Tendulkar should have retired immediately after the 2011 World Cup, making us forget that, for large chunks of 2011, he was still batting well. (An average of 39.73 in the eight Tests following the World Cup that year indicates he did not do all that badly amid the wreckage of India's performances.)
The feverish tamasha around the 100th hundred that year focused on his two near-misses: 91 at The Oval where the first of the two 0-4 hammerings was delivered, and 94 against West Indies in Mumbai, where he was dismissed just as the Wankhede Stadium began filling up to capacity.
However, the two innings I remember from that period are from the opening Tests of the calamitous tours to England and Australia. This may be because, as Test after Test ended in humiliation and the contests turned hopelessly one-sided, my interest waned. A more likely reason may be that Tendulkar's best performances now tended to come at the beginning of tours.
The first was a dazzling cameo at Lord's. Arriving in the centre to a standing ovation, Tendulkar's 34 runs contained one exquisite cover drive after another (these including a couple of glorious back-foot punches on the up) to the formidable pace of Chris Tremlett and James Anderson. He had scored six boundaries in all (and looked set for many more) when Broad snared him that afternoon on the first error he made, driving away from his body.
In the second, he emerged to an even louder roar, for a half-filled MCG can still dwarf a packed Lord's. For the following two and a half hours, his shots suggested a batsman in swaggering form - magisterial drives and flicks to the fast bowlers, aerial strokes over the infield to the spinners.
His brisk 73 in 98 balls included a feint directed over the slips for six, on the first ball he faced after tea. Through the afternoon, he played this shot - a cheeky version of the upper cut - to devastating effect, sometimes guiding the ball over slip, sometimes between slip and gully, sometimes over point.
The mood in Melbourne, even from the television, seemed ebullient. The late Tony Greig, tweeting from the commentator's box, proclaimed the voodoo of the 100th hundred was imminently to be broken. Then a critical lapse of concentration and Siddle's in-cutter bowled him through the gate.
What united both innings was the uncharacteristic error, against the run of play. These errors were the domain of lesser mortals, not Tendulkar. Looking back now, it was perhaps the moment when age first began to reveal its designs on his craft. In that sense, these two innings contained a foreboding of an altogether more permanent decline that was to follow - the waning of the reflexes, the more than odd lapse of concentration, a more frequent misjudging of length. They also revealed enough to suggest that while ability unmistakably showed itself in spells, the mastery had been lost.
For the last recorded evidence of that, one must go to the spring, and more specifically, to the World Cup of 2011. His innings against England and South Africa during that tournament will, in all probability, be remembered as his last great international hundreds. (I'm not going to count the laboured 100th against Bangladesh.) He may still mount some big scores against West Indies in the forthcoming series, but it would have been achieved against an attack - and team - of an altogether inferior kind.
During the World Cup, as Tendulkar departed the centre after each innings, I felt the standing ovation in nearly every venue contained a profound sadness. It was as if the spectators in each city instinctively knew that they were departing from an annual tradition of seeing Tendulkar in the flesh. That did not turn out to be correct, but to now think of those days is to know that we were witnessing the last of Tendulkar's greatness, just before it began slipping away from him.
As he reached his 98th hundred in Bangalore, Ram remarked with satisfaction. "Saw the great man," he said, as if he had just completed his task for the day. His face, and probably mine too, reflected privilege and the special awareness of what we had seen and may not ever see again.